Farmers and their advocates from across the state, from Blanchardville to Bayfield, flew to Washington, DC, last week as part of the National Farmers Union Fly-In.
The 24 members of the Wisconsin Farmers Union delegation joined up with colleagues from around the country, making our group close to 400 strong. We called on Congress to strengthen the safety net for farm families, particularly for dairy price policy reform to balance supply with actual demand. We were also there to demand action on monopoly power in the agriculture and food sector by promoting the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act.
Farmers are struggling with low prices and increased input costs. This situation has been complicated by the trade wars started by President Trump. Here in Wisconsin, the milk price crisis has taken a terrible toll on America’s Dairyland, with 700 dairy farms going out of business last year.
The pressure on farmers who are trying to stay in business is immense. The trip to Washington, DC, was an opportunity to tell our story to our representatives and ask for key policy changes to improve the situation. All the news about trade wars draws attention away from the underlying issue of overproduction. We urge people to keep their eyes on the prize of balancing supply with demand—but of course in these troubled times the loss of export markets is a big deal.
The Farmers Union position on tariffs and trade disputes differs markedly from many free-trade enthusiasts. We have concerns about the re-write of NAFTA, now called the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). As it stands, USMCA does not have strong enough provisions on labor and environmental standards and also does not have strong anti-dumping provisions, keeping one country from subsidizing commodities and then dumping them into other countries’ markets at low prices.
We have become too dependent on cheap, volatile export markets. We need smart trade policy that will allow us to concentrate on value-added products with a priority on domestic markets—not a race to the bottom, pitting farmer against farmer against consumers, and workers against the environment.
Congress was just getting back to business last week after a summer break. The halls were bustling with citizen groups lobbying on a range of issues. Despite many groups clamoring to get their issues on the radar, I felt like we got a good reception from our elected officials. We were able to meet in person with Senator Tammy Baldwin and with Representatives Glenn Grothman (R-Glenbeulah), Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth), Ron Kind (D-La Crosse), and Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay). We met with the staff in the offices of Senator Ron Johnson and Representatives Sensenbrenner (R-Brookfield), Duffy (R-Hayward), and Steil (R-Janesville).
We had a longer visit with Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee). You would think that a group of farmers from across Wisconsin might not have a lot to talk about with an urban Congresswoman. On the contrary, she was quite clear that she knows how much farmers are hurting, and she was very interested in hearing from us what was happening on our farms and in our communities. She said, “When I heard that I had a group of farmers in my office I just had to come in and talk to you. I don’t get this opportunity very often!”
We were also able to discuss with Moore our shared rural and urban community concerns about the food stamp or SNAP programs that are under threat. These nutrition security programs are packaged in the Farm Bill with the more specific crop and conservation titles.
It’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that rural and urban interests are separate. We need to stick together and support our communities, whether big or small, whether producers or consumers.
We don’t know what specific impact our trip to Washington, DC, will have. We were glad we could speak out on behalf of farmers and families and our communities to our representatives in Congress. We also met with USDA officials. As citizens we must keep the pressure on. It is essential that decision-makers hear directly from farmers. The agricultural policy that we have now is not supporting family farms and rural communities. We need fundamental change.