Gregory farmer speaks to World Trade Organization
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Gregory farmer speaks to World Trade Organization

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Gregory farmers Hank and Melissa Wonnenberg pose at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany.

Fifteen minutes. A small group of young farmers from across the globe, captured the attention of World Trade Organization (WTO) members for 15 minutes, sharing their ideas for sustainable agriculture during the Global Forum on Food and Agriculture held in Berlin, Germany during International Green Week, the world’s largest agriculture and food exhibition.

Gregory, South Dakota farmer Hank Wonnenberg represented North America together with a young producer from Canada.

“They said they were in awe of the proposal we came up with,” said Wonnenberg of the response they got from WTO members, ag ministers and ag secretaries representing 74 countries, to the two-page document he and 14 other young producers developed throughout five days of discussion.

The group was tasked with suggesting sustainable agriculture solutions that would impact all aspects of sustainability — ecological, economic and social. Basically, the group needed to take a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture and the role trade plays in helping achieve sustainability.

Wonnenberg explained the suggestions needed to:

Increase farmers’ ability to earn a profit;

Provide consumers with ready access to healthy, safe food at affordable prices; and

Utilize farming practices that protect soil and water resources.

“Through the document, we bring sustainability full circle to how international trade can effectively promote sustainable agriculture in all categories,” said Wonnenberg, a fourth-generation cattle producer and agricultural banker and appraiser for First Fidelity Bank.

Nominated by South Dakota Farmers Union to serve on this forum, Wonnenberg, 35, took the fact he was the only U.S. farmer to heart.

“Initially, I felt intimidated. But once I got to know the young farmers from other countries, I felt comfortable,” says Wonnenberg, who was the oldest family farmer.

He added that his active involvement in South Dakota Farmers Union and participation in the organization’s state policy discussions helped prepare him.

“Involvement in Farmers Union helped me be more in tune with what is going on in agriculture in the U.S. and at different levels of agriculture,” he said. “Because I am a farmer, and a banker, I am familiar with the struggles farmers face.”

Wonnenberg added that the forum was structured similar to Farmers Union policy discussions. “Everyone was given an opportunity to talk and listen. We all had a voice.”

Of the young producers involved in the discussion, Wonnenberg was among only a handful of farmers with an off-farm career.

Based on the challenges he sees U.S. farmers and ranchers face, Wonnenberg brought forth four sustainability suggestions which made it into the final recommendations:

Universal traceability standards — where all products, from all countries, would have country-of-origin labeling.

“The ag minsters and parliament members I spoke with about this were supportive of it,” Wonnenberg said.

Farmer cooperatives, where farmers would band together to receive a better price for their goods.

Regenerative agriculture management practices.

Improving regulations and increasing transparency regarding market speculations.

“I was surprised and pleased that nearly everything I brought up was adopted,” Wonnenberg said.

Observations of Germany

Wonnenberg’s wife, Melissa, paid her own way to travel with him. Although she was unable to participate in discussions, she ended up serving as a pseudo-tour guide.

“Melissa had a good handle on the public transportation system, so she ended up helping me and the other young producers get around Berlin — she made sure we were where we needed to be,” he said.

While in Germany, Melissa witnessed local farmers as they took to the streets of their country’s largest city, blocking traffic with their tractors.

She did a bit of research and learned that Germany’s farmers are protesting governmental efforts to subsidize large confinement operations which will impact family farmers' ability to compete, as well as governmental regulations restricting farmers’ ability to apply fertilizer, including manure and glyphosate herbicides.

“They wanted to make sure that those living in the city couldn’t go about their typical day without having to stop and think about farmers,” Melissa said.

Because many South Dakotans may not have the opportunity to travel to Germany, the couple also made a list of things they noticed that were unique to Germany based on their South Dakota experience:

1. Recycling is a big deal with a lot of paper and edible products utilized in place of plastics;

2. There are very few overweight people in Berlin — they walk and ride bikes everywhere;

3. Grocery stores include a lot of raw goods which are unprocessed or minimally processed and locally sourced produce;

4. Farms are much smaller in size;

5. Lots of electric cars and solar and wind energy;

6. People are on cell phones much less;

7. You have to pay to use the bathroom wherever you go;

8. Much lower quantities of meat are consumed;

9. Sales tax is built into the “sticker price” you pay at stores, restaurants and bars;

10. People are very conscious of the environment;

11. English is a required subject in all public schools from the beginning of elementary school until high school;

12. College is free, so many citizens have master’s degrees and Ph.D.s;

13. Germany has a declining and aging population with a lot of wealth.

To learn more about Hank and Melissa Wonnenberg and their family farm, visit www.sdfu.org, SD Farm and Ranch Families, to read the 2016 article highlighting their family’s farm. 

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