Silver linings outweighed setbacks in 2021

Darin Von Ruden

As with so many past years in Wisconsin agriculture, 2021 was a year of highs and lows. There were setbacks but signals of hope, too.

Wisconsin Farmers Union President and Westby dairy farmer Darin Von Ruden says the pandemic has served as an awakening to the importance of our self-reliance and strength as a nation.

As I settle in to write this, we’ve just weathered a series of storms that in one pass left a foot of snow and then followed with tornadic activity. Certainly not the norm for Wisconsin in December, but another reminder of the shifts in our climate.

Throughout Wisconsin, farming communities have been hit by extreme weather in varied ways this past year. Here on my Westby farm, we’ve seen excess moisture, with flooding events dropping as much as 17-plus inches of rain over just a couple days.

Other regions of the state were parched and designated drought areas. Those weather patterns have made farmers struggle on both ends of the spectrum. Thankfully we’ve seen movement on climate change approaches, and WFU will continue to lift up farmers’ voices in that conversation in the year ahead.

Even with Mother Nature's fury, harvest for most crops went smoothly, wrapping up ahead of schedule in most regions, and there’s some optimism about an uptick in prices for corn, soybeans, and beef. National Farmers Union launched a Fairness for Farmers campaign calling for fair, transparent markets.

Farmers have been grateful for pandemic relief programs that helped us get through the downturns, but we also have stressed that we’d rather have fair, reliable prices from the marketplace than a reliance on insurance programs and government subsidies.

As a nation, we learned many lessons throughout the pandemic. The struggles have come with silver linings, as consumers and policymakers are realizing what farmers have known for years – the wealth of this nation is rising to top of the supply chain, while those at the bottom pay the price.

WFU has been a voice for farmer-labor solidarity and will continue to call for fair wages for workers and a fair share of the food dollar for farmers. We’ve seen hopeful signals that the Biden Administration is actively working on addressing antitrust and the lack of competition we see when agricultural inputs are controlled by only a handful of corporations.

WFU has long stood for a diverse structure of agriculture, and the pandemic proved how critical it is that we have a resilient food system that won’t shut down due to supply chain issues. We’ve seen over the last year and a half the direct results of allowing production to become too consolidated. From pricing manipulation to bare shelves, farmers and consumers alike suffered.

As we head into 2022, WFU remains focused on strengthening the food system and addressing the structural issues in the agriculture industry. We are laying a strong foundation as we look ahead to the 2023 Farm Bill and policies we can push forward to address challenges, especially in helping dairy farmers receive a fair price and recover production costs.

Groups are aligning around the Dairy Revitalization Plan, and we look forward to educating members, media, consumers, and legislators more and sharing members' stories, as we continue the work of Dairy Together.

As we dug in on pandemic relief and recovery efforts, a large part of WFU’s work focused on sharing needs around rural infrastructure. The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will put money into rural Wisconsin, and we must be ready to share the facets of how that funding can best be put to use in our communities.

Sometimes working in farm advocacy feels like one step forward and two steps back. In July, WFU celebrated the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to impose operating conditions to protect public resources. The decision allowed the DNR to consider the cumulative environmental impacts of high capacity wells when deciding whether to grant permits.

Later in the year, though, the DNR announced it was abandoning efforts to develop regulations to reduce nitrate pollution in drinking water, claiming “the statutory process and associated firm timelines established by the Legislature for rule-making do not allow adequate time for the department to complete this proposed rule.” That was a disappointment for folks in rural communities who are struggling with high nitrates and PFAs.

But there were victories this year, too, perhaps the largest of which was greater attention and resources devoted to meat processing infrastructure in Wisconsin, an issue Farmers Union members called for and the organization pushed forward through programming, storytelling, and policy efforts throughout the state budget process.

All that WFU accomplished this past year wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the many members who step up as chapter leaders, who share their stories, and who inspire all of us at WFU to keep up the good fight to improve life on family farms and in our rural communities. 

The pandemic served as an awakening to the importance of our self-reliance and strength as a nation. In many ways, it united us. Coming out of it, I hope we don’t forget the lessons learned. We’ve heard a lot of promises over the past year. As we shift into 2022, it is my hope we can continue to move beyond words and into action.

Von Ruden is President of the Wisconsin Farmers Union