AFBF: Bewitched,
Bothered and Bewildered

Special to The Progressive Populist

American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) officials in a desperate attempt to discredit their own family farm members recently found themselves enmeshed in a thicket of denials, semantic flim flam and bureaucratic buck passing as they sought to extricate themselves from an embarrassing anti-bureau policy resolution passed by one of their own state organizations.

On December December 6, 1999, Fred Stokes, a member of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) and president of the fledgling Organization for Competitive Marketing presented a resolution which was unanimously accepted by the members of the MFBF which strongly rebuked the AFBF for opposing Minnesota U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone's recent Agricultural Merger Moratorium Act.

"The national Farm Bureau policy book is full of statements expressing concern about concentration of market power and monopoly in agribusiness," Stokes reminded the state delegates. "Yet AFBF President Dean Kleckner and the national staff consistently sell out their members and jump in bed with agribusiness."

Condemning the national office as acting in "clear and blatant conflict" with policy characterizing it as "a gross breach of faith and detrimental to the interests of producer members" the resolution further stated that the "Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation strongly condemns this and other actions by AFBF leadership which violate the implicit contract with it's grassroots membership to effectively advocate their interests and refrain from breaching established policy."

Subsequently, David Kruse, president of CommStock Investments in a syndicated column, "Farm Bureau -- Getting Its Head on Straight," in a report on the Mississippi resolution noted that "the Farm Bureau claims to be a grass roots farm organization with policy being derived from members. As with membership, there is ambiguity here. There are State Farm Bureau affiliates to the American Farm Bureau Federation. State policy directives can be ignored in Washington. Farm Bureau leadership will take positions on their own initiative.

"AFBF opposition to the recent ag merger moratorium and proposed legislation to require packers to divest ownership of hogs and cattle are cases in point. These errant AFBF positions were what the leadership wanted them to be. This kind of leadership flexibility can be both good and bad. You don't want to tie their hands so they can't respond to issues of the day but it's painful to see AFBF leadership act in direct conflict with its grass roots policy directives," he added.

The Kruse column, which appeared among other places, in Iowa's Spencer Daily Reporter, was immediately challenged by Iowa Farm Bureau spokesperson Aaron Putze who, in a memo to the state's county Farm Bureau leaders, claimed "upon reviewing the [Kruse] article, the AFBF has said Kruse is wrong in his report of what took place at the Mississippi Farm Bureau annual meeting; that the organization did not pass the resolution as eluded to by Kruse. In reality, Kruse used a fabricated news release written by an anti-Farm Bureau organization as the 'fact' behind his column."

When question by this reporter regarding his claim, Putze said that while the memo was for "internal use" (although it was not so indicated on the memo itself), he "took the word of the AFBF" in making his denunciation on the Kruse article, the word being from Joe Fields, the AFBF director of communications.

Contacted by phone in Houston, Texas where he was attending the AFBF's annual convention Fields first told this reporter that the resolution had to first be studied by the MFBF's board before it could be reported to the state's membership for an official vote; then later in the conversation he stated that the resolution was not valid because it had not been approved by the national Federation's resolution committee at their meeting in Rosemont, Illinois, on December 14-15. Stokes, meanwhile, planned on reintroducing the resolution from the floor of the convention.

But, later during its convention, the AFBF delegates passed a resolution simply urging the federal government to make sure antitrust laws were not being trampled by agribusiness mergers. They dropped by a 242-115 vote language supporting a moratorium on mergers if Congress did not act this year. In their endorsing language urging a review, and strengthening, "if necessary," of antitrust laws they deleted support for a moratorium out of reportedly concern it would block "useful consolidations."

In Kruse's article he observes that "If there is anything coming through loud and clear as grass roots Farm Bureau members greatest concern, it's the corporate subjugation of agriculture and the integration of livestock industries."

Relating that the Iowa Farm Bureau had "a constructive convention, adopting as policy: 'We support federal legislation that prohibits packer ownership or control of livestock unless the packer is farmer-owned,'" Kruse noted that "there was nothing ambiguous about that.

"The Illinois Farm Bureau convention went even better than did Iowa's. The Illinois Farm Bureau adopted policy resolutions: Opposing packer ownership of sows -- saying if co-ops compete against their members, they can demand pay out of deferred dividends and retained earnings -- taking a strong stand against anti-competitive markets.

