Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) honored several individuals for their dedication to family farmers at the 92nd annual Wisconsin Farmers Union State Convention Dec. 9-11th. The event drew more than 200 farmers to Wisconsin Dells for a weekend of networking, educational workshops, and grassroots policymaking. 

Friend of the Family Farmer

WFU recognized two Friends of the Family Farmer, Joy Kirkpatrick, and Mandela Barnes. First given in 2013, the award recognizes those who have gone above and beyond in efforts on behalf of family farmers and rural communities. 

Kirkpatrick has worked at the University of Wisconsin since 1993. She began her university career as a county-based Dairy & Livestock Extension Agent. In 2004 she became the Outreach Specialist for the Center for Dairy Profitability, earning distinguished status in 2019. She has facilitated hundreds of farm succession discussions with farm families, organizing programs like "Returning to the Farm" and "Shifting Gears for Your Later Farming Years." She also helps farmers address stress and access mental health care through Wisconsin’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. Joy grew up on a hog farm in Southern Illinois.

“The work Joy has done around farmer mental health through the years has undoubtedly saved lives,” said WFU President Darin Von Ruden. “Her ongoing work to support family farm transitions helps ensure the future of Wisconsin agriculture.”

Von Ruden noted the WFU Board of Directors’ decision to honor Lt. Gov. Barnes was not taken lightly, given the organization’s nonpartisan nature.

“After watching Mandela reach out to family farmers and rural Wisconsinites this year during his ‘Barnes to Barns’ tour, we wanted to recognize his efforts,” Von Ruden said. “Mandela was the first candidate in a long while who truly seemed to tune into the issues that mattered on our farms and in our communities.”

Barnes, the son of a school teacher and a United Auto Workers member, became Wisconsin’s first African American Lieutenant Governor in 2019. Born and raised in Milwaukee, he attended Milwaukee Public Schools and Alabama A&M University and has become a recognized leader on issues of economic justice, racial equity, and sustainability. At age 25, Mandela was elected to the State Assembly, serving two terms.

Barnes oversaw the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, where he gave farmers a seat at the table and invited WFU to help lead the discussion. This past summer and fall, during his run for Senate, Mandela visited WFU member farms and attended WFU’s candidate roundtables that focused on small businesses and family farm issues -- even after other candidates opted to no-show. 

“Mandela truly showed up, and we look forward to seeing how he continues to show up for Wisconsin,” Von Ruden said. “We wish him all the best in his next chapter and look forward to seeing how he continues to be a Friend of the Family Farmer.”

Builders Awards

Jane Hansen of Ogema received the Builders Award, which recognizes outstanding commitment to building Farmers Union through county involvement, leadership development, and member recruitment. 

Hansen is an officer of the Taylor-Price Farmers Union and shepherdess of Autumn Larch Farm, located near Ogema. She has opened up her farm to educate others about regenerative agriculture and to share the techniques she has learned in the pursuit of healthy sheep, high-quality wool, environmental stewardship, and a commitment to the regional economy. This fall Hansen, who is also an active member of Three Rivers Fibershed, pulled together collaborative partners, including WFU, for the inaugural Farm and Fiber Tour. The event included tour stops on farms throughout western Wisconsin and educated community members about farming practices. 

“Jane has strengthened WFU’s visibility in her region and beyond,” Von Ruden said. “She is also active in policy discussions, educating other farmers about the value of farmed fiber for textiles. Farmers Union is stronger due to her leadership and collaborative spirit.”

Emerging Leader

This is the third year that WFU presented a special Emerging Leader award to an individual who has ignited energy and engagement in WFU. This year’s Emerging Leader is Paul Adams.

Until 2020, Adams and his wife, Joann, and daughter, Becky, operated a 900-cow organic dairy farm in Eleva. Adams Dairy had been in his family for nearly 150 years before a crash in the organic dairy market forced the family to make the difficult decision to sell the herd. Adams went into dairy farming after graduating from high school in 1970, starting out with 30 cows and attending the UW Short Course. 

Adams has been heavily involved with WFU’s Dairy Together efforts, attending two fly-ins with WFU in 2022 to promote the Dairy Revitalization Plan. 

“Despite his family’s loss, Paul continues to have a passion for Wisconsin agriculture,” Von Ruden said. “While many people in his situation could have turned completely away from agriculture, Paul has taken the challenges life has thrown at him and has let the adversity mold him into a strong advocate for his fellow farmers.”  

Bruce Miller Award

WFU also announced that Cathy Statz was chosen to receive the 2023 Bruce Miller award, which will be presented at the National Farmers Union Convention in San Francisco in March.

The award is named in honor of the late Bruce Miller, who was an active member WFU and served on the staff of Minnesota Farmers Union. It recognizes individuals within Farmers Union who display a true passion for family farming and rural America, while promoting the work of Farmers Union.

Statz wrapped up her Farmers Union career in 2022, after 30 years of staffing and 41 summers participating in the camp program. She spent her childhood on a 50-cow dairy farm near Sauk City and grew up attending Farmers Union meetings. Prior to joining WFU full-time, Statz spent four summers working on the WFU and NFU camp staff. She dedicated her career to cooperative education and advancing the quality of life for farm families, rural communities, and all people in her work with Farmers Union.

