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Ohio Farmers Union comes back from devastation

By Matt Reese

Jim Rex, FSA state committee chairman; Steve Maurer, FSA State Executive Director; Senator Sherrod Brown; John Bresler, FSA state committee member; and Jim Zumbrink, FSA state committee member were all in attendance at the OFU convention in January.

Ohio Farmers Union is the yin to Ohio Farm Bureau’s yang. They are the voice of the left in the often right-leaning politics of Ohio agriculture. So many times it seems that if Ohio Farm Bureau has a position on something, Ohio Farmers Union (OFU) is just the opposite — often a lone swath of blue amid a sea of Republican red.

This voice of Ohio’s blue-collar farmer, though, was mostly silenced after the OFU’s former Secretary/Treasurer was caught embezzling money from the organization. The bottom fell out for OFU in spring of 2009.

The disaster that followed gave OFU president Roger Wise more than he had bargained for after taking the office of president.

“I got elected in January of 2008 and all of this came out in June of 2009. We discovered some irregularities in accounting and moving the money around. We started to ask questions. We thought there should be some logical answers and there just weren’t,” Wise said. “One thing led to another and it all came to light. It had been going on for quite some time. It was a calculated effort on her part to do this to the organization. We had placed faith in her and it was misplaced, unfortunately. It nearly devastated us. We literally struggled to keep the lights on. It was pretty ugly.”

The former employee pled guilty in September of 2009 and was sentenced in May of 2010.

The tremendous financial loss from her crimes severely crippled the OFU and forced the organization to cut all staff and close its Columbus office. It took heroic volunteer efforts of OFU president Roger Wise, the executive committee and the county presidents to keep their Ottawa office open, though their work in the Statehouse was all but eliminated.

“We furloughed the staff and pretty much operated with volunteers. In the following August, we were able to hire back Linda Jones Borton, who had a lot of institutional and organizational knowledge of OFU and has been quite an asset. Luckily she stepped in and we just worked day to day,” Wise said. “We had a lot of conference calls and our executive committee was very involved with the process. The executive committee and Linda and the county presidents have had a lot of worthwhile discussions for the good of the organizations. When we make our decisions, it is a good compromise. We are coming back both financially and within the community.

“It was an interesting year for sure, but everybody came together and everybody was interested in saving the organization. We had to make some tough decisions that were really unfortunate for the employees. It wasn’t their fault at all and they suffered as much as anybody. There were eight employees, two in Columbus.”

The organization scrambled to maintain the viability of their insurance programs and other necessities.

“Luckily our insurance program has survived. It is not what we’d like it to be, but we are still providing insurance products for our members and it is still generating commission dollars,” Wise said. “Our Medical Mutual is in place and it was excellent that we have been able to keep that. We’ve pulled those things together and kept those things intact. That is one of the reasons we are still headed in the right direction and our balance sheet reflects that.”

Another reason for the survival of OFU has been the strong support of members.

“Our members have been supportive and understanding. They send in their dues early and send contributions to the organization,” Wise said. “That gives us a lot of encouragement to continue to work hard for the organization.”

After battling back, OFU once again held its annual convention in January this year.

“We had a really great convention. We’re on our way back from our low point and we’re headed back in a positive direction,” Wise said. “Things were very upbeat. Senator Sherrod Brown, Steve Maurer, Bobby Moser, and a host of folks came.”

Senator Born talked about his role on the Senate Ag Committee.

“It’s an honor to represent Ohio farmers as the first Ohio Senator on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than 40 years. Through my Committee work, I see first-hand the challenges facing Ohio farmers and I have tremendous respect for their work ethic. In any given day, a farmer is expected to perform multiple roles: accountant, mechanic, agronomist, marketer, and sometimes even a veterinarian,” Brown said. “My goal on the Ag committee is to honor these values and expand market opportunities for Ohio farmers while maintaining a strong and fiscally responsible safety-net. It is not just about putting food on the table; it is about strong rural communities, our shared natural resources, and the security of our nation’s economy.”

In addition, at the OFU Convention members switched their previous opposition and gave their support to the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board and voted to oppose any proposed efforts of consolidation of the Department of Agriculture with other State departments. The group also plans to meet with legislators in the Statehouse later this month.

“We have the new Administration and a lot of new legislators in Ohio this year. We’re trying to reach out to them and tell them that we’re the voice for the family farmer,” Wise said. “We have maintained the location in Columbus and we’re exploring some possibilities to get that filled at least on a part-time basis. That is what our membership wants us to be doing and that is our mission, to advocate for and represent our members.”

In addition, OFU elected delegates for the National Farmers Union Convention that will be held later this month. The process of rebuilding OFU has been long and challenging, but the results are worth the effort, Wise said.

“It has been a real learning experience. Sometimes we learn from things that aren’t so pleasant as well as the good things. I certainly have learned a lot and I’ve enjoyed and appreciate the support of the membership. I think we have a good opportunity to move forward and I’ll do my best to continue,” he said. “I am looking forward to this year a whole lot more than last year. We’re still not whole yet. We’re not as strong as we should be, but we’re a heck of a lot stronger than we were last year, and next year we’ll be a lot stronger than we are now.”

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