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Steven l. Strauss
Media Spin &the Israeli Occupation
On Second Street
Slippin' & Slidin'
Farm Bureau Is a Front
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Farm Bureau Is a Front
When singer/songwriter Willie Nelson took the stage in mid-September in Bristow, Virginia, kicking off the 15th annual Farm Aid concert, he once again called the nations attention to the desperate plight of Americas small family farms. Unknown to most folks, there is a major struggle going on in Americas heartland. Karen Hudson, from her home on a fifth generation family farm in West Central Illinois and Sue Jarrett, from her familys fourth generation ranch in northeastern Colorado, recognize that the very survival of family farmers and their communities are at stake. They are two of a growing number of grassroots activists involved in the fight against industrialized agribusiness.
Its no great secret that Americas family farmers are becoming an endangered species. Every year, large numbers of small family farms disappear. The United States Agriculture Department reports that between 1993 and 1997, 85,520 hog producers alone went out of business, the majority of whom were independent family farmers raising fewer than 500 hogs a year. According to a GREEN (GrassRoots Environmental Effectiveness Network) fact sheet, the average family farm income for 1998, minus subsidies, was $28,000. In fact, net income has fallen more than 38 percent since 1997.
Even if you are aware of the crisis, you are probably unaware of the role the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is playing. Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife, says that the Farm Bureau has posed as a nonprofit organization whose tax-subsidized activities are intended solely to improve the welfare of American Farmers. But the Farm Bureau has consistently and cleverly increased its own well- being by advancing a self- serving, extremist political agenda that has had nothing to do with improving the increasingly desperate situation of family farmers, but often has worked directly against that worthwhile purpose.
The name Farm Bureau and the associations 80-year history conjure up the image of an organization that exists to serve American family farmers. It claims some 4.9 million members, takes in $200 million or more in membership dues, and has roughly 3,000 constituent state and county farm bureaus. As Defenders of Wildlife documents in their recent report Amber Waves of Gain: How the Farm Bureau is Reaping Profits at the Expense of Americas Family Farmers, Taxpayers and the Environment, the Farm Bureau isnt your basic mom and pop operation. It is a gigantic agribusiness and insurance conglomerate...the majority of its members are not farmers, but customers of Farm Bureau insurance companies and other business ventures. It has been able to use the U.S. tax code to help build a financial war chest with which it pursues an extreme political agenda, while doing littleand sometimes working againstAmericas family farmers. According to a survey by Fortune magazine, AFBF is among the top 25 most powerful special interest groups in Washington, DC. Its national, state and county farm bureaus also control insurance companies producing annual revenues of some $6.5 billion and cooperatives producing revenue of some $12 billion. (For an extensive history of the Farm Bureau see The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness by A.V. Krebs, Essential Books, 1992.)
The Farm Bureau places its wealth and political power in the service of both factory farms and an extreme conservative agenda. Amber Waves of Gain charges the Farm Bureau with spending a great deal of money and time opposing environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water Acts, wetlands laws and pesticide regulations. The Bureau works closely with some of the countrys largest agribusiness companies and has adopted an anti-environmental agenda that seems to emanate directly from the playbooks of some of the nations most influential right-wing think tanks and policy institutes, such as the Indianapolis, Indiana- based Hudson Institute.
The Defenders report points out that the Bureau has large investments in the automobile, oil, and pesticide industries [and] often supports factory farming rather than family farming and regularly opposes government regulation to reduce air and water pollution and pesticide use and to protect wildlife, habitat, rural amenities and food quality. It has hooked up with conservatives on political campaigns (many having little to do with agriculture)debunking global warming, opposing the registration and licensing of firearms, advocating elimination of the Department of Education and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
At AFBFs 1999 convention, a voice vote, without debate, approved a resolution calling for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the cornerstone of the nations civil rights protection. AFBFs then-president Dean Kleckner, who is currently chair of the pro-trade anti-environmentalist Iowa-based Truth about Trade, at first denied knowing anything about this particular vote. However, in a later interview, Kleckner acknowledged that the anti-civil rights resolution had indeed been approved by the membership.
