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American Farm Bureau: The Enemy Within

May 9, 2005, Issue #404 Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective

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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 for corporate agribusiness, of corporate agribusiness and by corporate agribusiness.

Two recent examples of its blatant bias toward corporate interests and its willingness to intimidate grass roots farm groups are evidenced in the two stories which appear below.

While Kenneth Tomlinson, the Republican-appointed head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which controls NPR and PBS, castigates PBS's excellent "NOW" series for its "tone-deafness to issues of tone and balance," nary a word is said about the Monsanto Company and the AFBF along with KVIE, the PBS affiliate in Sacramento, California, collaborating with the corporate agribusiness sponsored American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, United Soybean Board and U.S. 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 since1995 to eleven 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 United States 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 late19th 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 U.S. agriculture, that the AFBF was born.

The Smith-Lever Act had already regularized the county agent system, reduced the status of the land grant colleges as participants in the "extension movement," and established Congress as the arbiter of questions relating to agricultural extension work. To facilitate their work, which was primarily education aimed at improving technical productivity, the county agent was directed to work with the leaders and groups of farmers.

This required that they also provide organization among farmers.

In 1911, the Binghamton (New York) Chamber of Commerce set up a bureau within its own organization to sponsor a county agent. With the support of the Lackawanna Railroad this business group was called the "farm bureau." USDA soon adopted the name for any group deemed a cooperating county organization.

As local farm bureaus began to federate on a state basis they eventually gave birth to the AFBF in 1920, while the relationship became largely illusory for the real power was being transferred from the colleges to corporate agribusiness through Washington.

In addition to the monetary support provided these farm bureaus by the Lackawanna, the Rockefeller-backed General Education Board, and other large agricultural input corporations, the Chicago Board of Trade also helped in the formation of these country farm bureaus by providing necessary funding.

In 1922, Robert McDougall, the Board's president boasted: "The Board of
Trade was a sort of grandfather to the Farm Bureau movement. A cash grant of $1000 was made to each of the first 100 Farm Bureaus formed, beginning with the one in New York and spreading to Iowa and other Middle Western states." By 1919 the USDA was so enthusiastic over the movement that Secretary David
Houston was calling upon farmers to join or form farm bureaus in order to "stop bolshevism."

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 clearly economic and political: "To keep control of our food products" until they reach consumers, to stop any policy "that will align farmers with the radicals of other organizations," to "stabilize the nation," to "put agriculture into proper relationship with the rest of the world."

"I stand as a rock against radicalism," the Federation's first president, James Howard, proclaimed at the time.

Later, in the 1930's 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 severely restricting organized labor.

In Arkansas, for example, the Farm Bureau worked with Pappy ("Pass the Biscuits") O'Daniel's Christian American Association to enact just such anti-labor legislation. When later questioned about their support of such work Bureau President Ed O'Neal told a Congressional committee that he didn't think it was such a bad idea if farmers joined the Klu Klux Klan since every farmer should join something.

With its ascendancy to unprecedented power in the late 1930's and throughout World War II, the Farm Bureau was able to establish and maintain an attitude of narrow thinking in respect to farm policy and its implementation that has prevailed to the present day.

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 (Dem.-New York.) 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 rapidly 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 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.

As noted earlier, there is no one area to which the Farm Bureau has dedicated more of its resources, save the dismantling of Federal farm programs, than fighting to destroy any attempts of farm labor to achieve economic and social justice.

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

Here too, the AFBF's vested interests are again blatantly displayed.

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.

Despite fatal fires in what have been described as "squalid" labor camps and fatal accidents involving over-crowded work buses, the Farm Bureau has consistently opposed legislation to correct such unsafe conditions, claiming each time that such action would be inappropriate since no "dire emergency" exists.

As recently as 1985 the Texas Farm Bureau voiced its opposition to a federal minimum wage for farm workers, in addition to reaffirming its long-standing opposition to child labor legislation, workers' compensation and unemployment compensation, and the abolition of the back-breaking short-handled hoe.

In all of their public policy statements, which include positions on everything from pornography to off-track betting, from the libraries of ex-presidents to pay TV, from ROTC to the National Council of Churches, the Bureau never seems to get around to mentioning rural poverty.

Rather, they have openly choose to fight the establishment of such Federal domestic peace corp programs as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and to legally attempt to stop the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund and the National Migrant Ministry's efforts to assist farm workers and the rural poor.

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 contractor practices.

It would be unfair to blame the AFBF for the spate of fascist, racist, anti-Semitic vigilante farm groups which have sprung up throughout the United States in recent years, often born in frustration and nurtured by a depressed farm economy.

However, the Farm Bureau certainly can be viewed as a major contributor, through its long-standing role as a visible propaganda agent, for right wing extremism, 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 any discussion of the Farm Bureau to make a distinction between its leadership and its farmer members for in many cases the latter have been equally victimized by their state and national officers and policies.

