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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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