Farmers Union Ruckus: Members Demand Resignations at Top, New Election

Nothing good comes from this story… other than Farmers Union members coming together, laying out the facts, resolving their differences, and getting back to work.

I’m not a South Dakota Farmers Union member, but they were nice enough to hire me to circulate petitions for them last fall. I browsed by the Farmers Union website last weekend to see if they had any new information up on Amendment T, the anti-gerrymandering measure we petitioned onto the ballot. Instead, I found this strange open letter posted to the SDFU home page:

South Dakota Farmers Union, open letter, 2016.04.01.
South Dakota Farmers Union, open letter, 2016.04.01.

The Board is united… very small group of members working against forward progress (um, all progress is forward)… allegations… legal counsel… none of this sounds good. 

I asked Farmers Union spokesperson Kecia Beranek if she had available the text of resolutions mentioned in the board’s letter. She said she didn’t, but I was able to come up with this text, apparently circulated by the dissatisfied Farmers Union members:

Resolution #1 on Membership support of petition effort

Whereas Members and Officers of the County and District Farmers Unions have heard credible accounts of many grievances registered by former staff members, members and officers and volunteers for the SDFU and its districts and counties, and

Whereas the SDFU President has dishonored the position of President of the South Dakota Farmers Union by treating many members and leaders with disrespect, intimidation and hostility, and

Whereas the SDFU Secretary/Treasurer has failed to serve with integrity and proper understanding of management practices, and

Whereas the SDFU Vice President has dishonored the position of Vice President of the South Dakota Farmers Union treating members and officers with disrespect, intimidation and outright hostility; therefore

We the members of [___County or District___] Farmers Union demand that Secretary/Treasurer Karla Hofhenke and President Doug Sombke and Vice President Wayne Soren resign immediately; and

Furthermore, we support the petition to remove these officers immediately and to call for a special convention to be convened immediately.

Resolution #2 directing your District Board representative to act now

Whereas Members and Officers of the County and District Farmers Unions have heard credible accounts of many grievances registered by former staff members, members and officers and volunteers for the SDFU and its districts and counties, and

Whereas the SDFU President has dishonored the position of President of the South Dakota Farmers Union by treating many members and leaders with disrespect, intimidation and hostility, and

Whereas the SDFU Secretary/Treasurer has failed to serve with integrity and proper understanding of management practices, and

Whereas the SDFU Vice President has dishonored the position of Vice President of the South Dakota Farmers Union treating members and officers with disrespect, intimidation and outright hostility; therefore

Be it resolved, on this ___day of___, 2016, the members of [___County or District___] Farmers Union of the South Dakota Division of the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America direct the District ___ SDFU State Board Director ___ to seek an immediate board meeting with at least three other members of the State Board for the purpose of voting to remove President Doug Sombke, Vice President Wayne Soren, and Secretary/Treasurer Karla Hofhenke as officer of the South Dakota Farmers Union.

Resolution #3 supporting ballot initiative by removing Sombke as SDFU President

We, the members of the [___County or District___] Farmers Union fully support the redistricting ballot initiative for the 2016 ballot and believe its passage will be enhanced by the Farmers Union if Doug Sombke is no longer the President. President Sombke has suppressed participation in and involvement with the state activities through state convention election irregularities and the wrongful termination of highly qualified staff.

Members calling themselves the “Save Farmers Union Coalition” have secured passage of these resolutions by Districts 1 and 2 among Farmers Union’s seven South Dakota districts. Speaking of the resolutions collectively, Beranek tells Dakota Free Press that “the resolution was passed by 13 in District 1 and  17 Members in District 2. District one has 452 members and  district two has 661 members, so it an exceptionally small percentage of our membership that is behind the resolution.”

Coalition members Mike O’Connor, a former Democratic legislator, Farm Service Agency exec, and Farmers Union vice-president, tells WNAX that the coalitions concerns include improper conduct in last December’s board election, which resulted in the reëlection of president Doug Sombke of Groton to a sixth term:

[O’Connor] says the District 1 and 2 Boards voted in favor of these resolutions as a result of management issues and abuse of employees and volunteers, as well as what he terms a “swindled election.” He says the Coalition has evidence of election tampering at the 2015 annual meeting.

