Who is fighting for family farmers?

The 'voice of the American farmer' comes under scrutiny for ignoring mom and pop.

Meet Brian and Kelly Duncan, family hog farmers from Ogle County in Illinois, and firm believers that the Farm Bureau can help them survive in a world where competing corporate farms can produce hogs by the millions.

Now meet Rocky and Karen Hudson, proud corn and soybean growers, similarly Farm Bureau members, but critics of the Farm Bureau, which they say no longer serves their interests.

In many ways, these two families encapsulate the mounting controversy surrounding an agency that calls itself the "voice of the American farmer."

Today, with the interests of big-time agribusiness and of small family farmers increasingly at odds, the Farm Bureau is having to choose between the two. According to critics, more and more, the most powerful agricultural lobby in America is standing up for the interests of mega farms over mom and pop.

The leaning, they say, is significant in that the Farm Bureau is frequently one of the few voices called before Congress to speak on farmers' behalf. It has drawn scrutiny from the prairie all the way up to the highest levels of government, providing all Americans a window on the challenges facing the farmers who once made up the backbone of the Republic - and the forces pushing them off the land.

The Duncans are among a devout lot who still stand firmly behind the bureau. While they acknowledge it has been slow to take a stand against corporate mergers, it remains their fiercest advocate.

"Our members know the Farm Bureau is supported and controlled by farmers," says Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, based in Park Ridge, Ill. "The Farm Bureau will continue to work toward its two main goals - to enhance net farm income and to improve the quality of life for farm families."

No longer believers

Skeptics, though, have become more prevalent.

Mr. Hudson says he lost faith when the bureau sided with corporate pork producers in seeking to open mega hog farms - over objections raised by small farmers in several Illinois counties.

"Sadly, for 20 years, I counted myself among the typical farmers who believed everything the Farm Bureau said, and I trusted that my interests were being represented in Washington," he says, noting that only a fraction of its members are actually farmers.

Most are counted as members only because they buy Farm Bureau insurance. And the Farm Bureau's famous network of insurance companies, he adds, is invested heavily in large agribusiness companies.

This has raised questions about whether the agency is really fighting for small farmers. For instance, the Farm Bureau lobbied last fall to defeat a proposed 18-month moratorium on corporate agricultural mergers. "The system is rigged against family farmers who have no political clout," says Jim Farrell, a spokesman for Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, who proposed the bill.

It's an issue that has been building for years. Three decades ago, a young congressional aide wrote a book about Farm Bureau practices with criticisms that still resonate today.

The activist, Samuel Berger, who is now head of President Clinton's National Security Council, pointed in particular to Congress's unwillingness to investigate the bureau. "Generally, the Farm Bureau claims to be an organization 'of farmers, by farmers, and for farmers,' " Berger wrote in his 1971 book, "Dollar Harvest." "But more precisely, it has become principally an agribusiness giant."

Conservatives' concerns

Many conservationists are also joining in the attack.

For one, Defenders of Wildlife says the Farm Bureau spent millions of dollars trying unsuccessfully to have transplanted gray wolves removed from Yellowstone National Park. At the same time, it spent nothing to investigate price-fixing at meat processing facilities and grain elevators, which have had a more detrimental effect on small farmers.

"It makes you wonder about just whose interests the Farm Bureau is really representing," says Scotty Johnson, who has investigated the Farm Bureau on behalf of Defenders.

Defenders also released a white paper in April calling attention to controversial Farm Bureau practices. Among other things, it said that for-profit arms of the Farm Bureau have invested heavily in conglomerates, while fighting minimum-wage increases and compensation packages for workers.

The bureau's business

Beyond that, the Environmental Working Group says the Farm Bureau has used its political muscle to weigh in on topics that have nothing to do with farming: endorsing off-shore oil drilling and - in some chapters - lobbying to mandate that creationism be taught in the classroom.

"What any of this has to do with ensuring farmers get the prices they deserve at market is a mystery," says Ken Cook, the group's executive director.

Farm Bureau spokesman Mace Thornton says that because the Farm Bureau is structured as a grass-roots network, approaches for how to fix agricultural problems vary by region. "We are committed to do what is best by farmers," he adds.

And for the Duncans, those words, for now, are enough.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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