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, issues a directive to the state and county federations who in turn "rubber stamp" the proposal (to give it the illusion of having grass roots support) and then "yo-yo" it back up the line of federations to the national office.

As one former woman officer of a county Farm Bureau described it: "Most people talk to convey a meaning, the Farm Bureau talks to keep you from figuring out the meaning."

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

By organizing an effort demanding their voice be heard in the forthcoming PBS "America's Heartland" series or seeing to it that PBS face a concerted effort by farmers to impose serious economic sanctions on the series and the station's financial backers --- "Viewers Like You" --- farmers can alert the general public to the negative role the AFBF has historically played in the nation's rural communities.

Likewise, it is also 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."

By doing such, family farmers can not only afford themselves the opportunity of seeing their own, democratically run organizations, flourish while attracting current AFBF members, yearning to be free from the yoke that their leadership has historically subjected them to, while at the same time experience building 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 !!!


"We project that the first season of the program will be available in markets totaling more than 60% of the nation's viewers ... reaching more than 71 million households."
--- Jim O'Donnell, Director of Program Marketing, KVIE-TV (PBS Sacremento

FARM BUREAU NEWS: A new weekly public television show that celebrates the miracle of American agriculture and the farm and ranch families that help make it possible will hit the airwaves this fall, it was announced today. America's Heartland will profile the people, places and products of U.S. agriculture.

The magazine-style, half-hour program will focus on our national love for the land, our fascination with food and the bedrock American values of family, hard work and independence that make our agricultural system the finest in the world.

In announcing the ground-breaking series today, the series' two flagship supporters --- Monsanto Company and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) --- along with the show's producer, KVIE, the public television affiliate in Sacramento, California, said they are proud to collaborate with other U.S. agriculture groups to raise awareness of the significant contribution that agriculture makes to the quality of American living. America's Heartland supporting contributors include American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, United Soybean Board and U.S. Grains Council.

America's Heartland will help viewers better understand the nation's farm and ranch families and the challenges and opportunities they face as they produce food and fiber for Americans and people in other countries.

"American farmers play an important role in the stewardship of the land and foods we eat --- it is important that they are recognized by non-farming communities for their hard work and devotion," said Kerry Preete, vice president of U.S. crop production at Monsanto Company.

"America's Heartland will provide metropolitan audiences an important opportunity to learn more about the story beyond the grocery store shelves and usher in a greater respect for farmers' and ranchers' contributions." Series supporters also believe America's Heartland will help raise public awareness of the agricultural industry, particularly among the nation's opinion leaders, and highlight the important role farmers and ranchers play in feeding, clothing and fueling the world.

"We believe America's Heartland will provide an opportunity for consumers to get reacquainted with American farmers and ranchers, the people who produce their food," said Bob Stallman, president of AFBF. "Americans, for a number of reasons, are removed from their agricultural roots. America's Heartland will help bridge that disconnect. America's Heartland will show the diversity of American agriculture --- the variety of operations and people in the profession. America's farms are still predominantly operated by farm families and not large corporations, as many people think. America's Heartland will put a face on those families and give them a voice."

Stallman said Farm Bureau is proud to team up with Monsanto, a leading agricultural technology company that has helped farmers become more profitable, productive, and efficient in meeting the needs of American consumers, and KVIE, which has already proved its ability to tell agriculture's story to the public through its eight years of producing the California Heartland series, which was one of the most-watched series in the 50-year history of California public television.

America's Heartland is as much about the way of life of the people working and caring for the land as it is America's food and agriculture system. Each half-hour program will be shot entirely on location in digital widescreen format, according to Jim O'Donnell, Director of Program Marketing for KVIE. The first season of the program will consist of 20 original programs, one or more of which will break from the established format to cover a single topic or theme.

The series will premiere the first week of September 2005.

The series will be distributed to each of more than 300 public television stations in America by America's Public Television, the single largest provider of programming to public television stations.

"We project that the first season of the program will be available in markets totaling more than 60% of the nation's viewers --- approximately 100 stations reaching more than 71 million households," O'Donnell said.

People interested in seeing a sneak peek of the series may view an introductory trailer at the website: America's Heartland is a weekly television program that celebrates the miracle of American agriculture and the farm and ranch families that help make it possible.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is the nation's largest farm organization with affiliates in 49 states and Puerto Rico. Monsanto Company is a leading industry provider of technology-based solutions and agricultural products that improve farm efficiency and food quality. .

KVIE, Sacramento is the creator and producer of America's Heartland, a weekly series celebrating the generous earth of our nation and the people who work it. KVIE is a PBS member station and one of the most prolific producers of content for public television in America. [ April 21, 2005 ]

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