Louisville, Ky. — After several years as a highly visible and militant protest group during the 1960s, the National Farmers Organization (NFO) has shifted its strategy. Instead of dumping milk and slaughtering calves to reduce commodity surpluses , the organization now stresses collective bargaining to help boost farm income.
As a result, leaders of the Corning, Iowa,-based group say they hope to expand its membership - and thus its bargaining clout when it comes to negotiating higher selling prices for its members' crops.
Stepped-up group action was the major theme recently at the NFO's national convention here. With agricultural income in a major slump, about 3,000 farmers who attended the meeting were told that the time is ripe to organize and form large blocs in vital commodities to force up prices.
''You kill hogs and dump milk and you get the spotlight,'' says NFO president DeVon Woodland, a cattle rancher from Blackfoot, Idaho. ''We went through an emotional phase, for which we make no apologies. It would be easy to get the spotlight again, but we're now in a program-building phase. And our profile and image and reputation in the business community is higher now than it's ever been.''
Mr. Woodland says farmers represented by the NFO already produce at least 5 percent of some commodities. He said a bloc representing 10 percent of a commodity could command prices reflecting farmers' costs, and control of 15 percent would allow the NFO to negotiate contracts guaranteeing a profit. Negotiating ''forward contracts'' that guarantee delivery is the key, Woodland says, rather than ''building a bonfire and dancing around it.''
Unlike other farm groups, the NFO refuses to disclose membership figures. Leaders say its clout comes from the ''thousands of contracts'' it negotiates for members' products, which together were estimated at close to a billion dollars last year.
The organization also is beginning an intense drive to organize farmers for collective bargaining. Woodland says the NFO hopes to add up to 200 additional organizers to its current staff of some 600.
Members admit that the NFO's image as a militant group still lingers in parts of the farm belt, creating an obstacle to signing up producers. This is despite NFO surveys that indicate that because of the deep recession in agriculture, farmers are more receptive to collective bargaining than ever.
Darrell Voie, a young dairy farmer from Scandinavia, Wis., who attended the NFO convention, says many farmers resist collective action in order to maintain their image as the last bastions of ''rugged individualism.''
But with farm foreclosures rising precipitously and 1982's total farm income projected to fall for the third straight year, Mr. Voie says he believes the NFO approach is falling on more receptive ears.
''If we want to keep people owning their own land and operating family farms, it will have to be through action as a group,'' he says. ''Our only bargaining power is through our food, and the benefit to the farmer comes in being able to control his price and who buys his products.''
Woodland says the NFO has ''come a long way'' in the last four years. It came very close to extinction during the '70s, when it fought an 11-year court battle with large dairy cooperatives over alleged monopolization of milk markets. Last August, the US Court of Appeals in St. Louis decided in the NFO's favor. Woodland says the victory is a sign that the NFO is ''here to stay.''
The NFO has been sternly critical of Reagan administration farm policies. It opposes President Reagan's new ''payment in kind'' proposal, in which farmers who agree to cut production would receive surplus grain, cotton, and rice from government stockpiles. The NFO president predicts that farmers who take part in the program might be tempted to sell the grain they receive and thus further depress prices. Or, he says, such grain would be fed to livestock, leading to a possible glut and lower prices for cattle.