The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) bills itself as the voice of American agriculture--and often succeeds in getting the media to identify it as such. In an article about an EPA study of insecticides, USA Today (10/28/99) turned to an EPA critic at the AFBF, describing it as a group that "promotes farmers’ interests." Similarly, CNN (12/13/99) referred to "farmers’ groups" questioning the EPA’s concerns--and featured another spokesperson from the AFBF.
The myth that AFBF represents the interests of farmers is longstanding, though it has long been debunked. In Samuel "Sandy" Berger’s 1971 book, Dollar Harvest: The Story of the Farm Bureau, he argued that the AFBF is "quietly and systematically amassing one of the largest business networks in America, while turning its back on the deepening crisis of the farmers whom it supposedly represents."
The underlying pattern has not changed in the ensuing generation. John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, told Extra!:
I’ve been working on farming concerns for 30 years, and I can’t think of a major issue where the Farm Bureau didn’t have the same position as the grain and meat processors. It’s impossible to represent the interests of food producers [farmers] as well as food processors.... The two groups' economic interests are almost always at odds.
Berger also noted that the AFBF "is largely controlled from the top. Its leadership is self-perpetuating, and its policy, although nursed through an elaborate procedural labyrinth, is rarely permitted to wander very far afield."
That’s how it was designed. The Farm Bureau was founded in the early 1900s by the New York Chamber of Commerce and funded with money from Rockefellers and Vanderbilts via the Chicago Board of Trade (A.V. Krebbs, Corporate Reaper). It was designed to counter the nonpartisan, populist farm movement that was emerging at the time.
In a sophisticated manner, Farm Bureau leadership is still, as one observer put it, "trying to keep Bubba down on the farm from realizing who his real enemy is." It frequently uses social issues to distract attention from farmers’ basic economic interests: A generation ago Farm Bureau leaders were railing against "socialism" and "communism"--including farm price-support programs. Now they deride environmentalists, forming alliances with the so-called "wise use" movement to lobby against environmental regulations and fighting an unsuccessful battle to remove wolves from Yellowstone.
The Farm Bureau is sometimes described as "the nation's largest farm organization, with 5 million members" (e.g., Houston Chronicle, 1/8/00), but there are only about 1.9 million farmers in the U.S. and they are not all Farm Bureau members. The 5 million "members" of AFBF are simply the people who buy insurance from it. It is in fact an insurance conglomerate, with annual net profits exceeding $6.5 billion (annual report, 1996). It controls two major farmer co-ops and keeps a stock portfolio that reads like a who’s who of agribusiness giants: Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra, Monsanto, Phillip-Morris, Dupont, Novartis and Dow. It is also heavily invested in oil, banking and media.
During the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, as a broad coalition including other farmers’ groups worked to shut down the WTO, the Farm Bureau ignored any concerns about the health, economic or labor standards of their "members." "We need new markets. It's as simple as that," Dean Kleckner, then-president of the bureau, told USA Today (11/26/99). While other groups argued that genetically modified organisms should be proven safe before being widely disseminated, a Farm Bureau spokesperson told Legal Times (12/13/99) that "to walk away from biotech at this juncture in its development would be the worst possible mistake mankind could make."
Kleckner presented the keynote address at the WTO ministerial's agricultural forum. According to the AFBF’s webpage, he argued that "the inclusion of labor and environmental provisions would thwart progress toward true trade reform."
AFBF recently helped defeat a proposal from Sen. Paul Wellstone (D.-Minn.) for a moratorium on huge agribusiness mergers. The AFBF made virtually no mention of its opposition to the merger moratorium to its members until its quiet lobbying was exposed by the Cattlemen's Legal Fund. AFBF then had a segment on the subject in one of their thrice-weekly Newsline feeds (11/12/99) sent to hundreds of radio stations across rural America, featuring this double-talk explanation: "We’re opposing this amendment at this time because we don’t feel that it is a comprehensive solution to this huge omnibus issue which crosses over many parameters."
Increasingly, however, farmers are seeing through the AFBF’s charade, and local farm bureaus are breaking with the national organization. The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation recently passed a unanimous resolution condemning the AFBF’s stance against the merger moratorium as a "gross breach of faith and detrimental to the interests of producer members." Such dissatisfaction from within the membership, along with the current farming crisis and a growing alliance between the farmer community and conservationists, resulted in Kleckner being removed as AFBF president at the group’s recent convention.