It’s an organization "preying upon the very people it claimed to help," said Frances Ohmstede, 40 years ago, about the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Its policies lead rural America further and further into debt and poverty," said her husband, Bryce. "It’s a financial empire built for their own benefit," added Alfred Schutte, the Ohmstedes’ friend and neighbor.
That’s how three Nebraska farmers felt
about the American Farm Bureau Federation back in 1964.
That was the year when the Ohmstedes and Schutte, leaders of the
Webster County Farm Bureau, were booted out of the state and
national Farm Bureaus because they challenged the
organizations’ refusal to back price supports for wheat
farmers. In the process, they say, they discovered that the
so-called "Voice of American agriculture" didn’t care to
speak for people on the ground.
"We were always told the
Farm Bureau was a democratic organization," Frances Ohmstede said
recently from her home in Lincoln, Neb. "But it is not a democratic
group; it is autocratic. I feel very sorry for the farmers like us
who were deceived into believing the Farm Bureau was going to help
Today, a growing number of rural Americans have
concluded, like the Ohmstedes and Schutte in 1964, that the Farm
Bureau is not on their side.
"The Farm Bureau has used
the American farmer to build one of the largest insurance and
financial empires in the United States," said Al Krebs, editor and
publisher of The Agribusiness Examiner. The
Examiner is the weekly newsletter of the
Corporate Agribusiness Research Project in Everett, Wash., which
monitors the impacts of agribusiness on family farms and rural
In its policy paper, "Agriculture Under
Siege," the Nebraska Farm Bureau says that threats to the 21st
century farmer include local zoning regulations as well as the
Endangered Species Act, pesticide regulations, the Clean Water Act,
the Food Quality Protection Act, and school food-service officials.
These are not threats to farmers in Nebraska and elsewhere who are
fighting to stay on the land. They are, however, threats to the
Farm Bureau itself, which seems more concerned with real estate,
mega-malls, fertilizer sales and oil development.
Farm Bureau continues to ride its corporate farming train —
fighting attempts to prohibit corporate farming — even as
Great Plains farmers continue their exodus from the land. In its
simplest formula, the growth of industrial farming means fewer and
fewer farmers, fewer small businessmen in the countryside and fewer
But the "farm" in Farm Bureau
hasn’t kept the organization from advancing other viewpoints.
It has contested the Equal Rights Amendment and called for the
abolition of the federal departments of Energy and Education; its
Texas affiliate has opposed unemployment compensation and
workers’ compensation, while supporting cutbacks in food
stamps for poor families. In its "Policy 2004" statement, the Idaho
Farm Bureau supported school vouchers, a constitutional amendment
banning same-sex marriages and reforms that smell a lot like
"veggie libel" laws.
In his 1967 book, New York Rep.
Joseph Resnick described the Farm Bureau as the "right wing in
overalls." More recently, professional outdoorsman Tony Dean said
South Dakota Farm Bureau resolutions read like a "John Birch
National and state Farm Bureaus
endlessly reiterate the need for America to protect and bolster its
"safe, abundant and affordable food supply." What they fail to add,
and what many Americans fail to see, is that the Farm Bureau way to
do that is to promote corporate agriculture and oppose moratoriums
on corporate farm mergers, both of which drive farmers off the
land; to oppose measures that would enhance the fortunes of farm
laborers and the rural farm environment because, it says, they are
bad for business; and to favor large food processors over small
It’s no wonder that farmers get
less from a box of Wheaties than Tiger Woods, whose picture graces
some cereal packages.
The Farm Bureau claims its current
membership is at a record high — more than 5.4 million
families. Yet census statistics show fewer than 1.9 million farmers
in the United States, a number that seems to dwindles daily.
"Is it any wonder," Nebraska’s Bryce Ohmstede said
40 years ago, "that farmers ask, ‘Are there any farmers in
the Farm Bureau?’ "