Calamity Howler/A.V. Krebs

The Enemy Within

How long, one asks, are our nation's family farmers and the organizations they belong to going to allow the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) to push them around, dictate farm policy and intimidate other farm groups to which they may belong?

Claiming that they are the "voice of American agriculture," the AFBF leadership are in fact nothing more than highly paid corporate agribusiness lobbyists! When the nation numbers barely two million farmers and the AFBF claims over five million members, one can rightfully question who it truly represents -- - financial institutions, such as insurance companies and corporate agribusiness, or family farming interests?

Yet for over three-quarters of a century the AFBF has been allowed to represent itself to lawmakers and the public as a "farm organization," when in fact from its very origins it was designed to be a mouthpiece of corporate agribusiness, by corporate agribusiness and for corporate agribusiness.

Two examples of its blatant bias toward corporate interests and its willingness to intimidate grassroots farm groups were in evidence in recent weeks.

While Kenneth Tomlinson, the Republican-appointed head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which controls NPR and PBS, castigates PBS' excellent NOW series for its "tone-deafness to issues of tone and balance," nary a word is said about the Monsanto Co. and the AFBF along with KVIE, the PBS affiliate in Sacramento, Calif., collaborating with the corporate agribusiness-sponsored American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, United Soybean Board and US Grains Council "to raise awareness of the significant contribution that agriculture makes to the quality of American living."

At the same time this announcement was being made, the AFBF was forcing the grassroots American Corn Growers Association to recall its "ACGA Voice of Agriculture Award," presented since 1995 to 11 outstanding agricultural electronic and print journalists. Claiming a trademark violation, the AFBF contends the "Voice of Agriculture" is a registered service mark protected by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

These, however, are only two among a long list of efforts by the AFBF to intimidate, sow discord and drive family farmers either out of farming or into the welcoming arms of corporate agribusiness.

It was against a late 19th and early 20th century background of what corporate agribusiness saw as a "radical" farm movement -- agrarian populism and the Non-Partisan League -- along with the emergence of the county agent as a key figure in US agriculture that the AFBF was born.

When delegates from 31 states met in Chicago in 1920 and formally inaugurated the American Farm Bureau Federation, they made it quite clear that their objectives were economic and political: "I stand as a rock against radicalism," the Federation's first president, James Howard, proclaimed at the time.

Later, in the 1930s, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt was attempting to win new rights for labor, the Farm Bureau was playing a major role in excluding agriculture and farm labor from the provisions of the 1937 National Labor Relations Act, a militant position they have maintained to the present day, in addition to their long record of helping pass state measures that severely restrict organized labor.

Appropriating to itself the title of "the voice of American agriculture" and thus systematically drowning out the voices of its opponents, the AFBF has successfully managed to frame farm programs to outsiders as so involved, so varying in methods and administration and with so many complexities that neither the general public nor politicians could ever hope to fully understand them.

It was not until 1967 that Rep. Joseph Resnick (D-N.Y.) opened the first and only thorough investigation to date into the business and political practices of the AFBF. Resnick, Chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, began holding unprecedented hearings on the effects of Federal programs on rural America and what role the Farm Bureau played in alleviating rural poverty.

While Resnick was quickly admonished by his Congressional colleagues and his investigation was quickly terminated, he continued his investigation and attacks on the Farm Bureau. In the meantime, he began receiving hundreds of letters from farmers throughout the country ("One might say," he declared, "that the farmers of America have been my unofficial investigative force in the field"), calling his attention to a whole plethora of questionable Farm Bureau practices.

From legislatively and often physically preventing the organizing of farm workers to prohibiting strikes, from promoting the importation of foreign migrant laborers to denying coverage of social security unemployment insurance to farm workers, from opposing coverage of field workers by minimum wage and hour laws to restricting enforcement of health and safety laws in the fields (i.e., its 1985 platform calls for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act), the Farm Bureau has devoted countless time and efforts to its anti-farmer agenda.

Evidence in recent years has shown that in many farm areas, like New Jersey and other Middle Atlantic states, the Farm Bureau has in fact not only operated farm labor camps, but served as a contractor service in providing local growers with seasonal workers.

For example, anti-slavery legislation in 1983 in North Carolina -- endorsed by every major group in the state -- was openly opposed by that state's Farm Bureau as a threat to its farm-labor contract practices.

Though it would be unfair to blame the AFBF for the spate of fascist, racist, anti-Semitic vigilante farm groups that have sprung up throughout the United States in recent years, the AFBF certainly can be viewed as a major contributor, through its longstanding role as a visible propaganda agent for right-wing extremism and in making itself the spawning ground for such misdirected, unsociable and violent behavior that has existed in recent years in many of our farm communities.

It is important in discussing the Farm Bureau to make a distinction between its leadership and its farmer members. While the policies of the Federation are allegedly determined by its annual convention, critics have charged that in effect the American Farm Bureau's executive committee determines the organization's priorities and issues a directive to the state and county federations, who in turn "rubber stamp" the proposal (to give it the illusion of having grassroots support) and then "yo-yo" it back up the line of federations to the national office.

It is time that the nation's family farmers and its grassroots farm organizations join with farm labor unions in ending the American Farm Bureau Federation's "reign of economic terror" in rural America.

Farmers can organize an effort demanding that their voice be heard in the forthcoming PBS America's Heartland series or else PBS will face a concerted effort by farmers to impose serious economic sanctions on the series and the station's financial backers (by "Viewers Like You"). Farmers can alert the public to the negative role the AFBF has historically played in rural communities.

It is time that the AFBF's business affairs, including its relationships with its insurance companies and its tax status, be closely examined by non-intimidated state and federal legislative bodies.

Finally, it should be in the best interests of family farmers to once and for all debunk the myth that the AFBF is "the voice of American agriculture."

Family farmers should build an organization that truly has their best interests at heart and is not afraid to forthrightly speak truth to political power. Don't mourn, organize!

A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, which publishes the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner. Email

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