Farmer Front Groups and the Agribusiness Bribe

(This is an excerpt from: Brad Wilson,  “Smashing the Illusion ‘Farmer Clout:’ A White Paper, ZSpace, Jan 08, 2013.)


To be a part of such a massive loss of clout over your lifetime and that of your family members creates dilemmas.  At what point should you give up?  What compromises should you make? (Do you wait around for all of the problems of cheap corn, cheap soybeans, cheap cotton, cheap rice, cheap milk to create a massive urban food crisis and global food poverty crisis, and then kick it up again?)  In particular, though we haven’t won on the biggest issues, the fight on them has helped us win other issues, like the Farm Credit Act of 1987.  The threat of making agribusiness pay, instead of subsidies, helped win that legislation. Of course, farmers have also been given large amounts of farm subsidies. We haven’t had pure Hooverism (low prices, no subsidies).

As it turns out many farmers are not politically active and informed.  We thus find organizations that are tied to agribusiness interests and propaganda, but that represent themselves as “farm” organizations, and have farmer members.  I call them “farmer front organizations.”  Agribusiness loves them.  They’re essential to Orwellian doublespeak.

Here’s an example of farmer front groups.  During the Reagan administration, John Ford worked for USDA, and was involved in Farm Bill negotiations.  When the agribusiness buyers came in to lobby for their interests, he was not surprised that they lobbied for ending supply management, (to promote oversupply and lower farm prices they must pay,) and directly lowering price floors (ie. farm prices).  Then he met representatives from two “farm” organizations, the National Corn Growers Association, and the American Farm Bureau Federation.  Very strangely, however, though supposedly representing the interests of farmers, (who were struggling severely during the 1980s “farm crisis,”) they too lobbied USDA for low prices and oversupply, for further weakening farm programs.19

Meanwhile, a variety of other farm organizations (National Farmers Organization, National Farmers Union, various “farm crisis” organizations and coalitions,) lobbied hard for true farm interests, for balancing supply and demand and for fair trade price floor levels.  Ford later became an activist himself, and helped to create a new, alternate corn group, the American Corn Growers Association, to counteract the work of a key farmer front group, the National Corn Growers Association.

We find, then, that Farm Bureau and the various “bad” commodity groups (agribusiness front groups,) though ideologically “conservative,” have lobbied for low prices plus big subsidies over the years.  They’ve worked on the side of the agribusiness buyers to change farm program mechanisms away from the business approach (balancing supply and demand, making a profit,) and toward the convoluted welfare/export-dumping programs that they have become today.

Another example of the compromise issue relates to the time when rural Democratic progressives in Congress gave up their tough but unsuccessful opposition to the devastatingly bad Republican Farm bills (1985, 1990, 1996,) and started working instead to make the worst of them better, such as in greening up the 2002 version of the Freedom to Fail (Freedom to Farm) bill.  (On this point, see further below.)  After they made the switch, the National Farmers Union followed them, and began talking about “safety nets” (subsidy compensations plus below cost grain for agribusiness buyers,) instead of fair prices.  Finally, after a number of years of this NFU switched back to some extent, after commissioning an important new farm bill study, and developing an alternative Supply Management and Price Floor proposal.20

In response to all of this the Farm Justice Movement fought back, roasting the front groups and their new allies as farm Tories.  Other events reinforced these efforts, such as scandals in the Farm Bureau.  Every decade, it seems, a new round of members drops out, insisting that they didn’t realize that Farm Bureau isn’t really for true farmer interests.21

Another example was seen in the fight over the pork checkoff.  The National Pork Producers Council and National Pork Board took stands in favor of allowing the pork buyers to compete with farmer sellers by themselves raising hogs in giant hog factories.  Here again, these supposedly “farm” groups sided with agribusiness buyers against true “farm” interests.  We then had a vote, with NPPC pouring millions of dollars into the spread of propaganda in support of the checkoff, such as the claim that those opposing it were not farmers, but rather were “meat haters.”22  Meanwhile they hired corporate spies to investigate those individual farmers and groups representing true farmer interests, labeling them, for example, as “radicals” who want to “turn back the clock” (ie. to pre-CAFO days,) and with whom NPPC should not even communicate.23  In the end, hog farmers themselves, all across the United States, (who are not generally considered to be “meat haters,”) voted down the checkoff by a margin of 53% to 47%.24  In Iowa, the vote was 60.2% against the checkoff, and 39.8% in favor.

