Meet The Group Everyone in the Food Movement Should Be Watching | Civil Eats

Meet The Group Everyone in the Food Movement Should Be Watching

The American Farm Bureau Federation is supposed to stand up for farmers. Instead it often stands in the way of a just and sustainable food system.

After a recent national gathering, delegates discussed their emphatic opposition to federal firearm registration, argued against attempts to address climate change through cap and trade, and decried the so-called “war against Christmas.” Attendees went home with a “lobbyist bible” that defined marriage between a man and woman, called for national voter identification, and demanded the repeal of “Obamacare.”

Was this a gathering of the Tea Party? Or the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)?

No. It was the annual American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) conference, held last January in San Diego.

The AFBF is America’s largest and most influential agriculture organization. And everyone interested in changing the course of food and farming in this country should be closely watching AFBF’s moves.

The group’s far-right wing ideology is woven deep into its DNA. It’s probably not a surprise to hear that cattle ranchers and large, commodity crop farmers skew conservative, just as organic and sustainable agriculture advocates skew liberal. As the President of the Iowa Pork Producers Association recently told Reuters, conventional farmers are “fiscally conservative and socially conservative … they’re conservative all the way through.”

Most elected politicians vote on food and farming issues based on political ideology and party affiliation. And Republicans overwhelmingly vote to perpetuate the industrial agriculture model and efforts to rollback school nutrition improvements. Whereas Democrats are more likely to support funding for local food initiatives, hunger programs, and conservation.

But when Republicans break from the party line on issues of agriculture–as was the case when several GOP member of the House voted to block the latest farm bill, even though the legislation will funnel billions to corn and other large commodity producers–they have not held accountable at the ballot box by the ag lobby. In fact, new Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and new Senate Leader Mitch McConnell have even been rewarded with positions of power.

For as long as these Farm Bureau favorites stay in power, there will be no national food policy that makes improving health and the environment a priority.

And the group not only understands this dynamic, they actively exploit it. In 2014, AFBF came in second only to Monsanto in lobbying Congress on agriculture issues, spending $1.9 million. They can kill federal policies they don’t like and create whole new programs they deem worthy. Because they represent agriculture sectors from livestock to commodity crops, their reach is even greater than other powerhouse farm lobbies like the National Corn Growers Association.

AFBF’s core strength lies in robust state farm bureaus across the country that plug into local governments and mobilize the grassroots. These state agencies are in constant contact with lawmakers and local media applying pressure. They hand out campaign checks and “Friends of the Farm Bureau” awards to politicians and city officials who keep regulations at bay and the subsidies flowing.

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The AFBF also appears to wield a great deal of power over the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At their annual convention, AFBF president Bob Stallman showered President Obama’s long serving Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with adoration. One article in the Capital Press reads:

At one point, Stallman called Vilsack on stage, said he was “loyal to the outfit,” and presented him with a “U.S. AG” branding iron. “I know one thing as a fact,” Stallman said. “Secretary Vilsack rides for the brand of U.S. agriculture.”

AFBF’s broader conservative social agenda runs deep, but contradicts the Tea Party on farm subsidies and ethanol mandates. Otherwise, the AFBF is indistinguishable from establishment conservatism—it is cozy with multi-national food companies, favors corporate agriculture over small farmers, support a maze of front and PR groups, and buoyed by trade press that often acts like the industry’s own version of Fox News.

For instance, last month’s conference—and the values shared throughout—were well covered. Capital Press’s Eric Mortenson reported:

This year, Farm Bureau’s Resolutions Committee recommended deleting the “Family and Moral Responsibility” policy, which among other things defines a family as people who are related due to marriage “between male and female.” Delegates from Arkansas, Indiana and Georgia rose in opposition. “I want this back in our book,” an Indiana delegate said. The vote wasn’t even close; the policy was retained. [Emphasis mine.]

While not every large farmer walks AFBF’s party line, many appear to do so because it’s clear, easy-to follow, very organized, and it makes them money.

Gail McSpadden Greenman, national affairs director for the Oregon Farm Bureau sounded downright reverential as she told the Capital Press about the “sacred” process of delegates debating AFBF’s 2015 policy book [PDF].

“This is what tells me what I can support or not support,” Greenman said. “This is like my lobbyist bible.”

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The group is not shy about flaunting their influence and aggressive posture. In fact, the AFBF is already looking ahead toward electing a president who shares its core values.

As AFBF President Bob Stallman said during January’s conference. “By this fall, the focus will be squarely on the 2016 elections. All of this means that Farm Bureau members will need to be aggressive, and we will need to begin our advocacy efforts as soon as possible …”


You can keep abreast of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s latest moves on Twitter. Its 2015 policy book is also worth the read. For better or worse, the agenda laid out there will influence much of what lawmakers and the administration consider in the next year for food and farm policy.

Don Carr is a veteran environmental writer and activist. His debut eco-thriller, The Midnight Rambler, will be published in December 2023. Read more >

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  1. Boo.
  2. The Farm Bureau is too powerful. I think it should be renamed, THE BUREAU.
  3. Becca
    They state in the policy book that they are "independent". But given their relationships with big food corps? Not my definition of independent.
  4. Justin Thyme
    "Farm Bureau was organized to keep farmers from becoming organized"....CW
  5. Gail Greenman
    I wake up everyday representing the interests of OFB members, Oregon’s farmers and ranchers. The annual policy development process is sacred and if I were contacted and asked what that means I would be more than happy to explain. It’s ironic that I saw this while en route back from DC where I walked the halls of Congress with an organic Whole Foods grower who runs a successful community supported agriculture program and an orchardist who also runs a retail rural grocery which is powered by a sizable solar panel. I’m proud of what I do and find it interesting when someone hides behind a computer screen spewing information where the research has not included speaking with the very people that are being written about.
  6. The article is naive about farm politics (i.e. Farm Bureau's role vs #FoodLeaders,) about what a Farm Bill is, (historically, ideally, and as measured by it's absence today). Farm Bureau and the Food Movement take similar positions against farm justice. Both support the cheapest of cheap prices, (both, in actuality, but neither in rhetoric,) and, given that we have no minimum Price Floors, both also called for lowering subsidies to compensate the victims. Agricultural Economist Daryll E. Ray explained this at APAC in his series on the various proposals in 2011, (for anyone who can understand the way he writes, which is for a farm audience). See his columns on Farm Bureau, EWG, NCGA, & ASA.
  7. What's naive, Brad is your continued assertion that we're getting it wrong on farm politics. No one -- save you and a few others -- feel price floors are the way to go, but even more crucial to the success of your endeavors, no on in Congress believes it either. We should have butter mountains in storage? Do you think a Republican controlled Congress -- let alone the Ag Committees -- would vote for such a blatant market distortion (even though other programs do it too?). Never happen. As you wrote once, Harkin fled price floors. If you couldn't get Harkin on board...and what about crop diversity? Or does this only help commodity minded farmers?
  8. Gail --I don’t doubt your dedication to farmers. And as I said, the Farm Bureau certainly delivers for some of the farmers it represents. Ag groups don’t thrive like the AFBF has without delivering for its members. If you noticed throughout the piece I’m in awe of both the state and federal level FBs ability to bend Congress and policy to its will. I’m also continually astonished by the ultra conservative social views woven through your platform. Why? What does that have to with agriculture? What does that have to do with producing high quality food for agriculture’s customers?
  9. Alan in SF
    Fine -- eliminate state agricultural colleges, Dept. of Agriculture extension service, guest worker programs, and all agricultural subsidies. Problem solved.

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