Tony Schultz responded somewhat sheepishly when asked what impact his recent political speech, a minor viral hit on the Web, had on business for his family farm. A downturn in business was something that had crossed his mind before he made the speech. "I don't have so many customers that I could just make [lost customers] up," says Schultz. "We were taking an intensely political stand. I was worried that it would hurt us."
A board member for Family Farm Defenders, Schultz, 31, spoke on March 12 at the Capitol following a tractor parade organized by FFD. Videos of his stirring speech about the shared interests of small farmers and urban union workers gleaned over 50,000 hits on the Internet, one of the most viewed Capitol-protest-related speeches outside of Michael Moore's.
Days after the speech, peppered with allusions to John Steinbeck and 19th-century populists like Tom Watson and Ignatius Donnelly, Schultz appeared on MSNBC's The Ed Show and since has had interviews with radio stations from Madison to Hayward.
Schultz and his partner, Kat Becker, run Stoney Acres Farm in Athens, about 170 miles north of Madison. A community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation, Stoney Acres is certified organic. Schultz and Becker grow a variety of vegetables and fruit on 12 acres alongside a pasture-fed beef and pig business they operate on 90 acres.
In the end, the attention hasn't hurt Stoney Acres. Its CSA membership jumped from 150 shares to a capacity-stretching 180.
A third-generation farmer, Schultz has been joining political activism with farming since his youth working on his father's farm, the same land he now works. In a second Capitol steps speech given April 9 for Wisconsin Wave, he describes returning one evening from high school football practice to hear his father announce that he was selling the dairy cattle, ending a major phase of his business. Schultz describes it as his first epiphany on how corporate power works against sustainable family farming. In selling their 50 cows, the Schultz family was conceding to the economies of scale of large, corporate-owned dairy farms in what Schultz calls Wisconsin's 70-year-old "dairy crisis."
During coursework at UW-Madison from 1999 to 2004, which he concluded with a bachelor's degree in education, Schultz was active in groups like Student Labor Action Coalition and Family Farm Defenders. He met a number of like-minded activists, including former national Green Party co-chair Ben Manski, who invited Schultz to speak at the April rally on the Square.
"He's an excellent speaker, and he's doing important work with the farmers' union," says Manski. "There's been more buzz about the [March 12] speech he gave than any other I know of." Manski, local attorney and executive director of Liberty Tree Foundation, finds Schultz an elegant and grounded voice for a generation of post-NAFTA activists.
In 2004, Schultz ran for state Senate for the Green Party but has shelved political ambitions since buying part of his father's farm in 2006. As a father of two children under 3, he has no time for political campaigns. He justifies his April speech because he had to make a trip to Dane County to pick up seed potatoes.
Besides tending to pigs, chickens, Scottish Highland and Galloway beef cattle, Schultz and Becker have in recent weeks been focusing on field preparation. They're starting shiitake mushrooms, pruning raspberries and spreading manure.
"I'm a farmer," Schultz explains. "I have a young family and a small business that is totally dependent on my labor."