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57 donkeys get painted for Democratic National Convention

In this June 21, 2016, photo, Taylor Hickman paints a donkey sculpture that will be placed along with others throughout the city for the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The program, coordinated by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, features more than 50 fiberglass donkeys. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I am changing my party affiliation from Democratic to Jeffersonian-Democratic. My new party platform is simple: 1) Read Thomas Jefferson. 2) Use less fossil fuel and electricity. 3) Eat, as much as possible, food humanely raised or organically grown on small farms. 4) Speak and act against every form of violence, including the military sort.

Fortunately, acting upon this political platform does not require my party to come to power or to even actually exist.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has not been a small farm/rural defender over the last half-century. Now an urban/suburban party, Democrats like to support farmers’ markets and eat locally grown food at expensive restaurants but have not done enough legislatively to bolster small businesses in rural (and inner-city) areas. Rather than dispensing faster connections to the internet, Jeffersonian Democrats should focus on providing small farms and small businesses with a slow, steady way of making the local market for their products more robust and just. Generally, this means getting serious about direct government support for all that is small and clean while strictly taxing/regulating the greed and pollution of corporate kingdoms.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported, 500 Wisconsin dairy farms vanished in 2017 alone, and so far this year “Dairyland” has lost about 150 milking farms. Since 2013, the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has decreased by 20 percent. This is the result of allowing “market forces” and an obsequious government to handle matters. It doesn’t help that the U.S. Small Business Administration provides guaranteed business loans to big, taxpayer-subsidized CAFOs — “concentrated animal feeding operations.” Such monstrous “farms” are essentially concentration camps for livestock, and so it’s no surprise that CAFOs breed animal cruelty and water pollution. If you don’t think the loss of small farms and decline of rural communities matter, you might as well be Republican.

A responsible government would not permit a single CAFO, for a responsible government strives to protect rural land and people, both of which suffer under the big-is-better, industrial model of American food production. Even the market for organic milk has now been hijacked by CAFOs that sell to huge retailers like Walmart and Costco. Small farms, which often practice actual organic farming, find it hard to compete with the factory farms that make a mockery of the idea and practice of agriculture. Family Farm Defenders, based in Madison, is demanding a federal moratorium on new and expanding CAFOs as part of a “food sovereignty” call to action. Will Democrats respond?

While the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has long been shrinking, milk production has been steadily rising. A graph prepared by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board explains that “an evolution in dairying in Wisconsin over 87 years has resulted in fewer farms producing more milk.” The implication is that fewer farms producing more milk is — a great technological marvel! Well, you can dress a cow in a ball gown, but you can’t make her dance. In 1930, Wisconsin supported 167,000 dairy farms and a lot more farm families. Today the number of farms has sunk to around 7,600. Why the Milk Marketing Board approves of a precipitous collapse in the number of Wisconsin dairy farmers is hard to fathom, especially when the price dairies are getting for their milk is extremely low. If we market milk without defending small farms and pasture-fed cows, it soon won’t matter where the milk comes from or how it’s obtained. Losing all those Wisconsin dairy farms and dairy farmers strikes me as an 87-year rural disaster that shows no sign of stopping.

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Maybe much of rural Wisconsin was brainwashed by Trump’s little red hats in 2016, but Democrats now have a fabulous chance to help rural folk with a return to the party’s Jeffersonian/agrarian roots — minus the slavery. The donkey as symbol of the Democratic Party is appropriate; though first created in political cartoons of the 19th century, the donkey harkens back to the Democratic-Republicans of 1798 led by Thomas Jefferson, the founder who extolled agrarian self-reliance and distrusted big business and “standing armies.” As writer/farmer Wendell Berry has said, the violence of our wealth-seeking economy toward land and people is of a piece with the prevailing violence of our foreign policy. The Democratic resistance to Trumpian Republicanism must include resistance to both economic war on rural land and military war on foreign lands.

Democrats can start to become more Jeffersonian by pursuing a state moratorium on CAFOs. Meanwhile, the current herd of Democratic candidates for governor should each explain what she/he plans to do to address small farm/rural decline in the state. It’s time for state leaders to head back to the land and embrace generosity toward the small and frugality for the rich. Despite the rise of corporate “agribusiness,” Wisconsin remains a fairly green state of smaller farms. There is a wholesome, mulish agrarian tradition here that is still alive enough for the Democratic Party to learn from and build upon.

John Frederick Kaufman, of Wauwatosa, is a writer and poet. 

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