Wisconsin Farmers Union takes on monopolies, lobbies for change

By: - February 18, 2022 6:15 am
Wisconsin farm | Screenshot from the film “Get Loud: The Fight for the Soul of Agriculture” on YouTube

Wisconsin farm | Screenshot from the film “Get Loud: The Fight for the Soul of Agriculture” on YouTube

On Monday the Wisconsin Farmers Union released a short film called “Get Loud: The Fight for the Soul of Agriculture.” 

“The current food system is not serving farmers, laborers in the supply chain, nor consumers. Instead, it’s serving a handful of powerful monopolies,” says WFU Communications Director Danielle Endvick, who appears in the film from her family farm. 

As the camera pans the fields, farmhouse and old stone barn, Endvick describes how she always loved spending time in the barn with her father. One day, as they were cleaning milking equipment, her dad told her, “You know, I just don’t think there’s a future in this for you.” Envick was crushed.  Being a farmer was her dream. She persisted, and today still runs the family farm with her husband and two boys. But farming continues to be a struggle. “Here in Wisconsin we’re losing a dairy farm a day,” she says, “and we have some real changes that we need to make.”

There’s a “concentration crisis in America,” says Yale University antitrust expert Austin Frerick in the film.

“You have a mega corporate farm where you have 35,000 cows owned by a single person,” Frerick says. “Now is that person a farmer? I would say no. Those people exploit the positive association a lot of Americans have with the notion of being a farmer. They’re the ones that get the most of the Farm Bill money, they’re the ones that get most of the handouts, they’re the ones that are prospering under this model.”

Four companies process 85% of U.S. beef, Endvick points out. During the pandemic, as meat prices rose, the money she made selling her own farm’s meat declined. 

“Farmers are being both squeezed on the input and output side,” Frerick explains. “So when they buy their seeds and when they buy their fertilizer, both of which are super concentrated, they’re paying monopoly prices for it. Then when they go to sell, they are selling to monopolies. So not only are they overpaying but then they’re getting underpaid.”

The film notes that farmer movements helped usher in Progressive Era trust-busting and economic reforms. Anti-monopoly reforms started in agriculture, when farmers 100 years ago took on the railroad monopolies. “The first antitrust laws in the world come from farmers organizing,” Frerick says.

 “There was this massive amount of consolidation and the people rose up and they said no more of this,” Dunn County sheep farmer Lauren Langworthy says of the farmers who organized in the Progressive Era. “We’re in that moment again and we have this huge opportunity. We have the laws we need on the books, we just need to be enforcing them.”

Recently, the National Farmers Union launched a “fairness for farmers” program. It makes sense, after the pandemic exposed problems with far-flung supply chains and food monopolies, to educate the public “on how important it is to pay attention to food prices, food access and our food system in general,” says Nick Levendofsky, WFU’s government relations director.

There is renewed energy around the issue of monopoly power, Levendofsky adds, because of the Biden administration’s actions on the issue, with executive orders over the summer on antitrust issues and the “right to repair” that would get farmers out of contracts that favor large equipment dealers.

“It’s feeling like finally we’re getting somewhere,” says Levendofksy. “USDA and the Department of Justice are stepping up on the federal level, and we want to keep driving that momentum.” 

Wisconsin Farmers Union members held a virtual lobby day on Thursday to promote their priorities to state legislators. Among them: 

  • Food Security (AB-662 and SB-648) that invests $20 million to connect Wisconsin food banks and food pantries to Wisconsin farmers to help families facing food insecurity, and bolsters Wisconsin’s local and regional food supply chains, including local markets and processors. 
  • Farm to school and farm to fork programs (AB-663 and SB-649) that provide funding for nutritious, locally produced foods in schools as well as businesses, hospitals and higher ed facilities. 
  • Regional farmer mental health (AB-665 and SB-646) increasing farmers’ access to mental health support services
  • “Something Special from Wisconsin” (AB-66 and SB-647) a marketing program for Wisconsin products that would get $400,000 in new funding under the bill, to support businesses that can attribute at least 50% of their ingredients, production or processing activities to Wisconsin. 
  • Clean water (AB-727 and SB-677) awarding grants to farmers who reduce nitrogen and nitrate leaching, encouraging innovation, promoting the planting of cover crops, and hiring a state hydrogeologist to focus on groundwater. A related pair of bills (AB-728 and SB-678) would replace or improve contaminated wells and help watershed groups qualify for lake and river protection grants administered by DNR
  • Climate change (AB-788 and SB-775) establishing regional biodigesters, reducing food waste by directing surplus food to hunger relief and composting, funding conservation staff at the county level and creating a sustainable agriculture grant program.

The virtual lobby day began with a recorded address from Gov. Tony Evers and appearances by Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Randy Romanski as well as Reps. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) and Dave Considine (D-Baraboo).  The 43 WFU members who participated reported positive meetings with their representatives throughout the day, says Levendofsky.

The most successful of their efforts centered on the clean water bills authored by Kitchens. 

“There’s strong bipartisan support for these bills,” says Levendofsky.  “I know there are a few kinks to work out with leadership, so we are expecting some amendments,” but he feels optimistic, he says. 

The Senate version of a bill dealing with contaminated wells, SB-678, had already passed in a unanimous floor vote in January, and the Assembly version recently made it out of the Assembly agriculture committee.

Of all the bills on the farmer’s union list of priorities, only clean water has bipartisan support. “The others are right now only supported by Democrats,” says Levendofsky.  Nevertheless, in meetings Thursday, “There were some Republican legislators who said, ‘Yeah, I could get behind that.”

It’s getting late for any bills that haven’t made it out of committee to get a vote this session, which is expected to wrap up by the end of the month. 

“What they’re saying now is let’s look at next session and the budget, which will be starting up again before too long,” Levendofsky says.

The farmers’ state legislative agenda is related to the big picture laid out in the WFU’s film on food monopolies, Levendofsky says, especially the bills on food security, the farm to fork and school proposals and supporting local economies through the Something Special from Wisconsin program.

“Getting folks to vote with their food dollar and buying local and supporting farmers directly makes a difference,” he says. “Every dollar that goes into a farmer’s pocket, they can turn around and spend that dollar locally, supporting the local economy.”

“The more we can do that, the better off we’re all gonna be,” Levendofsky adds. “We’re going to be eating better, reducing our carbon footprint and shortening that chain between where the food is produced and ourselves, the consumers.”

“It’s one small way to take some power away from big monopolies that have taken over our food system.” 

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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