This story was initially printed as a collaboration between Investigate Midwest and Watchdog Writers Group.
The American Farm Bureau Federation calls itself the “voice of agriculture,” a slogan it trademarked in 2007. But as the divide between agribusiness and small farmers has grown in latest a long time, a unified voice of agriculture has grow to be tougher to obtain.
Some farming teams have fashioned in opposition to the AFBF, accusing it of lobbying towards the pursuits of small farmers. The rising political divide might assist outline the future of agriculture in America.
Part of the divide was on show in early January, as a whole bunch of farmers gathered in a cavernous room at the AFBF annual convention in Atlanta. Their votes would decide the path of the agricultural group’s coverage — contained in the 2022 Policy Book — in the upcoming yr.
By the time coverage proposals attain the annual convention — sponsored by ag giants together with Bayer, Syngenta, John Deere and BASF — they’d been authorised by voting members of county and state Farm Bureaus. Even inside the AFBF, the delegates disagreed on which coverage positions to soak up the upcoming yr.
These delegates’ selections will seemingly be massively consequential. The AFBF is the strongest establishment representing rural Americans, and it spends greater than anybody else on lobbying the federal authorities on agricultural points.
The AFBF additionally wields large affect on state legislatures, with the energy to kill any agriculture invoice they need, in accordance to some of its political opponents. While agreeing with AFBF right here and there, some smaller teams have distanced themselves from the group, satisfied it doesn’t signify their pursuits.
One of these teams is Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America. It’s aligned with AFBF on some subjects, similar to land and water rights.
But on points the place the pursuits of household farmers contradict company pursuits, similar to how to reform a concentrated market, “we find the Farm Bureau to lean heavily towards corporate interests,” mentioned Bill Bullard, the CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America.
AFBF mentioned it represents every kind of farms: Livestock and vegetable, giant and small, natural and standard.
“When you have an organization that’s as diverse as ours, there are going to be divergent opinions,” mentioned Sam Kieffer, the AFBF’s vice chairman of public affairs. “And when you have an organization as large as ours, you will have folks, who are good folks, who disagree on certain issues.”
Many Farm Bureau members have seen the AFBF work on their behalf. Dustin Cowell, a 30-year-old, Eighth-generation cattle rancher in Arkansas, began going to collegiate Farm Bureau conferences whereas attending the University of Arkansas, principally for the free pizza.
But when his residence county Farm Bureau chapter invited him to be a part of the board, he rapidly acquired concerned in pushing for insurance policies that might profit his small, 30-cow operation. He thought the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency ought to elevate the restrict on the loans it provided to starting farmers.
He wasn’t the solely particular person with the thought. But he was excited when his fellow county board members authorised the proposal, after which the board of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, and finally the delegates at the 2018 annual conference.
The Farm Services Agency elevated the mortgage restrict later the following yr.
But some former members don’t imagine the course of is as democratic as some imagine.
Iowa hog farmer Chris Peterson was on his county Farm Bureau board in the Nineteen Eighties and ‘90s. In 1998, pork costs hit historic lows as a number of meatpacking vegetation closed or lowered processing capability. Peterson had to take a mortgage out to cowl the price of maintenance for his hogs. He and his spouse took jobs off the farm to keep afloat.
Peterson, putting the blame for the collapse on an more and more consolidated livestock market, grew to become annoyed with the Farm Bureau’s lack of motion towards concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and meatpacking corporations.
“There were three or four of us who came at things in a different way,” he mentioned. “The ones speaking the Farm Bureau language were the ones who advanced into the regional and state Farm Bureaus.”
He broke off from the group in 2000 and began an area Farmers’ Union chapter, the place he has held management positions ever since. He bought off his herd shortly after and now raises about 30 Berkshire hogs.
Some small farmers like Peterson argue CAFOs, which pack a whole bunch or hundreds of animals in closed barns, injury the atmosphere and drive down property values in the space.
But CAFOs are key to the success of giant meat corporations — a handful dominate the business, together with Tyson, JBS and Smithfield — as the amenities reduce the price per head of elevating animals and maximize revenue margins.
Livestock operations legally outlined as CAFOs are topic to extra laws than smaller or open-air amenities. The AFBF opposes regulating air air pollution from CAFOs and different livestock operations, in addition to altering the definition of a CAFO to embody extra livestock operations than the present customary.
When requested about criticism that the AFBF prioritizes the wants of industrial agriculture over household farms, Kieffer cited a USDA statistic stating that 98% of farms are family-owned.
