HURON — Nearly 100 South Dakota family farmers and ranchers gathered virtually for the 2020 South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) Annual Convention Dec. 9.

“Grassroots policy development is no less strong in a virtual environment,” said Doug Sombke, SDFU President and a fourth-generation Conde farmer. “I’m sure like everyone, I missed the 3-D experience. But even though we were unable to meet in person due to the pandemic, member engagement was strong, as our members discussed and voted on policy and special orders to address timely challenges facing our state’s family farmers and ranchers.”

Aberdeen farmer, Kirk Schaunaman agreed. “All things considered, for a virtual convention, I thought it was outstanding. It was really good. Great speakers, and technology-wise, it went smooth,” he said.

This year is the first and (hopefully) the only time the more than a century-old organization met virtually. Schaunaman said he appreciated Sombke’s heartfelt message that addressed not only policy, but the very real struggle brought on by the pandemic. “We are in the middle of uncharted territory,” said Schaunaman, who recently lost his 91-year-old mom, Hazel, to COVID-19. “It’s the isolation and separation that makes this so difficult. We need to rally around our friends, neighbors and families and move forward the best we can.”

Sombke was one of four convention speakers. Other speakers included Keynote speaker, former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle; Hal Clemensen, CHS board member who farms in Spink and Brown Counties and Tom Boyko, General Manager East River Electric Cooperative.

“Even though it was virtual, we still had that education component that is so important to Farmers Union,” said Wayne Soren, SDFU Vice President and a Lake Preston farmer.

Schaunaman added that as one of the state’s largest and oldest farm organizations, SDFU policy remains relevant because, “We are a grassroots organization. I think we are open and transparent from our members to leadership,” Schaunaman said.

The 2020 policy discussion focused on everything from, truth in labeling of meat products, enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act and not supporting the Governor’s decision to merge the S.D. Department of Agriculture with Department of Environment and Natural Resources to how federal COVID-19 funds should be distributed in rural America and including Inventory Management Soil Enhancement Tool (IMSET) in the next farm bill.

“Because our policy comes from our members, Farmers Union policy is as diverse as the family farmers and ranchers we represent,” Soren explained. “Agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all industry. Our farms and ranches do not all look alike.”

A member since the 1980s, Soren, 64, said that over the years, he knows of many examples when Farmers Union’s policy addressed timely issues facing agriculture and rural communities and it made a difference at the state or national level.

“One of my core beliefs is it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the problem. It may take one to figure out how to solve the problem,” Soren said. “I believe Farmers Union members do a really good job of identifying problems and coming up with solutions that become our policy.”

Once members vote to approve policy during the Annual State Convention, the new policy guides the organization in its efforts throughout the state. And some policy is brought to the National Farmers Union Convention where South Dakota’s delegates advocate to get it into national policy.

“This is what I love about being involved in Farmers Union,” said Hank Wonnenberg, 36, a Dallas farmer. “As members, we all have an opportunity and a platform for us to bring something to the group. And if the group agrees with it, we have a good chance of policy making it to the top where policy makers in Pierre and D.C. hear our voice.”

Wonnenberg was one of seven SDFU members elected to serve as a delegate to the 2021 National Farmers Union Convention which will be held virtually in March. The other delegates are agriculture producers: Bill Chase, Wolsey; Rob Lee, De Smet; Jeff Kippley, Aberdeen; Jenae Hansen, Redfield; Gerri Eide, Gettysburg and Rachel Kippley, Aberdeen.

Delegates also voted to approve re-election of board members: District 1: Mike Miller, Freeman; District 3: Gail Temple, Clark; District 5: Dallis Basel, Union Center and District 7: Chad Johnson, Groton.

The 2020 Special Orders approved by delegates are:

Truth in Labeling and Promotion of Meat Products;

Restoring Competition with Fed Cattle Spot Market — 50/14;

Enforce Packers and Stockyards Act;

Merging of SD Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources;

Next farm bill to include Inventory Management Soil Enhancement Tool (IMSET);

Distribution of Pandemic Federal Aid;

Support of Beef Checkoff referendum petition;

Support of experts in keeping SD Communities safe.

To learn more about these Special Orders and SD Farmers Union policy, visit www.sdfu.org.

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