Farm Bureau Is a Front

When singer/songwriter Willie Nelson took the stage in mid-September in
Bristow, Virginia, kicking off the 15th annual Farm Aid concert, he once
again called the nation’s attention to the desperate plight of America’s
small family farms. Unknown to most folks, there is a major struggle going
on in America’s heartland. Karen Hudson, from her home on a fifth generation
family farm in West Central Illinois and Sue Jarrett, from her family’s
fourth generation ranch in northeastern Colorado, recognize that the very
survival of family farmers and their communities are at stake. They are
two of a growing number of grassroots activists involved in the fight against
industrialized agribusiness.

It’s no great secret that America’s family farmers are becoming an endangered
species. Every year, large numbers of small family farms disappear. The
United States Agriculture Department reports that between 1993 and 1997,
85,520 hog producers alone went out of business, the majority of whom were
independent family farmers raising fewer than 500 hogs a year. According
to a GREEN (GrassRoots Environmental Effectiveness Network) fact sheet,
the average family farm income for 1998, minus subsidies, was $28,000.
In fact, net income has fallen more than 38 percent since 1997.

Even if you are aware of the crisis, you are probably unaware of the role
the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is playing. Rodger Schlickeisen,
president of the environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife, says
that the Farm Bureau “has posed as a nonprofit organization whose tax-subsidized
activities are intended solely to improve the welfare of American Farmers.
But the Farm Bureau has consistently and cleverly increased its own well-
being by advancing a self- serving, extremist political agenda that has
had nothing to do with improving the increasingly desperate situation of
family farmers, but often has worked directly against that worthwhile purpose.”

The name Farm Bureau and the association’s 80-year history conjure up the
image of an organization that exists to serve American family farmers.
It claims some 4.9 million members, takes in $200 million or more in membership
dues, and has roughly 3,000 constituent state and county farm bureaus.
As Defenders of Wildlife documents in their recent report “Amber Waves
of Gain: How the Farm Bureau is Reaping Profits at the Expense of America’s
Family Farmers, Taxpayers and the Environment,” the Farm Bureau isn’t your
basic mom and pop operation. It is “a gigantic agribusiness and insurance
conglomerate…the majority of its ‘members’ are not farmers, but customers
of Farm Bureau insurance companies and other business ventures.” It has
been able to use “the U.S. tax code to help build a financial war chest
with which it pursues an extreme political agenda, while doing little—and
sometimes working against—America’s family farmers.” According to a survey
by Fortune magazine, AFBF is among the top 25 most powerful special interest
groups in Washington, DC. Its “national, state and county farm bureaus
also control insurance companies producing annual revenues of some $6.5
billion and cooperatives producing revenue of some $12 billion.” (For an
extensive history of the Farm Bureau see The Corporate Reapers: The Book
of Agribusiness
by A.V. Krebs, Essential Books, 1992.)

The Farm Bureau places its wealth and political power in the service of
both factory farms and an extreme conservative agenda. “Amber Waves of
Gain” charges the Farm Bureau with spending “a great deal of money and
time opposing environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act, the
Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water Acts, wetlands laws and pesticide regulations.”
The Bureau works closely with some of the country’s largest agribusiness
companies and has adopted an anti-environmental agenda that seems to emanate
directly from the playbooks of some of the nation’s most influential right-wing
think tanks and policy institutes, such as the Indianapolis, Indiana- based
Hudson Institute.

The Defenders’ report points out that the Bureau “has large investments
in the automobile, oil, and pesticide industries [and] often supports factory
farming rather than family farming and regularly opposes government regulation
to reduce air and water pollution and pesticide use and to protect wildlife,
habitat, rural amenities and food quality.” It has hooked up with conservatives
on political campaigns (many having little to do with agriculture)—debunking
global warming, opposing the registration and licensing of firearms, advocating
elimination of the Department of Education and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife

At AFBF’s 1999 convention, a voice vote, without debate, “approved a resolution
calling for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the cornerstone
of the nation’s civil rights protection.” AFBF’s then-president Dean
who is currently chair of the pro-trade anti-environmentalist Iowa-based
Truth about Trade, at first denied knowing anything about this particular
vote. However, in a later interview, Kleckner acknowledged that the anti-civil
rights resolution had indeed been approved by the membership.

For quite some time individuals working with and around the Farm Bureau
have called upon Congress to investigate the Bureau’s activities. In the
1971 book Dollar Harvest, a comprehensive analysis of the AFBF empire,
Samuel “Sandy” R. Berger, currently Chief of the National Security Council,
details the fruitless attempt in the late 1960s by Representative Joseph
Resnick of New York to have full and open hearings into the activities
of the Farm Bureau. In 1968, Resnick described the Farm Bureau this way:
“What might once have been a conservative, business-oriented organization
is now considerably more. By my calculations, the Farm Bureau is the most
efficient conduit now in existence for the dissemination of right-wing
propaganda.” Resnick also declared that “the Bureau is a perfect sewer-line
for transporting right-wing ideology, particularly to our young people.”
Resnick, then a member of the House Agriculture Committee and chairman
of the Subcommittee on Rural Development, was rebuffed in his call for
hearings by fellow committee members under the influence of the Farm Bureau.

