The Farmer’s Union, Cooperation, and the Environment

Over the weekend, I had a really wonderful opportunity. I was asked to moderate a panel for the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union 82nd Annual Conference entitled, “Cooperatives – Empowering the Rural Economy… Again.” I also spoke to the Youth Conference presenting the Mondragon Cooperative model. It gave me that chance to also listen to William Nelson of CHS Foundation speak.

This weekend just happened to fall right after I represented my cooperative hosting the Sustainable Business Network quarterly breakfast in Madison with guest speaker from Gundersen Lutheran Health Systems.

The Wisconsin Farmer’s Union, part of the National Farmer’s Union, promotes the slogan “legislation, education, cooperation” and they really do mean all three things. In addition to helping family farmers work for legislation to protect their family farm and promote sustainable farming practices, the Union also operates a Youth movement with and Kamp Kenwood, a cooperative owned and operated summer camp that teaches the principles of co-operatives while also providing a fun summer camp for members.

While it was fun to present Mondragon to a group of people who hadn’t yet heard of the Basque cooperative society, it is more important to share the take-away mirrored Bill Nelson’s message. The next 40 years will likely see a dramatic change in the way that the world produces farmers as the Ogallala Aquifer dries up.With a projected world population of nine billion or greater and significantly less water and land to produce food, the challenge to today’s young farmers will be incredible. It was my point that the challenge to the founders of Mondragon was also great, but the the role of the cooperative allowed them to focus on their values, work together, and find solutions instead of amassing profit. It will be the co-operatives that figure out the solution to climate change, because our focus is on sustainability  not simply amassing profit. Money doesn’t do any good sitting in a bank vault. Like manure, it only works if we spread it around and prevent run-off.

The panel brought three great stories of how cooperatives create sustainability. Fifth Season was the newest of the three coops presented. This is a relatively new model of food coop in the US. Rather than GM dominated consumer coops that cater to the wealthy, it is a multi-stakeholder co-operative that offers membership to each of the six different segments of the food chain: producer, producer groups, processors, distributers, buyers, and workers. Everybody is at the table. They aren’t operating retail outlets, however, most of their buyers have institutional needs, so it is a bit different than the foodie focused consumer coops, but it also caters to working people who can’t really afford shopping at boutique food stores and still want good food. It is a really neat experiment in sustainability and local development in the rural area of Wisconsin. Organic Valley also presented with a focus on how they are working to become even more sustainable  The organic producer coop  has been a leader in sunflower oil technology and has found the means to develop it for either food-grade or bio-fuel. In addition  they have been working the Gundersen Lutheran (which is also a member of Fifth Season) to install two ginormous wind turbines. The energy production gets shared between the two organizations, but Organic Valley’s representatives said it covers almost 90% of their electrical needs! Finally, Cooperative Care’s  Tracy Dudzinski spoke on the important work of providing home care and health care in the rural areas and the powerful nature of cooperatives to transform workers from people who work to live into fully actualized human beings as well as the growing need for home care as the baby boomers age into a large community of single people with limited personal support networks.

The last bit brings me back to my Mondragon talk and one of the things that I wish that I had mentioned at the panel. During the discussion of  the three panelists, I was reminded of a series of short stories by Hamlin Garland entitled Main Travelled Roads . He wrote about the farmers of the Coulee Country of Southeast Wisconsin. How they were preyed upon by eastern bankers, crooked salesmen, and a host of other issues that helped found the Grange and ultimately the Progressive Movement and the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union. I wondered how he would see the farmers of Wisconsin today (I wasn’t sure how many people in the audience got my reference, but I was presuming that everyone who grew up in Wisconsin and is a farmer has read this book–it is a great collection of short stories). More importantly, I wish that I would have amplified Tracy’s comments recognizing how cooperatives, especially worker cooperatives, function to change people. Arizmendiaretta, the spiritual founder of Mondragon, always believed that worker ownership would transform workers into strong and moral community leaders. It has been my experience to see that effect over and over again. It is one of the reasons that I believe that it will be the cooperative movement that manages to deal with climate change. It will take real leadership to build a new sustainable economy. Not leadership in the form of politicians, but leadership in the form of making tough decisions that provide the most benefit to the most people even if that means some short term sacrifice. Politicians are a dime-a-dozen these days, but few are leaders.

It was my pleasure to meet some of the future leaders of Wisconsin in Eau Claire this weekend. Leaders who understand the important role of education and cooperation and will help lead to better legislation. Leaders who are committed to dealing with three of the most important issues of our day: food security, energy and climate change, and an aging population and health care. At the very least, rural Wisconsin seems to be in good hands.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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