“Cathy’s reach in Farmers Union went far beyond the education department,” Von Ruden said. “She was often the first face of Farmers Union for new members, as they dropped campers off at Kamp Kenwood, or out and about at the countless dairy breakfasts, college career fairs, and cooperative events that she attended. Cathy instilled institutional knowledge and a cooperative spirit in those around her, and left an undeniable mark on this organization.”

Statz moved to Poland with her husband, Tom. He teaches at an international school; she continues to work remotely on projects that fit her passion: cooperative education. 

Von Ruden re-elected WFU President

Westby dairy farmer Darin Von Ruden was re-elected president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union this weekend in Wisconsin Dells, where more than 200 family farmers and rural advocates gathered for the organization’s 92nd annual State Convention. 

Von Ruden is a lifelong Farmers Union member, and returned to the Farmer Union presidency this summer, after a brief term by Rick Adamski of Full Circle Farm in Seymour. Adamski shifted to the role of WFU’s Government Relations Director in July. 

Von Ruden has served as the organization's District 5 director since 2008, representing Crawford, Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette, Richland, Rock, and Vernon counties. He also leads the WFU Foundation Board of Directors, serves on the National Farmers Union Board, and is chairman of the NFU Membership Committee. Von Ruden and his wife, JoAnn, live in Westby and recently transitioned the farm to the fourth generation when son Brett purchased the machinery and 50-cow dairy herd. 

Von Ruden has been active with Farmers Union at the local, state, and national levels. He is a seven-time recipient of the Silver Star Award, National Farmers Union’s highest recognition of membership development. 

Von Ruden’s presidential address focused on a theme of “persistence,” tying it to the tenacity of Wisconsin Farmers Union’s founders nearly a century ago and that same spirit that fuels the organization’s efforts today. 

“None of our work would be possible without members sharing their stories, engaging on the issues they care about, and leading at the local level,” he said. “We are stronger together. It was true at WFU’s founding in 1930, and it remains true today.” 

Von Ruden encouraged members to remain persistent, whether facing struggles on the farm or a stumbling block in the passage of policy at the Capitol. 

“It’s easy for those of us in agriculture to get jaded over time,” he said. “I encourage you to not lose hope, to keep working, and to lean on Farmers Union. Creating lasting change can take years of work. Through the persistence of Farmers Union members throughout the past century -- and those in the room here today -- we’re seeing forward momentum.”

Von Ruden said he’s seeing progress in ways he has never experienced in decades of farm advocacy. 

“We are experiencing a rebuilding and re-envisioning of the American food system, and Farmers Union has been on the front lines of those conversations,” he said. “We are leading the charge on issues like rural infrastructure, meat processing, competitive markets, and more.” 

Looking ahead to 2023, Von Ruden said his sights are set on seeing some systemic changes implemented in the upcoming farm bill. 

“Farmers Union is positioned to make a real difference and bring power back to family farmers and small businesses,” he said. “We must persevere because we know the system we’re currently in is not structured to help the small and medium-sized farmer.” 

Spotlighting successes from the past year, Von Ruden noted that WFU chapters hosted over 90 events this year.

 In early 2022, WFU released a member-driven Meat Processing Report, which aided in successful advocacy around investments in meat processing infrastructure, workforce training, and new meat career educational programs at Wisconsin high schools and universities. 

WFU’s Dairy Together initiative pushed forward with a series of educational meetings around the state, national coalition calls, and a July fly-in to advocate for the Dairy Revitalization Plan. Members also hosted government officials, candidates and policymakers on their farms, elevating key issues.  

This summer, the organization underwent a strategic planning process focused on strengthening the membership and efforts on behalf of family farmers and rural communities.  

Members throughout the state have been working to strengthen the local food economy and regional infrastructure, through endeavors like the St. Croix Valley Local Food Alliance, South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative, Community Kitchen Co-op, and Meatsmith Co-op. 

“Members throughout the state have been hard at work to make rural Wisconsin a better place for future generations,” Von Ruden said.

WFU board members & delegates

Paul Adams of Eleva and Dylan Bruce of Ferryville were elected to serve as delegates to the National Farmers Union Convention March 5-7, 2023 in San Francisco.

Four district director seats were up for election this year, with all four incumbents retaining their seats. District 1 Director and board Secretary Linda Ceylor, who dairy farms near Catawba, was re-elected in District 1, which comprises Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Iron, Lincoln, Oneida, Polk, Price, Rusk, Sawyer, Taylor, Vilas and Washburn counties. Jen Schmitz of Cashton will continue to represent Buffalo, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe and Trempealeau counties in District 4. Maribel grain farmer Michael Slattery, who was appointed by the board to fill Adamski’s vacated seat this fall, will serve District 8, covering Brown, Calumet, Dodge, Door, Fond du Lac, Forest, Florence, Kewaunee, Langlade, Marinette, Manitowoc, Menominee, Milwaukee, Oconto, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Shawano, Sheboygan, Washington, Waukesha, and Winnebago Counties. New London beef farmer Rachel Bouressa retains the at-large seat. 

Other board members include Ed Gorell, Eleva (Treasurer); Tina Hinchley, Cambridge (Vice President); Sarah Lloyd, Wisconsin Dells; and Dave Rosen, Glenwood City. 

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