I Was Wrong About the Rural-Urban Divide

I thought I knew something about Wisconsin politics. I assumed the state was neatly divided between blue cities, like Madison and Milwaukee, and solidly red rural areas that twice elected Governor Scott Walker, one of the nation’s most right-wing governors, and went for Donald Trump in 2016.

Turns out there’s a lot I didn’t know. And the assumptions and stereotypes that I—and many others—hold are dividing us and harming our chances of building powerful coalitions across rural–urban divides.

In early February, I visited the town of Wisconsin Dells to give a keynote presentation at the Wisconsin Farmers Union pre-convention gathering, “Groundswell.” I stayed for the convention, where the Farmers Union members discussed their agenda for the coming year. Many of these families have been on the land for generations. Some farm organically, many do not. They raise dairy cattle, hogs, and grow fruits, vegetables, and grains. Some market via cooperatives, like Organic Valley, some via commercial enterprises or through farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture.

I met farmers who spoke of their responsibility to think ahead for the next seven generations and their work to protect the state’s precious sources of fresh water.

They also spoke of the struggle of staying on the land at a time when the costs of the inputs they require—like seeds and fertilizer—are high, and the prices they are paid are low.

Many referred to powerful and wealthy interests moving in, buying up land, tapping limited ground water supplies, and building giant confined animal feeding operations.

John Ikerd, a rural economist and author who grew up on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri, used his keynote to rail against what he described as the economic colonization facing rural America:

“A progression of laws protecting factory farms from public scrutiny and exempting industrial agriculture from environmental and public health regulations reveal a corporate strategy to turn rural areas into ‘agricultural sacrifice zones,’” he told the crowd. “The quality of life of rural and town residents alike is threatened by the relentless, unbridled corporate colonization of American agriculture.”

His speech received a protracted standing ovation.

These farmers are resisting this corporate appropriation while also working to rebuild rural economies. They’re advocating for broadband, high-quality schools, renewable energy, and the rights of immigrant workers to drivers’ licenses, health care, education, and family-scale wages. They promote civility by working against hate speech and for “gender and minority” equality. They favor public financing of campaigns and an end to gerrymandering. And they support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and research into ways farmers can contribute to carbon sequestration and adapt to climate change. These and other positions are debated and adopted at their annual convention, and then become the basis of advocacy throughout the year.

Still, many of the farmers are struggling—western Wisconsin had the nation’s highest rate of farm bankruptcies in 2017, a casualty of rising land prices, low commodity prices, and debt, according to a Jan. 24 report by Wisconsin Public Radio.

“I don’t think the establishment in [either party] gets it,” Sarah Lloyd, dairy farmer and co-chair of Wisconsin Our Revolution, told me when I interviewed her at the convention.

This is a state where Bernie Sanders won 72 of 73 counties because he “connected with people who are struggling,” she said.

Wisconsin later went for Donald Trump. Yet just last month, Democrat Patty Schachtner won a special election to the state Senate from a rural district held by Republicans since 2001. She won in spite of being outspent by the Republican candidate, who was supported by the Koch-funded advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. Says Lloyd, “She understands that it’s really hard out there, that people are struggling economically.”

It’s true that there are vast differences in culture and ways of life in rural and urban Wisconsin, but there are also similarities. Many struggle to pay their bills and raise families, and they want good health care, education, and infrastructure. Like many urban residents, the farm families I met are looking to regain some local control over their economies, to create inclusive cultures, and to protect their environment.

My days with the Wisconsin Farmers Union reminded me, once again, to beware of stereotyping and not to allow Fox News and the NRA to define groups of people. Instead, when I listen with an open mind and heart, I discover commonalities of experience and aspirations.

I believe the foundation for powerful collaboration is there, if we choose to build on it.

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