Wisconsin Farmers Union

Supporting small dairies and family agriculture since 1931
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Dana Merk-Wynne

At the 85th annual Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) convention in Appleton, Wisconsin, WFU celebrated its long history and a growing family of regional producers central to the health of the state’s agribusiness. As the second-largest dairy producing state in the country, a strong agriculture economy is important to Wisconsin. Dating back to 1931, WFU has made protecting and supporting the livelihood of small producers its mission.

85 years of service

Back when WFU formed, the majority of organization’s members were dairy farmers. “In the ‘70s, these farmers joined to form the now large Farmers Union Milk Marketing Cooperative and eventually disbanded from WFU in the late ‘90s,” recounts Darin Von Ruden, president of WFU’s board of directors.

Darin is a third-generation dairy farmer; his parents were WFU members as well. He has served as president for the last five years. He also serves on the National Farmers Union (NFU) board — WFU’s parent organization — as well as chair of the NFU Membership Committee.

Since the organization took root, WFU has seen its membership rise to 2,000 family members in total. “Lately we’ve seen a rise in the amount of CSA [community supported agriculture] members,” says Darin. “Our numbers dropped a bit from 2000 to 2010, but since we’ve started working with CSA farmers we’ve seen a lot of success in growing membership in small, family farms, which really aligns with our policies throughout history. They see us as a means to get some of the things they want passed in the legislature.”

“Our membership now is double what it was in 2010,” adds Darin. “We still have a lot of dairy farmers too and there’s been more beef, corn and soybean producers over the last 15 years.”

WFU has a vested interest in keeping a variety of small, family-owned producers in The Badger State. “One of the biggest things we work to combat is consolidation, ultimately we’d like to see more farmers instead of less farms — whatever they may be, dairy, beef, poultry, grain and so on,” says Darin.

Fostering the next generation

To ensure there’s healthy competition in all forms of farms, WFU offers educational opportunities to young people and the next generation of farmers. “We have camps we run with five different youth groups that focus on cooperative development and education,” says Darin. “In this program, the kids form their own cooperatives and elect members to the board and then distribute money back out to their members. Anything that’s left over goes back to local charities. This is important because they’re learning how the cooperative model works firsthand.”

This program has been in the works since 1951. “I attended myself as a young boy,” shares Darin. The camp program also helps youngsters learn the importance of agriculture, leadership skills, cooperation, activism and good citizenship.

Another opportunity WFU offers is the Emerging Leaders Retreat, this year, held in early February at the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah, Wisconsin. Young-to-beginning farmers are encouraged to attend. The retreat touches on how members can be advocates for issues in their communities. WFU also hosts the annual Women’s Leadership Retreat and other educational programs such as the Renewable Energy Tour, Seeds of Success Seminars — Creating or Enhancing Local Food Business, Farm Bill Listening sessions, forums and more.

Working on both sides of the aisle

In terms of legislative action, national diary policy is often the focal point for WFU as the No. 2 state in the country. “We’re currently working to change the pricing structure, which is often dictated by processors,” says Darin. “We’d like to use a type of consumer price index formula to reflect more dollars going back to the farm for what consumers pay for.”

Lately, other issues have come to light such as fracking and sand mining. “We’re hosting several sand mining conferences called Tools and Solutions for Local Control,” says Darin. “We have quite a few members opposed to this industry, but with the price of oil dropping many plants have shut down. We’re hosting another conference coming up on what can be done at this point.”

One of the other big issues for WFU is water quality and quantity in the state. “This is something that has come to light in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Darin. “We’re having more issues with rivers drying up and lakes dropping; a lot of it has to do with high-capacity well issues we’re seeing. We’re working with legislatures on both sides of the aisle to work on a permitting process to make sure we’re not drawing too much out of our aquifers and not making the same mistake California has.”

These are the kind of key issues that WFU rallies around to forge a strong future for rural producers and their families. Being part of WFU for most of his life, Darin says he’s see the power of the people when they come together in one voice and what that cultivates. “There are lots of extended relationships and friendships within WFU and other organizations in the ag community with the same mindset in getting goals moving forward and things passed in the state Legislature,” he says. “One of the most surprising things that I’ve experienced so far has been friendships I’ve formed both on the state and national level.”

Working on both sides of the aisle for the betterment of the farm community, the Wisconsin Farmers Union is building on a legacy of more than 85 years of service.