Small household farms, outlined as bringing in lower than $350,000 per yr, make up 47.7% of all farms and signify about 20% of nationwide manufacturing.
“There are folks who want to create a division between large farms and other farms, and at the end of the day, the Farm Bureau is a place for all,” Kieffer mentioned. “We represent all of them, and we have policies on a whole swath of issues.”
How to remedy a concentrated market
Outside the AFBF, organizations similar to the Farmers’ Union search to signify these of the nation’s 3 million farmers who need to see American agriculture radically modified and consider their highly effective cousin as an impediment to progress.
The National Farmers’ Union, the smaller, self-described “progressive” counterpart to the AFBF, has chapters round the nation, however the AFBF overpowers it in phrases of membership and cash. The union has about 200,000 members — a fraction of the AFBF’s reported 6 million (non-farmers are invited to apply). The union’s lobbying funds can be a lot smaller: It spent $180,000 on federal lobbying final yr in contrast to the AFBF’s $2 million, in accordance to OpenSecrets.
Often, the AFBF butts heads with the National Farmers’ Union and different organizations over commerce and market points.
One conflict entails the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act, a bipartisan-supported U.S. Senate invoice geared toward combating consolidation and low costs in the cattle business.
It would increase reporting necessities for livestock gross sales, elevate penalties for law-breaking meatpacking corporations and, most controversially, would power meatpackers to buy a minimal % of cattle on the money market.
As of 2017, half of all livestock have been bought by way of manufacturing contracts, which permit meatpackers to buy livestock at a predetermined value. From 1997 to 2017, the % of cattle bought below contracts almost doubled as the quantity of cattle bought at public sale decreased.
The 4 beef corporations who management up to 85% of the market — Cargill, JBS, National Beef and Tyson Foods — are at present embroiled in lawsuits alleging the corporations conspired to drive down cattle costs.
The laws carries the promise of meat processors paying extra to cattle ranchers.
In January, AFBF delegates voted to oppose the money market half of the laws.
“We support the majority of this legislation, but we cannot support mandatory cash sales,” Zippy Duvall, the AFBF president, mentioned in a Jan. 21 press launch. “We are committed to working with the sponsors of the bill to make revisions to ensure it aligns with the priorities outlined by our membership.”
Groups like Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America have sought these market reforms and extra for years however confronted opposition from conservative lawmakers preferring a hands-off strategy to livestock pricing. The National Farmers’ Union additionally voiced assist for the invoice.
“We fight against the American Farm Bureau’s persistent efforts to achieve the failed free trade model for cattle and beef,” R-CALF’s Bullard mentioned. “We have been trying to reform trade policy unsuccessfully for over 20 years. The American Farm Bureau is a key reason for that because they have so much influence in Congress.”
A probably profitable market
Another battle entails the digital tagging of cattle, which small farm advocates declare may very well be a boon for big livestock operations and meatpacking corporations.
A pending USDA rule would require ranchers to use radio frequency identification, or RFID, ear tags on all cattle destined for interstate commerce. Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America and the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a Texas-based group advocating for small farmers and ranchers, are on one facet; AFB the different.
The RFID tags are a higher-tech model of the conventional plastic tags, tattoos, or manufacturers used to establish cattle. RFID tags, generally utilized in Europe, would enable veterinarians and ranchers to rapidly establish and isolate animals in the occasion of a illness outbreak.
The USDA has argued the tags would scale back the danger of pricey illness outbreaks in livestock. Because RFID tags are the customary in different nations, worldwide demand for American beef would seemingly enhance if the U.S. improved its animal tracing program, the USDA present in a 2009 cost-benefit evaluation of the program.
Judith McGeary, founder and government director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, argued the program is meant to bolster export markets for American meat, a precedence for big meat corporations.
On the different hand, small farmers who give attention to native gross sales haven’t any stake in worldwide markets, she mentioned.
Purchasing and using the tags and the associated gear can be a burden for small farmers, who’re already battling low cattle costs, McGeary mentioned. For giant operations with greater budgets, the price of implementing RFID tags can be much less of a burden, she argued.
“You have this double whammy of very, very heavy burdens on small farms,” she mentioned, “and none of the supposed benefits coming down to them.”
In a remark submitted to the USDA, the AFBF expressed assist for the implementation of a compulsory livestock identification program. It urged the federal authorities to present tags and gear free of cost.
