Farm Bureau wants government to ease off. But new president says `you don't eat the elephant in one bite'

Hard times in agriculture have not radicalized the bulk of the nation's farmers. Instead, rural America retains a fundamental conservatism, if this week's convention of the nation's largest farm group is any indication.

This week, the American Farm Bureau Federation elected a new leader and delegates approved resolutions that continue to reflect the conservative tenet that government should -- eventually -- get out of setting agricultural policy.

``I think our policy is headed in that direction,'' says Dean Kleckner, head of Farm Bureau's Iowa group. But ``we've recognized that you don't eat the elephant in one bite.''

Mr. Kleckner was elected Thursday as president of the national federation American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents Iowa and 48 other state groups plus Puerto Rico. Kleckner said a major issue during his tenure will be farm exports.

``We've simply got to do a better job of exports. We've got to compete,'' he said. ``Sell, sell, sell has got to be our motto from now on.''

Liberal-leaning farmers have long asserted that Farm Bureau reflects the interests of agribusiness more than farmers. Indeed, just under half of its 3.4 million members are not farm owners and operators.

On the other hand, the organization still represents some 70 percent of the nation's farmers, with groups in 49 states and Puerto Rico. Farmers are the only members allowed to vote on policy and leaders.

Over the years, the group has played an important role in agricultural affairs. Some observers say the presidency of the American Farm Bureau Federation is the second most important post in agricultural policy after the secretary of agriculture.

At times, the group has mixed its conservative principles with a dose of pragmatism. During the depression year of 1933, at a time of mounting farm protest, it was Farm Bureau president Edward A. O'Neal who warned of a rural revolution within 12 months. That warning helped goad President Roosevelt to implement agricultural policies that, in changed form, have remained in effect ever since, says Wayne Rasmussen, a historian for the US Department of Agriculture.

More recently, though, the Farm Bureau became closely identified with the Republican Party -- too closely, according to some observers.

``The Farm Bureau is generally regarded as an extension of the Republican National Committee,'' says Bob Bergland, former agricultural secretary under President Carter. ``It's important in Republican politics. It is insignificant in Democratic circles.''

Another challenge has been increasing specialization in farming, outside observers say. The Farm Bureau ``is not as central as it would have been 30 years ago, 40 years ago,'' says a Republican-leaning observer. ``It has lost some of its clout as a result of the fracturing of agricultural interests.''

But in many ways, the changing position of the Farm Bureau reflects the changes in agriculture itself -- the increasing reach and complexity of agricultural issues and the specialization that has made the work of general farm organizations even more difficult.

Single-commodity groups -- one for corn growers, another for cattle producers, and so on -- have grown in importance in recent years, concedes John Datt, executive director of Farm Bureau's Washington office. This at times has led to bidding wars between various commodity groups that want to eke the most out of Congress. But ``the Farm Bureau's not in that role.'' Its important political impact is in overall issues, such as deficit reduction and tax policy, he adds.

This week in Atlanta -- in sometimes tortuous sessions -- Farm Bureau delegates hashed out the wording of policy positions on a broad array of farm policy and other issues. Because of the current financial crunch in agriculture, concern arose over maintaining farm income. After rigid opposition in the 1950s and '60s, Mr. Datt says, the organization reversed itself and accepted the idea of direct government payments to farmers in 1977.

But the overall conservative thrust remains, according to several Farm Bureau presidents interviewed.

``It's certainly important that this organization respond to the needs of its members, especially in the area of net farm income,'' says John White, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau. When pressed on how to boost farm income, he replied: ``Out of the market system instead of out of Uncle Sam. I'm very upbeat on that.''

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