For quite some time individuals working with and around the Farm Bureau have called upon Congress to investigate the Bureaus activities. In the 1971 book Dollar Harvest, a comprehensive analysis of the AFBF empire, Samuel Sandy R. Berger, currently Chief of the National Security Council, details the fruitless attempt in the late 1960s by Representative Joseph Resnick of New York to have full and open hearings into the activities of the Farm Bureau. In 1968, Resnick described the Farm Bureau this way: What might once have been a conservative, business-oriented organization is now considerably more. By my calculations, the Farm Bureau is the most efficient conduit now in existence for the dissemination of right-wing propaganda. Resnick also declared that the Bureau is a perfect sewer-line for transporting right-wing ideology, particularly to our young people. Resnick, then a member of the House Agriculture Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Rural Development, was rebuffed in his call for hearings by fellow committee members under the influence of the Farm Bureau.
Fast forward to 2000. Two important developments have helped to shine the spotlight directly on the Farm Bureau: the publishing of the Amber Waves of Gain study by Defenders of Wildlife; and an early-April investigative report by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes. The Sixty Minutes segment was a real eye-opener with its interviews of several small farmers who had direct experience with the Farm Bureaus indifference and inattention to their needs.
Karen Hudson says that farmers are being forced out of production and have been deeply affected by corporate operations which resemble factories more than farms. Hudson is factory farm consultant for the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE) Factory Farm Project (www.factoryfarm.org), and president of Families Against Rural Messes (FARM at www.farmweb. org). She speaks to groups around the country pointing out that these corporate livestock factories carry with them consequences that impact the environment, our food supply, the economy, and the basic social structure of rural America.
The social fabric of many farming communities is being torn apart. The GREEN fact sheet points out that divorce rates are increasing while child abuse and alcoholism are up dramatically, farmer suicides are at an all-time high, real estate prices have declined significantly and rural water supplies and environments are being gutted. GRACE, which set up shop in 1999, works to eliminate factory farming in favor of a sustainable food production system which is healthful and humane, economically viable and environmentally sound. In its short life-span GRACE has: halted the construction of a 3,600-head dairy farm in Stonington, Illinois; provided critical information for the Winona County, Minnesota planning and zoning committee that led to the denial of a corporate farm permit; temporarily halted the construction of a 50,000-head sow operation in Idaho; opposed a corporate mega-hog facility in Nebraska; and worked to block a proposal for a $41-million hog operation by the Taiwan Sugar Corporation in Southeastern Alberta, Canada.
YES! A Journal of Positive Futures reports that these interventions are only part of GRACEs mission. The organization is also committed to advancing a positive vision by providing information through visits, as well as the Internet, on how alternative livestock production is more economically viable than the factory model. Hudson understands that to just get up and complain the way hogs are being raised without offering alternatives cant work.
Sue and Dean Jarrett are independent ranchers living on her familys fourth generation ranch in northeastern Colorado. A recent GRACE media advisor notes that four years ago, the corporate hog farm in the county next door decided to double their operations (to 400,000 finish hogs) out her [Sues] backdoor. Since then, she has been a tireless activist with a huge missionworking on electoral issues, mounting her own campaign for the state senate, testifying before the Colorado legislature on the toxic impact that large concentrated animal feeding operations have on the environment, especially on air and water. Sues work on behalf of small family farmers earned her an appointment to a USDA Advisory Committee on Small Farms by secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.
FARM was organized in 1996 to educate the public about the facts surrounding livestock factories, to promote responsible agriculture, and to work with decision makers in crafting laws and statutes that balance the needs of agriculture with the needs of the environment and society.
This burgeoning grassroots effort has run head-long into the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). Hudson told me that she and several other supporters have been on the receiving end of AFBF visits and threats. Yet despite attempts at intimidation, these activists are committed to curbing the trend of industrialized agriculture by educating people about how their food is produced and advocating sustainable agriculture.
Earlier this year Defenders of Wildlife launched a campaign to persuade Congress to investigate the Farm Bureau. Scotty Johnson, Defenders Rural Outreach Director, has been traveling around the country informing the public about the real interests and activities of the Farm Bureau. Thus far, more than 200 organizations have called on Congress to hold hearings on the Farm Bureau.
Since its inception, Farm Aid has granted over $15 million to more than 100 farm organizations, churches, and service agencies in 44 states. While Farm Aids work is highly commendable, it can only help a very small number of farmers. Willie Nelson, Farm Aids founder and president, recently wrote a pre-concert open Letter to America, urging all Americans, especially voters and candidates, to remember the family farmers. Lets not leave them behind, he writes, because I believe that they are, and always will be, the backbone of this country. Z
Bill Berkowitz is the editor of CultureWatch (www.igc.org/culture- watch), a monthly publication tracking the Religious Right and related conservative movements, published by Oaklands DataCenter.