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
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....