Another clear example, where the main Farmer Front Groups are listed, thus giving the illusion of farmer clout, is in sign-ons, for “free” trade agreements, for example, like KORUS, the agreement with Korea.  “Free” trade is a key to forcing farm prices down globally, and directly contradicts authentic “farm” interests.  It enables other countries to come in and dump farm commodities and below fair trade, below cost price levels, thus lowering farm income.  During the years of NAFTA and WTO, for example, we saw the lowest farm commodity prices in history.

In a major sign-on25 for KORUS we see groups like the National Corn Growers Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Pork Producers Association, (already discussed) and the National Milk Producers Federation.  We also see the major farm commodity buying groups (that have long favored the lowering and elimination of price floors and supply management).  These include, for example, Cargill, the Corn Refiners Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association, National Grain and Feed Association, the largest animal factory corporations (ie. Smithfield, Seabord, Tyson,) American Peanut Product Manufacturers, Inc., National Confectioners Association, Sweetener Users Association.  These are the groups of the agribusiness-Output-Complex, buying from farmers.  We also see a prominent representative from the Agribusiness-Input-Complex, the North American Equipment Dealers Association.  Those groups oppose any supply reduction (management) mechanisms, as fewer inputs then need to be sold to farmers.  These latter groups are the ones that have all of the clout, (all the money for Congress,) but they typically remain hidden or de-emphasized in the Mainstream Media (and the Food Movement,) as the front groups are instead assigned their clout, (and blamed for the visible [ie. subsidies, not the absence of Price Floors,] Farm Bill results of their influence,) which is, of course, massive.

The positions of these kinds of groups have long been known, if not to the consumers and the general public, at least to activists in the Farm Justice Movement.  While Michael Pollan tells Food Movement activists, “you’ve never heard of them,” that’s never been true for the Farm Justice (Family Farm) Movement over the five decades of massive activism that came prior to the Food Movement.  You’ll see their names frequently in issues of the NFO Reporter, an organizational newsletter for the National Farmers Organization, during the 1960s and 1970s, for example.  They’ve always been at the center of our viewfinders.

Agribusiness has gone under various names over the years, such as the “Farm Coalition Group,” and the “Agricultural Policy Working Group.”  For example, in a widely photocopied (by our movement) letter to Congress, ACP groups lobbied against supply management programs.26  Likewise APWG put out a series of reports and used their influence to leverage other resources, such as Universities and research institutions.27  One of the latter examples is FAPRI, which was the leading research group showing the harm done by lower farm prices prior to these efforts, and then later moved away from that work.  Behind all of this we see the big obvious “commodity” representatives that are directly opposed to farm interests, Cargill, ADM, Kelloggs, and their various associations, the bakers, millers, grocers, confectioners, processors, shippers, food marketers, with some input groups thrown in, like a couple of fertilizer groups and the Farm & Industrial Equipment Institute.

The position of the agribusiness-complex is often ignored and downplayed, as though it didn’t at all dominate the biggest Farm Bill and farm trade issues in Washington.  In fact, I was amazed to find that a report by, AGree, made the claim that agribusiness no longer tries to influence the farm bill!  “…Agribusiness interests have not been very active politically on either side of general domestic farm policy debates in recent years.”28   Wow, absurd.  Who says this?  As it  turns out, behind the report is an objective sounding task force, including legitimate representatives of the Sustainable Agriculture and Local Foods Movements, the Environmental Working Group, and a variety of other “politically correct” categories, the National Corn Grower Association, plus agribusiness reps from places like Dupont and Cargill.

On the other hand, farmer clout has been so incredibly low, with such small amounts of support for Farm Justice Proposals (ie. support against cheap corn, cotton, milk,) from the Food Movement, that there has been little threats against the dominant zero price floor, zero supply management regime of agribusiness proper.  The Food Movement, in direct contradiction to the great mass of their rhetoric, strongly supports agribusiness by default on these mega concerns, (ie. cheap prices for transfats, HFCS, CAFOs, export dumping).

There is, of course, a lot of controversy in the farm bill over farm subsidies, but that makes no difference either way to the unnamed MEGA beneficiaries.  The controversy is not a threat, but rather is a highly valued diversion from the real issues.  As the Food Movement passionately leads the charge against “Big Ag!” (the biggest victims of agribusiness exploitation,) Agribusiness just leans back in the chair and raises a toast with a glass of champagne.  Subsidies are largely irrelevant to Mega AgBiz concerns, and the core authentic concerns of farmers.