"An Illinois Farm Bureau member called to tell me that it took a protracted effort to get their resolutions past the state leadership. As with many farm organizations or cooperatives, a resolutions committee rides herd over the process. He says the Illinois resolutions were thrown out twice by such committees but were reintroduced from the floor and passed. Serious electoral challenges of current state officers were made in Iowa and Illinois that had more than the usual degree of support in an organization so conservative that an incumbent would need to be convicted of multiple felonies to be beaten," Kruse reported.

Prior to the AFBF's annual convention in Houston in January, a number of family farm representatives including disaffected AFBF members Stokes, a cattle producer and a 28-year member from Mississippi, and Karen Hudson, the wife of an Illinois grain farmer, held a press workshop to voice their disapproval of the organization that touts itself as "the voice of American agriculture."

Also on the panel was John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union; Sue Jarrett, a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Commission on Small Farms; Bill Christison, president of the National Family Farm Coalition; and economist Bill Weida.

In interviews with South Bend, Indiana, Tribune farm writer Wayne Falda, the panelists voiced their unhappiness with the farm organization, the nation's largest.which boasts of 4.9 million members while there are only 1.9 million farmers in the U.S.

Hudson, who leads Families Against Rural Messes, an organization that opposes mega-mergers in agriculture and large corporate livestock farms, cites the AFBF's opposition to Senator Wellstone's request for an 18-month moratorium on agribusiness mergers as proof that the organization is out of touch with everyday farmers who are shocked at the speed at which agriculture is being monopolized by a few giant agribusinesses.

A resident of rural Peoria County, she opposed the arrival of a Murphy Farms enterprise near her farm, but felt that Farm Bureau was working behind the scenes in the Illinois statehouse to subvert people, including other farmers, who want tighter controls on large, vertically integrated hog farms. "We are trying to get some strong regulation passed to at least regulate these facilities as they come into the counties in Illinois," she told Falda.

"The Farm Bureau supports local control over nonagricultural pollution such as low-level nuclear waste or garbage incinerators that come down here from Chicago," she said. "But when it comes to ag waste, they say the county government does not have the expertise to make decisions on matters such as that. We in a sense feel that the Farm Bureau is speaking out of both sides of (its) mouth," said Hudson.

Stokes pointed to the decline of small farms and the rising dominance of sprawling agribusinesses as having forced him to join ranks with people whom he has traditionally opposed, namely environmentalist and labor union activists. "What I am going to do from here on out -- much to the chagrin of a lot of people, including my wife -- is to dog this thing," he said. "I am going to associate with some people who I have been conditioned not to like over the years -- the tree huggers and the labor union people. But we share some things in common, and these are important things. So we are not going to quibble on other matters."

Hansen said he will join the panel to press the National Farmers Union to call for a reopening of the 1996 Farm Bill, a move that has been opposed by Farm Bureau president Dean Kleckner.

"Do I think there is a gap between grassroots Farm Bureau membership and the Farm Bureau leadership? Yes, there is," Hansen stressed to Falda

"Dean Kleckner is knocking down $300,000 a year talking about how he is a corn and hog farmer from Iowa," he said. "So let's take that money away from Dean and see how Dean does on his 300-acre farm with corn prices back to 1951 levels."

Soon following Hansen's remarks the AFBF delegates voted their 16-year President Kleckner of Iowa out of office in favor of Texas Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman. Reuters reported that numerical results of the voting, which took place by state blocs depending on the size of membership, were not released. Stallman had criticized Kleckner for being too closely tied to the Republican Party, for spending too much time on international travel rather than lobbying in Washington and for supporting trade agreements without closely monitoring them.

Corn prices being at $1.70 a bushel -- or approximately the same as they were 49 years ago -- NeFU's Hansen is convinced that the farm bill has failed. The depression in farm country can be alleviated by higher loan rates and a return to farm policies that include elements of controlled commodity production, he emphasizes.

"Farm Bureau continues to stick with its original position on the 1996 farm bill despite the fact that the value of ag exports has dropped since the farm bill was passed by $10.8 billion and ag imports has gone up $4.9 billion," he said. "Meanwhile corn (prices are) down 33 percent, wheat are down 42 percent and soybeans are down 34 percent."

"The Jury is in," National Family Farm Coalition president Christison declared, "'Freedom to Farm,' genetically manipulated organisms, and bad trade policy have brought devastation to family farm agriculture. If any of us are to survive, we must have a new direction in agriculture policy. We urge the American Farm Bureau and the commodity organizations to start supporting agriculture policy that will return profit to grassroots family farmers."

A.V. Krebs is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books: 1992)

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