Who took the 'farm' out of the Farm Bureau?

  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 them."

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 communities.

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.

The 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 rural communities.

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 Society primer."

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 food producers.

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?’ "

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a newspaper editor in Grand Island, Nebraska.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...