A rare glimpse into how it all seems works comes from the John Ford example, cited above.19  In a top level, behind the scenes negotiation for 1985 farm bill, at a crucial moment, the representative for the National Corn Growers Association left the room to call Duane Andreas, (prior to the era of cell phones,) head of ADM, essentially to ask for permission to set the Farm Bill’s price mechanisms at whatever standard Duane recommended, and then he brought that requirement back into the room, and into the final bill.

What’s also important to look for in the KORUS example is:  who’s missing?  What we quickly find is that no groups that take strong stands in favor of fair trade farm prices are represented.  Among those not there are the National Farmers Organization, the American Agriculture Organization, the National Farmers Union, any members the National Family Farm Coalition, and alternative (good) commodity groups like r-CALF and the American Corn Growers Association, American Raw Milk Producers Pricing Association and the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Association.  These are the only kinds of groups that represent authentic “farm” or “agriculture” interests.  (There are also no members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition on the list.)

Note that in a review of the hundreds of mainstream media articles about farm subsidies that have been collected by the Environmental Working Group we find a mass of benefits assigned to farmers, as if they dominate Farm Bill debates, while the Agribusiness buyers who have received eight times as much in benefits are hardly mentioned (remember, farmers get 8x reductions + 1x subsidies).29

This, then, is part of the reason for the confusion about “farm” clout.  Farmer front groups, those “farm Tories” who compromise themselves and accept their welfare “safety nets” compliantly, can appear to be representing the “farm” interests of U.S. “agriculture.  Since the pro-agribusiness positions they take win in Washington, (no surprise there,) they have “clout.”


19. I first heard John Ford at a Farm Bill hearing in Des Moines, probably in the 1980s. His stories are widely repeated among older farm justice leaders.

20. See a fairly comprehensive list of links to this new Farm Justice Proposal in Brad Wilson, “Farm Justice Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill,” ZSpace, 5/11/12, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/primer-farm-justice-proposals-for-the-2012-farm-bill-by-brad-wilson/

21. See an example here, “60 Minutes: Farm Bureau (Part 1),” YouTube, FamilyFarmCoalition, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4iiV8e0Y6A&list=PLB3930A40B35D3A6A&index=6, and part 2, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehDfBl_VKEQ&list=PLB3930A40B35D3A6A.

22. For more on this story see the section “Pork Check-Off News & Analysis,” online at In Motion Magazine, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/rumnhogs.html, which has a wealth of information that helps to illustrate my thesis here.

23. Charles Harness and Pat McConegle, Memorandum to State Executives, 1/2/97.  Cf. National Pork Producers Council uses checkoff to investigate farm groups,” Brian DeVore, In Motion Magazine, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/pork.html; “Summary of AMS Audit of NPPC; Hugh Espy, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, In Motion Magazine, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/nppc.html; Secretary of Agriculture “Veneman admits ignorance on pork tax decision,” Campaign for Family Farms, Des Moines, Iowa, May 16, 2001, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra01/porktax2.html.

24. Campaign for Family Farms, “Hog Farmers End Mandatory Pork Checkoff:  Independent producers vote down pork tax,” In Motion Magazine, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/checkvic.html.

25. “Korea FTA Agriculture Coalition Letter,” https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:n01_YTbttCwJ:commoditymkts.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/korea-1-16-11-fta-agriculture-coalition-letter1.docx+%22applaud+the+recent+agreement+between+the+United+States+and+the+Republic+of+Korea+on+issues%22&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESi9Zp1x85Rnmnm_8q9mJFNqk4w0E7fFwbgIf6mtalWiUx2dsasGVkbKL9xrEyI3ZSzasQuxfW0nzhsBnlBtulQBlvgPCxhdAlMzkNydjvfYz2bd303bcMS6Rsd3xFfA3QgfiANd&sig=AHIEtbQvBUcjqXMguSRwJZiNv0S5Fi9Exg .  Note, this link has fewer signatories than the copy I have.

26. Brad Wilson, “Do you support the “Farm Coalition Group”, Jan 08, 2010, (La Vida Locavore is no longer online).

27. IATP, The ‘De coupled’ Approach to Agriculture:  History and Analysis of ‘De-coupling’ Policy Proposals,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, September 1988, http://www.iatp.org/documents/the-de-coupled-approach-to-agriculture .

28. Stephanie Mercier, “Farm Program History and Policy Considerations,” February 2012, p. 7, http://www.foodandagpolicy.org/sites/default/files/AGreeFarmProgramHistoryandPolicyConsiderations_SMercier_0.pdf .

29. Brad Wilson, unpublished research.  See some of the data here, http://www.slideshare.net/bradwilson581525/presentations .

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