As a result of the close state officer election, the Save Farmers Union Coalition asked for a recount of the votes. However, O’Connor says they were told by leadership that a credentials report no longer exists [“SD Farmers Union Districts Call for Resignation of Officers, Special Election,” WNAX Radio, 2016.04.05].

In the WNAX audio, O’Connor alleges that inactive counties were seated to vote at the December convention in Huron. He says someone who was not president of a county chapter signed a credential card for a delegate who should not have been authorized to vote.

Beranek responds that the coalition has no evidence of electoral misconduct. O’Connor alleges that all ballots, credential cards, and other election records were destroyed right after the election. Beranek tells DFP that “no current or former employee has made any formal complaints to the board.” She tells WNAX that “Even if all seven districts pass similar resolutions,” the Farmers Union Board will not remove leadership or rerun the election.

As far as I can tell, this Farmers Union dust-up is not related to last year’s successful petition drive or any kind of philosophical schism over the merits of independent redistricting. But, in line what the main office is saying, discord like this could hamper Farmers Union’s efforts to promote Amendment T, to break in new staff (they’ll be replacing education director Bonnie Geyer, who retired this winter after 35 years with Farmers Union, and they have a new regional insurance manager following Wayne Bartscher’s winter departure) and do its other important work, like the Youth Camps that teach thousands of kids about cooperatives each summer. The board and the members need to provide those campers an object lesson, resolve their differences, and get back to cooperating to achieve the common interest of South Dakota farmers and rural communities.


9 Responses to Farmers Union Ruckus: Members Demand Resignations at Top, New Election

  1. Some of you may recall when grudznick was surprised there was a “Farmers Union” at all and what sort of “man” were they trying to stick it to. It seems my comments about unions in general dying off was not so far off base now, does it? Unions continue to implode. The Stockgrowers and the Cattlemen’s unions are limping along as well.

  2. mike from iowa

    Unions are getting “borked” by wingnuts and the koch bros and gypsies,tramps and thieves.

  3. Mike, I realize you’re from Iowa, but here in South Dakota most of the people in those last 3 groups you mentioned are libbies. Although I’m not sure about gypsies, they might be an ethnic group and not some form of bum or slackard.

  4. ” Beranek tells Dakota Free Press that “the resolution was passed by 13 in District 1 and 17 Members in District 2. District one has 452 members and district two has 661 members, so it an exceptionally small percentage of our membership that is behind the resolution.”

    How many members were voting delegates at the election meeting? I have friends and acquaintances who attended and I recall they said as few as one or two delegates represented some counties and some counties that were described as “unorganized” had delegates who were recognized and voted. Arguing that a small percentage of members are behind the resolution falls a bit short when a small percentage of members were likewise voting delegates.

    Ben Radcliffe would be embarrassed.

  5. Sombke and Soren have run the Farmers Union in the ground, it is time for them to go. It’s time for new leadership. Mike O’Conner would bring back some integrity for the Farmers Union.

  6. JudyJudyJudy

    It is my understanding that the current leadership maintained their control of the Farmers Union and its Insurance business and network of agents with the votes of delegates they chose to recognize from otherwise unorganized counties. This was done with the help of Ann Tornberg who only a year before had used a similar tactic to secure the position of Chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party for herself. She was not alone but her experience was invaluable I was told.

  7. There is much more to the story of the “retirement” of Geyer and the “departure” of Bartscher (oddly, in the week following the election? Connect the dots), and the long, long list of employees who have been forced out or have fled over the past few years. Sadly, a truly grassroots organization seems to have become a dictatorship at the hands of current “leadership”.

  8. Good point, Monty. I’d love to be able to check the exact vote counts from convention, but that’s kind of hard when the election records have been destroyed.

    Judy^3, can you clarify the tactic comment—are you saying unorganized county parties voted at the SDDP chair election and that Tornberg organized that voting?

  9. Gloria, if you can tell us that story, please do.