A generation ago, many lawmakers had direct experience with farms—either they grew up on one or had spent summers on a family farm. Today, few politicians come from a farming background. That means the trade groups representing this $1.9 billion industry in Wisconsin must do a lot of educating. Those trade associations are bifurcated into general (such as the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, which has been around since 1920) and specific (per commodity, such as the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance, established in 2018). This specialization of representative groups helps ensure that both industry-wide and sector-specific needs of producers and processors are heard in the Capital.
As one of the largest and oldest ag groups, the WFBF represents over 47,000 members ranging from small hobby farms to large, full-time operations with a variety of commodity focuses. Serving that wide range of members is a challenge, but one President Joe Bragger is confident the organization can rise to meet through increased use of data and segmentation. "We're going to get more personal with the members than we have in the past," he said. "The new generation wants to hear from you, but we don't want to bombard people with information they don't need to see. That's the way the world is going."
New Faces at the Farm Bureau
Bragger has been involved in the WFBF for many years, but just took on the role of president in December 2019. Additionally, WFBF is welcoming a new chief administrative officer, Kim Pokorny, in August. Stay tuned for her introductory interview with WBA.
However, while there is strength in numbers, the economic concept of specialization may apply to associations, too. The more specific an association's membership, the more detailed its services can be. One of the newest additions to the ag arena is a good example of this: the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance. Formed in 2018, this association of hemp seed and clone suppliers, growers, processors, and retailers is organized for advocacy and education related to this newly legal corner of agriculture. Alliance General Counsel Larry Konopacki and President Rob Richard say they were motivated to form the group by a recognition that there was "a real advocacy gap" to fill. "Up until our formation, most of the heavy lifting on hemp-related matters had fallen on the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation," the pair told WBA. "We did not believe that their level of attention to this single commodity was sustainable given the breadth of the ag-related topics they cover."
The WFBF and the Wisconsin Hemp Alliance exemplify the stratification in ag industry representation that has occurred over the past 40 years. In addition, the shutdowns and economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated industry transformation. As Bragger put it, in the 1980s farmers could run a successful farm without robust business acumen if they just worked harder. "That won't get you out of trouble anymore," he said. "You have to understand the numbers and the technology." And that means the groups representing farmers' interests must provide much more specific and specialized training, education, information, and advocacy.
This transition from general to specialized happened slowly enough that the older and larger organizations were able to keep pace for a long time. Today, the pace of change is rapidly accelerating. For example, hemp products were only legalized in Wisconsin in 2017. In three short years, courts, lawmakers, and state and federal agencies have promulgated dozens of laws, regulations, and guidance for this new sector in the ag industry. "Our major goals are to help shepherd major pending regulatory changes through the rulemaking over the upcoming months and years," Konopacki said. "The state and federal departments of agriculture will be wrestling with significant programmatic and regulatory changes applicable to all hemp growers, the state will be considering regulatory protections for hemp customers and industry participants, and the industry is still new enough that it is working trying to find business stability."
One thing that hasn't changed is the dedication these groups have for their members. From the Corn Growers and Cattlemen's Associations to the Vegetable Growers and Winery Associations, A-Z these organizations are devoted to assisting their members in whatever they need to succeed. In today's challenging times, that support sometimes goes beyond business needs.
Whether it's the Rural Resilience program or #FarmNeighborsCare, there are more mental and emotional health available to farmers today than ever before. It's important for ag bankers to check in on their clients and see the situation from their perspective. Dramatic fluctuations in milk prices, for example, mean that some farmers bowed to pressure to lock-in at very low prices, and they're now seeing prices rise. "There's a lot of emotion in that," said Dave Daniels, WFBF vice president and interim CAO. "Bankers should be very cognizant that there's a lot of stress involved." Sometimes, all that's required is an open ear. "You can't solve everybody's problems, but you can listen," said Bragger.
The WFBF also recently launched the Wisconsin Farm and Food program with Rural Mutual Insurance Company. The two-pronged program raises funds for Feeding Wisconsin, which helps supply food pantries, and Harvest of Hope, which provides small grants to farmers. Together, the program has raised $43,000.
How ag bankers can help:
What does this mean for your ag clients? You can be a resource directing them to very specific help, as needed. Not only are ag bankers uniquely equipped to help their clients access a variety of business and legal services, but with a team of trade associations and business groups on speed dial, you can offer very specific operational and practical help, too.
In the immediate future, Wisconsin's ag trade groups are focused on getting their members through the current crisis and finding new avenues for growth. "The Hemp Alliance is always seeking opportunities to connect major industries with hemp farmers and innovators to integrate hemp into everyday products and applications," Richards said. Those opportunities include hemp paper products from Georgia Pacific, hemp packaging materials (which could see significant demand as Amazon increases its presence in Wisconsin), and early discussions with the U.S. Army about potentially using woven hemp as a replacement for polyester in applications for seat belts, canvas, and uniforms. "These are game-changing opportunities that we constantly promote and seek out to help our hemp farmers create long-term, sustainable relationships," Richards said.
Partnerships Create Value
Many of the state's ag trade groups routinely partner on projects, campaigns, and advocacy efforts that will benefit their mutual members. Hemp is one issue that has even crossed industry lines. "We appreciate the relationship that we have with WBA and especially the effort and attention that WBA has given to this emerging industry," Konopacki said. "WBA has been one of the strongest partners for this industry, both with respect to advocacy and through its efforts to create and disseminate accurate information to its membership and beyond."
Technology and workforce development are two other large areas of focus for many groups, particularly as current events highlight the need for infrastructure improvements. "We're seeing technology increase dramatically," said Daniels. "It's amplified that we need the infrastructure throughout the state to support that. Farmers are adapting to technology." He also said it's helping to keep young people in the ag sector, which is another struggle for the industry. "We need folks to get on farms," Bragger agreed. "The ag background is shrinking."
Looking further ahead, more specialization and stratification could be on the horizon. Farmers today operate on ever-shrinking margins and efficiency is key. The pandemic exposed critical issues with the country's food supply chain, which opens the door for innovation and disruption. Farmers may take advantage of consumers' changing preferences as farm-to-table becomes more popular. Even the relatively new hemp industry will likely see more segmentation as producers and processors specialize in cannabinoids or fiber or grain products. In time, each of these potentially could result in the need for another trade group to represent a select segment's needs.
Seitz is WBA operations manager and senior writer.