But after receiving pushback from teams like Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America and the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, in March 2021, the USDA delayed implementation of necessary RFID tagging till a proper rulemaking course of is accomplished.
Power in state Capitols
State-level Farm Bureaus additionally wield lots of affect, partially as a result of few different organizations in the agriculture world have such a wealth of assets to commit to lobbying state legislatures, mentioned Kendra Kimbirauskas, the director of agriculture and meals programs for State Innovation Exchange, which gives coverage assets to progressive state lawmakers on a range of subjects.
Because state legislatures typically consist of part-time lawmakers, most of whom don’t have sufficient employees to carry out analysis on all of the subjects and payments the legislators should vote on, lawmakers typically flip to business teams like the Farm Bureau for recommendation, Kimbirauskas mentioned.
With the Farm Bureau representing tens of millions of farmers, it may be politically harmful for lawmakers to publicly place themselves in opposition to the group, mentioned Peterson, the Iowa Farmers Union board member.
AFBF’s Kieffer mentioned the energy to inform state and federal issues comes from the Farm Bureau’s coverage making course of, which permits his group to signify farmers from round the nation.
“When our team walks into a congressional office or engages in a conversation, it’s not Sam Kieffer or a member of my staff,” he mentioned. “It’s the voice of folks from back home who are having that conversation. We just have the privilege of relaying that conversation.”
Organic farmers push to be heard
Tim Matis first joined the Farm Bureau 40 years in the past for insurance coverage. As a dairy farmer in upstate New York, he didn’t know that the Farm Bureau was something greater than an insurance coverage firm.
Farm Bureau members acquired a reduction at the native farm provide retailer. When the retailer shut down, he canceled his membership.
That modified a couple of years in the past when Matis, in his mid-60s at the time, enrolled in faculty lessons in an try to enhance his dairy’s monetary state of affairs. During a political science course, an curiosity in lawmaking and lobbying bloomed, and he discovered about the Farm Bureau’s position in agriculture coverage.
When he grew to become an natural dairy farmer, he didn’t see the Farm Bureau advancing many insurance policies prioritizing producers like him. He determined the finest course of motion was to get entangled in the native Farm Bureau and suggest the insurance policies himself.
He wasn’t alone in his remark. McGeary, of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, mentioned she’s seen the Farm Bureau combat insurance policies that differentiate between natural and standard farms.
McGeary advocated for a invoice in Texas’s 2021 legislative session that created an “On-the-Ground Conservation Program” to present schooling, technical help and outreach to farmers implementing sure practices to enhance soil well being.
Many progressive teams take into account the soil well being practices — together with cowl crops, no- or low-till farming strategies and rotational grazing — to be cornerstones of natural, sustainable, or regenerative agriculture.
But McGeary mentioned the Texas Farm Bureau made it clear that it opposed these phrases — natural, sustainable or regenerative — being included in the textual content of the laws, though the group supported the invoice in any other case.
Billy Howe, the Texas Farm Bureau’s affiliate authorities affairs director, mentioned it opposed the inclusion of these phrases as a result of there aren’t any agreed-upon definitions.
The AFBF Policy Book states, “When considering sustainable agriculture, there is only one constant and that is agriculture is only sustainable when it is profitable.”
Other definitions of sustainable agriculture give attention to the well being of the atmosphere and on decreasing the long-term influence of intensive agriculture.
Howe mentioned the state company answerable for implementing the soil well being invoice and different applications associated to environmental sustainability needs to be answerable for defining the phrases.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the “On-the-Ground Conservation Program” into regulation in May 2021, with the assist of the Texas Farm Bureau and the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, and with out use of the phrases “organic,” “sustainable,” or “regenerative.”
In New York, Matis felt that the guidelines for qualifying as an natural dairy wanted to be clarified and tightened — it was too simple for dairies to name themselves natural whereas partaking in practices that went towards the objective of being natural. That pushed the high quality and the value of natural milk down, he mentioned.
At his county Farm Bureau assembly, he steered it push the USDA to rethink the Origin of Organic Livestock Rule. That would obtain the reforms Matis sought.
The AFBF had beforehand and efficiently lobbied towards the rule, which had been delayed a number of instances. But Matis and different Farm Bureau members who ran natural dairies have been ready to affect the Farm Bureau’s place.
His proposal was authorised by the county and state farm bureaus, and finally by delegates at the annual conference. The rule was reopened for public remark in July 2021.
“The organization isn’t going to go away,” Matis mentioned. “I think that’s why organic farmers should get involved.”
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