Tractor rally
The Wisconsin Farmers Union was a main organizer of the March 12 tractor rally in Madison. JOHN HART - State Journal

STEVENS POINT — Leaders are born of tough times, and rural Wisconsin can be thankful for the work being done these days by the young leaders at the Wisconsin Farmers Union. WFU may not be as big as some mainstream farm groups, but it's making up for it with pluck and grass-roots organizing that has put it at the forefront on crucial rural issues at just the right moment.

Unlike some other farm groups, WFU doesn't endorse political candidates. It focuses on looking out for the interests of farmers and rural people. That's why Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden, a rising young star in rural leadership ranks, and the organization's savvy executive director, Scott Schultz, are spot on as they draw attention to the havoc Gov. Scott Walker's budget is about to wreak on rural communities. WFU was a primary organizer of the tractor rally on the Capitol Square in Madison a few weeks ago, drawing attention to these issues.

Which state farm group has pointed out that shutting off access to BadgerCare, the state's health insurance program for working families, will have a devastating impact on many farmers? That would be the Wisconsin Farmers Union. Von Ruden, himself a Westby dairy farmer, notes that 11,000 family farmers in Wisconsin are covered by BadgerCare.

Which farm organization has pointed out that the governor's budget bill will cause disproportionate harm to poor rural school districts, many of which have been struggling to stay afloat for years? That would be WFU. As Von Ruden noted recently, "The general feeling of WFU members is, if the governor and the Legislature were able to find $140 million to give away to corporations in the form of tax breaks in the first two months of the legislative session, then, by golly, let's find the money over the next two years to fund our rural schools and not shortchange our children's futures."

Farmers Union has also called attention to the governor's efforts to weaken the state's farmland protection program. In the interest of full disclosure, part of my work involves trying to save that program. But I also share with many a deep personal commitment to protecting our best farmland that goes beyond dollars and cents.

It's interesting that Walker's budget proposals that affect rural health care, education and farmland protection fly in the face of the findings of a 2½-year study of farming and rural life in Wisconsin.

Conducted by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, the study asked rural people to identify the key issues that concern them. Guess which emerged in the top tier? Yep, rural health care, rural education and farmland protection.

Why would the governor, a city dude who probably hasn't hefted too many bales of hay, make such horrendous blunders that will hurt rural folks so much? One can only assume he just doesn't know rural Wisconsin all that well. Or else he got bad advice from insiders with grudges.

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Fortunately, young leaders like Von Ruden are calling attention to the impacts of these mistaken deeds.

When rural schools are forced to close or consolidate in future years after bearing the brunt of this budget, Farmers Union will be recognized as the only farm group that raised more hell than corn when we needed them most.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.