When farmers talk, it makes a difference

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It was just a week ago that Duane and I were rushing around finishing up chores, packing clothes and trying to remember if we forgot anything. We were headed to the Madison airport for the fall fly-in with other members of Wisconsin Farmers Union.

Touch down in Washington, D.C., was just a little longer than two hours, and I was restless to see the others who would be participating. We would be speaking on the topics that will be most valued and needed for the farmers not only in Wisconsin but all over the United States. This visit is timely because the farm bill is due to expire Sept. 30.

We met for breakfast and then were off to the U.S. Department of Agriculture building. National Farmers Union President Rob Larew gave opening remarks, and we heard from Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small, inspiring us with her wisdom and insight as she welcomed us to Capitol Hill.

It is always good to listen and watch Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as he speaks about the programs and possibilities to achieve the needs of the farmers throughout the United States. 

He demonstrated on a big white board that there are many avenues and programs to help farmers, but the funding for the USDA budget is being threatened with a 30% cut. 

This is made more stressful with already depleted staff that is short 5,300 from just five years ago. There will be ways to help farmers, but we may have to be creative and design other methods. We all understand the pressure to do more with less. I feel he understands where all of us in agriculture stand.

The briefing continued into a panel of competition and resiliency, discussing the topic of livestock markets being highly consolidated with just four of the largest players to deal with beef, controlling 85% of the market. Pork and poultry processing were also talked about, that overcharge consumers and rake in massive profits while preventing farmers and ranchers from getting a fair price for their livestock. The discussion also tapped into the use of retaliation in the poultry industry, which puts family farmers out of business.

As dairy farmers, we feel angry whenever we bring cows and calves to market. There are only two buyers, and the price is dismal knowing that these buyers are discussing what they need for the day, and the rest of the animals are just an easy give.

The next panel was on USDA staffing. The shortages that are being experienced are trickling down to make it more difficult for farmers to get enrolled in the programs that are needed for the coverage to continue farming. 

We empathize with the need for more educated employees and also cheered the program that allowed college students tuition reimbursement for working in a USDA office. Understanding that government jobs cannot give the wages that are raging to unimaginable highs, we also sympathize because that is also our situation with our own farm labor workforce.

We walked the halls, chatting with enthusiasm as we made our way to the cafeteria. The sudden surge of people trying to order and pay for their food struck me as very congested. I noticed that it was being run by just a few staff. I am sure this is a result of the pandemic. The effect has hit every area of employment, not just on our farms and the USDA staff.

We all got together at a table in a large room. We ate lunch together as our group, and most members slowly started to leave for meetings with the staff from the Senate and House agriculture committees to hear about updates on the farm bill and the fly-in topics.

Daren Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union, and I were able to attend a meeting with Ambassador Katherine Tai. We shared our farm experiences as it is affected by trade. It was an honor to meet her. She was extremely knowledgeable and understanding as we all spoke of our concerns for the safety of our nation’s food supply and trade agreements.

Later, we all gathered for a roof-top reception to eat appetizers and refreshments and then retreated to dinner. There was good food, sourced locally, and the beef and wheat for the breads and pastries came from North Dakota.

With one day down, there was another full day to follow before departing for home. Looking at our agenda, we had plans to see a variety of people who are supposed to represent us. They are working toward the best outcome for the country, but often, sides have different opinions and ideas. We need to have bipartisan support from the members of Congress, so we met with as many legislators as possible. The days were full, and the conversations were impressive.

While walking at the Capitol, I met with other farmers in the hallway from different farm organizations. We greeted each other smiling, knowing about the importance of our farm voices. We all have reasons to share, and the best way to be heard is face to face with our lawmakers.

If you are ever thinking that you would like to share your needs as a farmer, it is easy to reach out to farm organizations. They are always looking for more voices to carry the messages up to the people whose job it is to represent us. Farmers can say it best; your voice does make a difference.

Tina Hinchley, her husband Duane and daughter Anna milk 240 registered Holsteins with robots.  They also farm 2,300 acres of crops near Cambridge, Wisconsin. The Hinchleys have been hosting farm tours for over 25 years.

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