Gene Paul, Faribault County
Family farmers take pride in being rooted in their land. Decades of parents, grandparents and children growing food together, while cherishing community life, are the foundation of American agriculture.
Gene and Jane Paul are part of that foundation. The couple were both born and raised in rural Delavan and continue to live on Gene’s family farm, which his parents bought in 1936. They were Minnesota Farmers Union members, just like Gene and Jane are today.
As a teenager, Gene thought of three career paths for himself: “Farmer, priest or accountant.” Instead, he’s ended up working with the National Farmers Organization for the past 50 years, a group that Farmers Union works closely with. He is a past state and national president of NFO and currently a policy consultant. He’s lent his expertise to many MFU Lobby Days and National Farmers Union Legislative Fly-ins. And he does what he does because he knows our world is a better place with more family farmers.
“Farmers deserve a fair price for what they have to sell, and it’s a matter of social justice keeping them out here and making sure they get a fair price,” he said.
It’s his lifelong commitment to these values that earned Gene the National Farmers Union Meritorious Service Award to Humanity this year at the NFU Convention.
Gene and Jane got married in 1959 and took over the farm. At the time, it was a dairy farm. That background made Gene a good candidate to work in the NFO’s dairy department when he began employment there in 1968. They also raised hogs and grain, as well as six children: Judy, Joanne, Jackie, Jerry, Jan and Joe.
“They are all interested in the farm, but not in coming back to farm,” Jane said.
Jerry was the only one to express serious interest in taking over the farm, but sadly he died about 30 years ago when he was hit by a car in Minneapolis. The other five are scattered across Minnesota and successful in their careers.
The Paul farmland is currently rented out to a couple of their neighbors, meanwhile.
“They’re a couple of former dairy farmers who recently sold their cows,” Gene said. “They used to do some work for me while I was traveling across the country with NFO.”
These travels included many trips to Washington, D.C. Gene became more active on the legislative front during the 1980s and spent time on Capitol Hill, where he’d also see people from Farmers Union. He noticed the ways the two organizations could work together. Notably, when he was state president for the Minnesota NFO, he connected with then-MFU President Cy Carpenter.
“We were at a meeting together in Mankato and realized we really hadn’t talked to each other,” Gene said. “We worked out a marketing agreement between Farmers Union and NFO. We had an arrangement that Farmers Union members could use the NFO livestock marketing program, and some of them did.”
Concern for the family farm
Like many of us, Gene is dismayed by today’s farm economy and its effect on family farmers.
“I don’t like to see this trend where we’re getting grain, pork, milk concentrated in just a few hands,” he said. “I don’t think that’s good for the country, I think that’s a food security issue, and I like to see family farmers in these various areas because they support the schools, the local businesses, keep the infrastructure going in our country. I don’t like the trend of going bigger and bigger. That’s an issue that both Farmers Union and NFO work on.”
Agricultural consolidation was a big topic of discussion at the NFU Convention, where Gene led the prayer before the banquet prior to receiving the award.
Dairy supply management has also been on people’s minds. MFU policy supports it, and our colleagues at Wisconsin Farmers Union have been running the Dairy Together campaign since last summer. They have worked with NFO on researching the possibilities of supply management policy. Gene was instrumental in creating the policy proposal that’s part of the Dairy Together Roadshow, coming to Minnesota on April 16.
“What we’ve been working on in dairy, we’ve been trying to do something because the price is too low,” he said. “But if we just work on price, the larger farmers will keep getting bigger. We need some kind of a structure that will get the small dairies on a level playing field with the bigger ones.
“That’s what I like about both organizations, they’re really working to keep family farmers out here. That’s what this country needs. In the years I’ve been around, there used to be a lot of farmers out here. There aren’t anymore… That isn’t good for the country.”
Fulfilled by faith, art
Gene and Jane are active members of their local Catholic church. In the mid-1990s, as his work with NFO slowed down, Gene’s interest was piqued by the diocese’s bishop announcing the start of a deaconate program. He decided to take the path to become a deacon. That required attending a class one weekend a month for five years, which both he and Jane had to attend. Now ordained, he officiates weddings, funerals and baptisms, occasionally preaches and visits parish members who are sick. He’s also a member of Catholic Rural Life.
His experience serving rural congregations has made Gene a mentor to some young people studying to become priests.
“A lot of these seminarians come out of big cities, they don’t know anything about the farm,” he said. “They want to know what it’s like to be out here.”
Jane, on the other hand, spent years running the farm while Gene traveled, and still does chores today with the plants and animals they keep for the love of it – sheep, pheasants, chickens, peacocks, apple trees, berries.
“We save them up for the kids so they can have them with their smoothies or whatever they’d like to do with them,” she said.
She also sews and paints Easter eggs, which they display in their home.
Managing the stress
Having seen the toll of a depressed farm economy on their community, Gene and Jane are no strangers to the stresses in rural Minnesota right now. Gene encourages farmers to reach out where they can.
“They can call the Farm & Rural Helpline at MDA, get some help as far as thinking through the best ideas for their situation,” he said. “I think some of these programs that are part of the Farm Bill, they need to make sure they can get some help from that. It’s not the answer, it’s not going to solve all their problems, but if they can get some financial help from these programs, so be it.”
Congratulations again to Gene Paul on the NFU Meritorious Service Award to Humanity, and thank you for your dedication to MFU and family farmers.