To this day, I remember sitting with my grandpa in the kitchen of his farmhouse just outside New Glarus, listening to William T. Evjue on the table-top radio deliver his Sunday noon "Hello, Wisconsin" broadcast on the station The Capital Times owned, WIBA.
Gramps would puff on his corncob pipe filled with "Friends" pipe tobacco and nod his head as Evjue pushed progressivism and condemned politicians who voted with corporate and big business interests over working people and, particularly, farmers.
Grampa Zweifel, who had long been a supporter of Wisconsin's La Follettes, became a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman. He credited Roosevelt for saving his farm during the Great Depression, when FDR put a strict moratorium on bank foreclosures that were taking farms from families that had owned them for generations. As the Great Depression worsened in the early 1930s, he was about to lose his, but then FDR came to the rescue.
So when 1952 came along, Gramps was dumbfounded when Wisconsin farmers joined the majority of voters to oust the Democrats and make Republican Dwight Eisenhower president.
I can still hear him and my dad proclaiming, "I told you so," when farm prices began dropping precipitously under the policies of Ike's secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson. Benson, a longtime leader of the Mormon church and a big fan of the John Birch Society, did away with the price support system that had kept farmers' incomes at a steady level despite the ups and downs of supply and demand and, of course, the unpredictability of the weather.
Eisenhower, who kept Benson on for all eight years of his presidency, gave the secretary carte blanche in running the administration's farm policy. Benson believed price supports were a kind of "socialism" (yes, that was a rallying cry for Republicans way back then) and farmers would be better off in the free market like everyone else.
Unfortunately, farming then — and now — isn't anything like the rest of the free market. Unlike big corporations and other businesses, family farmers can't turn off or ramp up production overnight. They have no power to bargain and are at the mercy of the conglomerates and marketing orders on the price they get for milk, for instance. If the weather is favorable, supply will increase. If not, products like corn, wheat and soybeans will be in more demand. In short, that supply-and-demand axiom is essentially out of the farmers' hands.
What's been perplexing through the years is the Wisconsin agriculture community's love affair with the party that hasn't really ever done anything to help the farmers' economic plight.
The one presidential election exception since the FDR/Truman days was 1976, when Wisconsin farmers swung heavily for Democrat Jimmy Carter after the farm economy suffered mightily during the Richard Nixon/Jerry Ford years.
But, rural Wisconsin has swung heavily the other way in subsequent elections, including helping turn Wisconsin over to Donald Trump in 2016.
I'm sure if Gramps were still around today, he'd be proclaiming, "I told you so" all over again as the state of the farm economy under Trump's policies could well be the worst in history. It's like a tsunami. Milk prices paid to farmers are awful. Farmers are losing money on every hundred pounds of milk they produce.
Trump's tariffs have been crushing. The markets for soybeans, corn and other grains bought by China are essentially gone, leaving surpluses and lower prices behind. Wisconsin now leads the country in farm bankruptcies. Others are selling out to corporate farms and getting off the land. Many observers of the farm economy contend it's never been so desperate. And that, of course, puts a strain on the economic well-being of rural communities.
Nevertheless, many farmers aren't sure they won't vote for Trump again. Many insist he's not to blame. Rather, it's the fault of bumbling administrators under him who want to make Trump look bad, I heard a farmer tell a WPR reporter the other day. Still others insist they need to bear it all because China needs to be punished in the long run.
Jim Goodman, an organic dairy farmer from Wonewoc, and Anthony Pahnke, vice president of Family Farm Defenders, co-wrote an op-ed last month promoting a bill of rights for farmers, similar to the bill of rights that Franklin Roosevelt proposed for American workers in 1944.
It included full employment with an adequate income, freedom from monopolies and unfair competition, adequate housing and health care, Social Security, fair incomes for farmers and adequate education.
Many of those "rights," they point out, have reemerged during the 2020 presidential race just getting underway. So far, only Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have mentioned farmers as part of their campaign pledges. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has actually rescinded rules that clarify fair trade practices that can serve to provide at least some help.
I can't help wonder what Gramps would have said to Trump's secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, when he cracked the joke, "What do you call two farmers in the basement?"
"A whine cellar," Perdue chortled.
There is, of course, plenty to whine about. The question is whether rural America can bring itself to do something about it.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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