Does it Speak for the Family Farmer—or for Large-Scale Agribusiness?
Before he goes to his job as communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Bryce Oates has to feed his free-range chickens, who are being raised on an antibiotic- and hormone-free diet. Like most farmers in Missouri, Oates can’t make a living from farming alone. As farming consolidates under an ever-smaller number of giant owners, the family farmer has become a part-timer, often on someone else’s land.
"We have a serious farming crisis in rural Missouri," says Oates, "and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is a big part of what’s wrong. They promote a corporate agenda, and are carrying water for Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland."
The state of family farming in America can perhaps be gauged by one of AFBF’s own polls, which asked its 5.4 million members how they would rate the overall condition of their rural towns. Some 32 percent said they were "withering slowly," and another 20 percent said they were "hanging by a thread."
AFBF is the nation’s largest trade organization for farmers, but an increasing number of farmers and farming groups say its corporate-friendly policies favor large agribusiness interests. And they ask if most of AFBF’s members really are farmers, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that only 2.1 million Americans meet that definition.
AFBF’s current president, Bob Stallman, is considered a moderate when compared to his very conservative predecessors, but he embraces a range of anti-environmental positions, including speaking out against the Kyoto global warming treaty, opposing predator reintroductions in the West and supporting weakening of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The group also takes positions that would seem to be far afield from the concerns of many farmers: It advocates repeal of the Voting Rights Act, for instance, and wants to abolish the federal Department of Education.
In recent years, some of the more extreme rhetoric has been toned down. "I would say the changes are more about style than substance," says Stallman, who maintains a rice and cattle farm in his native Texas (where he was appointed by then-Governor George W. Bush to several commissions). "Rather than rely on emotional verbiage, we’re looking for solutions."
Contrary to his critics, Stallman claims that AFBF’s positions emerge from the grassroots membership, and are then filtered through the state chapters before consideration at the national level. "I wish I had enough authority to enact policy," he says, "but we rely on what the delegates decide."
If so, it’s surprising that farmer members would so consistently favor large-scale producers. "They have a charade of democracy at the local level," argues Scotty Johnson, rural outreach associate at Defenders of Wildlife.
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, charges that AFBF policies are dictated from the Washington headquarters. "I would say that the vast majority of members are people who just joined for the insurance benefits," Hansen says.
Hansen adds that the AFBF members who are farmers are actually harmed by the bureau’s policy positions. "AFBF’s farm and trade policies have caused serious economic pain to farmers," he says. "They’re helping dismantle our very effective system of family-farmed agriculture in favor of a failed Soviet model that replaces state control with corporate-level control. They create scapegoats—organized labor, environmentalists—that divert focus away from the fundamental economic issues that farmers face."
Stallman counters that the trend toward larger farms "has existed since Thomas Jefferson invented the right-angle plow. Particularly since the 1930s, technology has allowed farms to grow larger. As long as people want affordable, abundant and wholesome food, the few of us working the land will have to farm intensively."
According to the 2000 report "Amber Waves of Gain" by Defenders of Wildlife, AFBF "is allied with some of the nation’s biggest agribusinesses," and has "large investments in the automobile, oil and pesticide industries." The report also links past Farm Bureau administrations to racist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, and to more recent extremist organizations such as Lyndon LaRouche’s U.S. Labor Party.
The environment most definitely takes a hit from the American Farm Bureau. "It’s no coincidence that the erosion of family farm income parallels rapid species decline, water pollution and food chain toxicity," says Defenders" Johnson.
Stallman has served on the board of the American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF), a fierce opponent of the Kyoto treaty on global warming. The Farm Bureau works in coalition with ACCF to promote the idea of "voluntary" cuts and emissions trading. Asked whether hostility to curbing greenhouse gases really serves the interests of farmers, Stallman says "farmers buy a lot of energy."
The Farm Bureau is particularly vociferous about animal rights. Jim Mason, author of the book Animal Factories, says, "AFBF in many farm states has a policy of routinely opposing any and all new pro-animal legislation—no matter how irrelevant it is to agricultural interests."
AFBF has been a staunch opponent of wolf reintroductions, describing them as "overzealous regulation by the government." The group wants to rewrite the Endangered Species Act to make any protection voluntary or subject to a strict formula of cost-benefit analysis. Stallman cites as a model the Fort Hood military reservation in Texas, where ranchers faced with the loss of grazing rights because of the endangered black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler banded together and trapped the cowbirds that were interfering with breeding. "They had a recovery through an integrated management plan that achieved something without command and control," says Stallman.
George Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, says that many farmers share the view that "when the government is involved, things always get screwed up." That has helped shore up support for free-market "Freedom to Farm" legislation, such as the farm bill passed in 1996. But Naylor says the bill has "eliminated the floor under farm prices" while providing windfall bargain rates for large chicken, cattle and pork producers to buy the corn and soybeans they feed to their intensively managed livestock.
Ironically, Naylor says, the resulting farm crisis has meant that AFBF has to support the institutionalizing of government handouts to farmers. Without such financial aid from taxpayers, the whole system would collapse, he adds. "It’s a vicious circle," says Naylor, and one likely to result in the end of family farming as we know it. From the looks of it, that might suit the American Farm Bureau Federation just fine.