Tractors on Parade.

If you were one of the hundreds of thousands of protesters surrounding the state capitol building on Saturday, March 12th, you probably witnessed a strange sight.  Alongside the normal signs and speakers, 53 tractors (and a few manure spreaders) circled the inner loop.

The fervor and passion of these farmers were welcomed by cheers and appreciated by labor unions and their supporters.  But if you are anything like me, you watched and wondered what the connection was.  Who were these farmers, and why were they equally upset with Walker’s budget bill proposal?  As someone who grew up on a farm, and has had several political conversations with  my still-farming parents over the last two months, I had heard nothing about how the bill would affect my family or anyone else in the farming profession.

The opposition to our current governor is obviously pulling in all types of support, many of whom may not even be affected directly by the bill’s implementation: they simply believe in democracy, labor unions and solidarity.  But most tractors get under ten miles to the gallon of diesel fuel, yet 53 farmers still showed up!  Their efforts were in part about standing with organized labor, but even more about the two groups’ history of shared struggles.

F.H. King hosted a panel on Friday night that featured John Peck, the  director of Family Farm Defenders (the group that organized the Tractorade on March 12th), and Jess Gilbert, a professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology.

Gilbert took us on a historical journey of the relationship between farmers and organized labor.  It formally began in the late 1800’s, in arguably the last great democratic movement of our nation.  It was a struggle of the producers versus the plutocrats (i.e. the wealthy), and it was called Populism.  Populism is a political movement that has occurred in many nations around the world.  It has been nicknamed the people’s movement because it’s intention is to represent the populace (the people) at large.  Laborers and farmers felt united.  They came from slightly different backgrounds, but both their fight and their goals were the same: less corporate power, and more say for those who were producing the things that kept American running.

The American Populist movement that began in the 1880’s began in rural counties.  It was mostly a farmers’ movement but was supported by labor workers.  Their objective was to constrain and limit capitalism, especially the large-scale corporate capitalism that was arising at this time.  The goal?  An economic democracy that redistributed economic and political power to the populace.

The Populist party (the People’s Party) died when its candidate, Williams Jennings Bryan, lost in 1896, but the movement continued beneath the surface.  The progressive movement and legislation of the early 1900’s were largely based on populist ideas: progressive income tax, Federal Reserve, antitrust laws, co-ops, warehouse grain standards, extension services, vocational agriculture through FFA in high schools, workers’ union formations.

Farmers around the nation began to unionize and make their way into the political realm of North Dakota and Minnesota.  World War II halted or reversed most of this progress.  Redistributing wealth and land to the people sounded a whole lot like Socialism, and the fear of Socialism ran high during this era.  But farmers persisted, and the National Farmers’ Organization (a collective bargaining power) was formed in 1955 to help farmers organize politically and get better prices for the food they sold.

Yet support for fellow labor organizers, with whom farmers had been united for generations, was only part of the reason for the Tractorade on March 12th.

As John Peck tells us, the Walker governorship and his controversial bill seriously undermine the power and livelihood of farmers.  It all had to do with something Family Farm Defenders call food sovereignty: fairness, justice and dignity across the food chain for both farmers and consumers.  Food sovereignty is a concept not widely used or discussed.  For years, Family Farm Defenders has tried to spread this concept of food justice.  It is a key piece of the organization’s agenda.  For more information, click here.

So how will the current State government harm farmers and threaten their food sovereignty (which wasn’t even that great to begin with)?

Well for starters, farmers often collectively organized in the same way as labor unions: to gain bargaining power.  This same principle was used to set up co-ops back in the 1920’s; many still exist today.  These rights have not been threatened yet, but many believe farmers may be next.

But as someone who grew up on a small 140-acre farm in South Central Wisconsin, surrounded by several 1000-acre + operations that already owned their own semi-trucks and combines, the thing that has always made me nervous for the future of my family’s farm is the consolidation of bigger and bigger farms.  My best friend growing up milked 80 cows twice a day until a couple weeks ago, when the reality of the “get big or get out” mentality became a little too close to home.  She and her family now live on a dairy farm, vacant of livestock.  The movement towards more large-scale farming forced their family to sell their cows.  The fact that this could get worse makes me nervous, actually, practically sick.  I want to be proud of that little red barn on our license plate, and I want its modest existence to be emblematic of Wisconsin agriculture.

The new Livestock Siting Bill will take away local governments’ rights to decide whether or not they should allow factory farms in their communities.  This is a serious loss of local control.  Similarly, the DNR permitting standards for factory farms are getting looser and the DNR may even stop regulating them.

A Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program that cost the state next to nothing as far as state budgets go has been canceled by Walker as he encourages purchasing Minnesota products.  Current law required DATCP (Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection) to promote the consumption of locally produced foods.  DATCP also awarded grants for projects designed to increase the local sale of food grown in the state.  Walker’s bill eliminates these provisions.

The elimination of Badgercare would disproportionately affect rural Wisconsin.  Due to the agricultural system already being against them, many farmers live in poverty.  I know if my father wasn’t a teacher, we certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford health insurance.  1 in 7 farmers are enrolled in Badgercare.  It has been argued that an attack on Badgercare is an attack on rural Wisconsin.

John Peck painted a bleak picture for Wisconsin farmers.  But all we can do for now is continue to buy local products from farmers we trust, read the news, and perhaps get involved with the noble work of Family Farm Defenders.