Fast forward to 2000. Two important developments have helped to shine the
spotlight directly on the Farm Bureau: the publishing of the “Amber Waves
of Gain” study by Defenders of Wildlife; and an early-April investigative
report by Mike Wallace on “Sixty Minutes.” The “Sixty Minutes” segment
was a real eye-opener with its interviews of several small farmers who
had direct experience with the Farm Bureau’s indifference and inattention
to their needs.

Karen Hudson says that farmers are being forced out of production and have
been deeply affected by corporate operations “which resemble factories
more than farms.” Hudson is factory farm consultant for the Global Resource
Action Center for the Environment (GRACE) Factory Farm Project (,
and president of Families Against Rural Messes (FARM at www.farmweb. org).
She speaks to groups around the country pointing out that these corporate
“livestock factories carry with them consequences that impact the environment,
our food supply, the economy, and the basic social structure of rural America.”

The social fabric of many farming communities is being torn apart. The
GREEN fact sheet points out that “divorce rates are increasing while child
abuse and alcoholism are up dramatically, farmer suicides are at an all-time
high, real estate prices have declined significantly and “rural water supplies
and environments are being gutted.” GRACE, which set up shop in 1999, “works
to eliminate factory farming in favor of a sustainable food production
system which is healthful and humane, economically viable and environmentally
sound.” In its short life-span GRACE has: halted the construction of a
3,600-head dairy farm in Stonington, Illinois; provided critical information
for the Winona County, Minnesota planning and zoning committee that led
to the denial of a corporate farm permit; temporarily halted the construction
of a 50,000-head sow operation in Idaho; opposed a corporate mega-hog facility
in Nebraska; and worked to block a proposal for a $41-million hog operation
by the Taiwan Sugar Corporation in Southeastern Alberta, Canada.

YES! A Journal of Positive Futures reports that these interventions are
only part of GRACE’s mission. The organization is also committed to advancing
a positive vision by “providing information through visits, as well as
the Internet, on how alternative livestock production is more economically
viable than the factory model.” Hudson understands that “to just get up
and complain the way hogs are being raised without offering alternatives
can’t work.”

Sue and Dean Jarrett are independent ranchers living on her family’s fourth
generation ranch in northeastern Colorado. A recent GRACE “media advisor”
notes that “four years ago, the corporate hog farm in the county next door
decided to double their operations (to 400,000 finish hogs) out her [Sue’s]
backdoor.” Since then, she has been a tireless activist with a huge mission—working
on electoral issues, mounting her own campaign for the state senate, testifying
before the Colorado legislature on the toxic impact that large concentrated
animal feeding operations have on the environment, especially on air and
water. Sue’s work on behalf of small family farmers earned her an appointment
to a USDA Advisory Committee on Small Farms by secretary of Agriculture
Dan Glickman.

FARM was organized in 1996 “to educate the public about the facts surrounding
livestock factories, to promote responsible agriculture, and to work with
decision makers in crafting laws and statutes that balance the needs of
agriculture with the needs of the environment and society.”

This burgeoning grassroots effort has run head-long into the American Farm
Bureau Federation (AFBF). Hudson told me that she and several other supporters
have been on the receiving end of AFBF visits and threats. Yet despite
attempts at intimidation, these activists “are committed to curbing the
trend of industrialized agriculture by educating people about how their
food is produced and advocating sustainable agriculture.”

Earlier this year Defenders of Wildlife launched a campaign to persuade
Congress to investigate the Farm Bureau. Scotty Johnson, Defenders’ Rural
Outreach Director, has been traveling around the country informing the
public about the real interests and activities of the Farm Bureau. Thus
far, more than 200 organizations have called on Congress to hold hearings
on the Farm Bureau.

Since its inception, Farm Aid has granted over $15 million to more than
100 farm organizations, churches, and service agencies in 44 states. While
Farm Aid’s work is highly commendable, it can only help a very small number
of farmers. Willie Nelson, Farm Aid’s founder and president, recently wrote
a pre-concert open Letter to America, urging all Americans, especially
voters and candidates, “to remember the family farmers.” “Let’s not leave
them behind,” he writes, “because I believe that they are, and always will
be, the backbone of this country.”                                  Z

Bill Berkowitz is the editor of
CultureWatch ( watch),
a monthly publication tracking the Religious Right and related conservative
movements, published by Oakland’s DataCenter.