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Wisconsin farmers focus on local leadership

The Wisconsin Farmers Union 87th annual State Convention kicked off with a Groundswell Conference that encouraged attendees to step up as leaders in their communities and local government.

Keynote speaker Sarah van Gelder urged the crowd of 100-plus family farmers and rural advocates to consider the legacy they want to leave for future generations.

"What kind of future are we building in our world and in our country?" she asked. "Is it a future that is regenerative, where one generation after another can have a good life? Or is it extractive, where you pull the wealth out of an ecosystem and never replace it?"

Van Gelder shared stories of rural vibrancy and renewal from the cross-county road trip that led to her book The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America. Throughout her trip, van Gelder discovered the power local communities can create to take on climate change, economic rebuilding and racial injustice.

"People sometimes ask me what it takes to create change," van Gelder said. "It's not that things have to get 'really bad' before change can happen. Change happens when people feel connected. When people are actually connected, even in relatively small groups, that's when they start building power."

Groundswell attendees also heard a panel focused on Do-It-Yourself Economic Development featuring John Adams of the Bayfield Foods Cooperative; Sue Noble of the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA); and Bill Schierl of CREATE Portage County.

"It's up to all of us to step up in our communities," Noble said. "Take the call to leadership, get motivated, find some resources to help you and get engaged. If you don't do it, who will?"

In a panel on Engaging in Local Government, Farmers Union members shared their knowledge from their roles on county boards. Featured were Tom Quinn, Dunn County; Kriss Marion, Lafayette County; Hans Breitenmoser, Lincoln County; and Mark Liebaert, Douglas County.

Liebaert raises grass-fed beef on his South Range farm and has served on the Douglas County board for 18 years.

"If there's one thing I've learned, it's that if you want a certain outcome, you better show up," Liebaert said. "At the county level, you really can direct the process and effect change."