Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU)

Drawing key connections to the farm and uplifting local producers
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Dana Merk-Wynne

In Saint Paul, Minnesota, the Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU), a state offshoot of the National Farmers Union (NFU), represents 14,000 farmer members throughout the state. The organization’s mission is similar to most farmers unions throughout the county: to enhance and improve the lives of family farmers in rural communities. MFU accomplishes this by way of “triangle” action in terms of policy resolutions and legislation, education and advocacy. MFU helps start up and supports cooperatives and offers young farmer programs and ongoing education and leadership training to current members.

“We represent a wide range of members; we have some who have 5,000 acres to dairy farmers with 20 cows and some who have 1,500 cows, down to the small-scale farms with 10 acres of grass-fed beef, also award-winning cheesemakers, vegetable producers and more — we have a lot of conventional farmers plus small-scale farms that direct market to consumers,” says Doug Peterson, president of MFU and national secretary of NFU.

Peterson understands the challenges farmers face — he too grew up on a farm in western Minnesota and his father was a Farmers Union county president and state legislator. “I followed in my father’s footsteps, coming home to run the family farm after college and I ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1990 and served six terms,” says Peterson. In 2002, he was elected to his current position with MFU.

Grassroots action from the ground up

“We think of ourselves as a middle ground, grassroots, common sense type of organization,” explains Peterson. This means any initiative or legislative action comes directly from members. “Our members decide on certain policy resolutions that affect them and then make decisions at the grassroots [county] level, from here we take these resolutions to the state level through delegates,” says Peterson. “At our annual MFU convention we elected delegates to represent us at the 14th annual NFU convention, which was held this year in Bloomington, March 5 – 8.”

Some of the resolutions brought before the delegates for NFU policy consideration concerned GMO labeling, conservation compliance, clean energy, Waters of the U.S., and Renewable Fuel Standards. “Our delegates represent family farmers from all states and the policy develops from grassroots, bottom-up ideas to make family farms and rural communities stronger,” explains Peterson. “There is a real discussion among farmers concerned about sustaining the family farm and delivering safe and affordable food and our national organization really delivers that message to congress.”

MFU has also lobbied for utility and power laws to ensure farmers are protected, as well as strong anti-corporate farming laws. “In Minnesota, no foreign owner can own farm land in the state — this is something we’ve lobbied for strongly,” says Peterson.

Spreading the word — know your farmer, know your food

Representing such a broad spectrum of farmers — from organic producers to traditional, small-to-medium scale operations — MFU’s goal is to connect these producers to consumers. Peterson has turned to chefs and farmer led programs and even television to promote interest in the Minnesota Cooks Program.

“We strongly support policy or programs that offers farm-to-table education, know your farmer, ‘know your food is the motto,’” he says. “We accomplished this with Minnesota Cooks by taking farmers who grow the food and chefs who cook it and pairing them up with a celebrity guest at the Minnesota State Fair. There’s a panel that discusses where/how the food is grown and this captures a large audience — more than 10,000 people attend the Minnesota Cooks Event at the Minnesota State Fair every year. We’ve had governors, senators, mayors, city council members and authors, artists, musicians and more all provide their insight on farming and food to a broad audience.”

The Minnesota Cooks program was also one of the first to highlight hospitals and schools using mainly locally grown items in their cafeterias. “We won an Emmy for the program which aired on the Twin Cities public television station in 2014 and we were nominated for another in 2015,” shares Peterson. “We also host a sit-down organic, sustainable meal with Minnesota-grown food that serves 450 people. This is the largest banquet of this kind in the state.”

Peterson says the goal is to have a running dialogue to highlight the importance of local, regional and USA-produced food. “We’ve been showcasing this for a number of years,” he says.

In the last year, MFU and its partnering states have worked to bring shared goals to the national and international spotlight. “In the past year, we sponsored Food, Faith, Farming and the Environment, a national symposium and training for agriculture leaders at Saint Thomas College in St. Paul,” says Peterson. “This symposium was a chance for leaders to speak to the importance of family farm sustainability and agriculture. We also hosted 15 international observers. Participants include farmers in the community, faith leaders and food industry leaders.”

On the international stage, MFU attended a symposium in Milan, Italy, besides hosting another international symposium the FUE states also conducted. Five state Farmers Union presidents, including Peterson, and NFU chief counsel spent a week meeting with Vatican officials and rural-based farm and nongovernment organizations.

“We we’re granted an audience with Pope Francis,” says Peterson. “The discussion surrounded the important role family farmers play in food security and the fact that most of the food in the world is produced by family farms.” Our focus was to advocate to the Vatican on the importance of family farmers. The world has a completely different view of farms in the U.S. Most believe we are huge corporate operations and not family farmers. Our goal was to tell our story to the Vatican officials and make some of the dialogue address the Pope’s encyclical on stewardship to include family farms in sustainable food production worldwide.”

Monsignor Peter Wells, assistant secretary of state for the Vatican, expressed concerns with the worldwide loss and strain on family farmers, food security and environmental stewardship. “I was pleased to hear the Vatican State Department’s belief that stewardship is ecumenical worldwide,” says Peterson.

Although awareness of the pressures family farms face continues to grow, Peterson says Minnesota Farmers Union still has a great deal of work to do. Fortunately for family farmers, the organization follows through on its mission of enhancing and improving day-to-day struggles and the strength of rural communities overall.