Farmers Face a Precarious Future. Is the Farm Bureau on Their Side?

At the Farm Bureau’s “New Frontiers” conference, tensions flare over the future of farming

Emma Penrod March 25, 2024

Throughout the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 105th annual national convention in Salt Lake City this year, organizers projected a video on the big screen of the main presentation room beckoning viewers to “new frontiers” in American agriculture. One clip showed a farmer surrounded by his children as he described the next frontier as a return to the “old” frontier—what he described as restoring the “rural, family values” that “made America great.”

More than 175 years after Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers settled the Salt Lake Valley, the conference’s theme, “New Frontiers,” offered a carefully-tailored message: there is a boundless future awaiting farmers—if only they have enough faith in organizations like the Farm Bureau to lead them there.

In his opening speech, Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall reflected farmers’ lives through the prism of heroic struggle and conquest. “As farmers, I believe we have a little bit of the pioneer spirit in us, too,” he said. “New frontiers just aren’t new lands to explore—they’re places where our communities come together in new and creative ways, where innovation drives us forward to a bright future… and when we get to the summit, the other side is often more amazing than we can ever imagine.”

But as conference organizers and speakers strove to project a bright and optimistic future for American farmers, a deep economic anxiety seethed below the surface. U.S. farms brought in a record $196.4 billion in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the majority of the profit went to a handful of large producers who increasingly dominate the agricultural landscape. And now that the supply shocks triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have begun to ease, total farm income is expected to decline as food and commodity prices return to baseline without a coinciding drop in farm production costs.

Farmers feel the effects of these global dynamics on a personal level, said Kris Descheemaeker, a conference attendee from Lewistown, Montana, who raises “cattle, grain, hay and grandkids.” “The price of gas or fuel, lubricants, tires and all those things we have to use affect our bottom line,” she said.

Bonita Cremer, who runs a cow-calf ranch in Montana, finished Descheemaeker’s thought. Farmers are “price takers, not price makers.” And the more they feel buffeted by forces they cannot control, the more their anxiety grows about the future.

Speakers throughout the conference addressed this underlying economic tension in different ways. Some, like Duvall, sought to assuage members’ fears by predicting an exciting future. Agriculture has all it needs to solve its economic woes, the optimists argued; farmers simply need to step into their power. Others spoke of the deep connection of farming with American values and democracy—as if to assure attendees that American institutions would not abandon them.

Others saw opportunity in the crisis. Ryan Walker, sitting president of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau in California put it bluntly: if some farms can’t adapt to the modern market, well, that just leaves more profit to the farms that do.

‘Start taking back our power’

At a Saturday afternoon farm marketing workshop, Jon Anderson, a motivational speaker and Minnesota rancher who calls himself the “Cowboy Coach,” invoked pop culture to inspire Farm Bureau members. He described a scene from the popular television series Yellowstone in which farmhand Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) explains to seventh-generation rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) his plan to avoid being trampled while moving a herd of cattle down a mountain: “Best we came up with, sir, is like, ‘Fuck it.’” 

This is how agriculture behaves at times, Anderson said, putting its head down and hoping it won’t get trampled. But, he argued, agriculture is a powerful industry, one that can reclaim its former glory. All it needs to do is to change the narrative about itself.

“If we want to have an impact in this industry, on the world, on our communities, our families and ourselves, we have to take back our control,” he said. “We must start telling a better story, not just the external story, but a better story for ourselves. That is how we start making ourselves better, is to take back our control, take back our power, so we can take back our freedom.”

Inspiring words from a rancher who, as he tells it, launched a leadership coaching company to save his ranch from bankruptcy after the unexpected loss of his full-time non-farm job. But in a world where narrative is power and control, there is always the question of who is telling the story. 

The Farm Bureau, one of the most powerful agricultural lobbying forces in Washington, positions itself as the unified “Voice of Agriculture.” But while the USDA estimates there are less than 2 million farms in the county, the Farm Bureau boasts nearly 6 million members on its rolls. The rest, in many states, are made up of anyone who pays member dues as a condition for Farm Bureau insurance—home, auto, retirement and farm insurance.

On Capitol Hill, the Farm Bureau channels its manicured image as a grassroots defender of small and independent family farmers into a well-oiled lobbying and influence machine underpinned by an antiregulatory activist network. In the 2020 election year, the Farm Bureau’s national organization—in addition to the lobbying efforts on behalf of its federation of state-based organizations—spent over $3 million supporting the efforts of its 18 lobbyists. Its 2024 policy agenda, adopted at the January convention, ranges everywhere from artificial intelligence to labor to crop insurance. Along with those priorities, the Farm Bureau takes a special interest in the financial success of major food industry players. In recent years, Farm Bureau insurance affiliates have bought stock in companies like ConAgra, Dow Chemical, Kraft Heinz, Kroger, Premium Standard and Tyson. Sponsors of the Farm Bureau convention this year included Bayer, John Deere, Syngenta, Purina and other agribusiness giants.

Duvall announced at the convention that he now represents the Farm Bureau on PepsiCo’s Food and Farm Council as part of an effort to help food companies better understand farmers. Using farmers as a branding mechanism didn’t sit well with everyone at the convention.

“In my mind that is sneaky. … It just showed me that Pepsi realizes that if they tie themselves to agriculture, people will think of them more favorably,” said a Utah farmer, who declined to give her name. “The fact that a company wants to tie itself to farmers says to me they realize people have a favorable opinion of farms. [Farmers] have a good name, and we should be using it [to our advantage].”

In a Saturday workshop designed to help members “maximize” their art of influence, a member of the Farm Bureau’s national promotion and education committee, Julie Stephenson, chair of the Farm Bureau’s Promotion and Education Committee, invited participants to turn to their neighbors and brainstorm ideas for farm and ag marketing. At one table, the conversation shifted immediately to the nature of the question itself: Is it really the responsibility of farmers to persuade the public to buy and sell agricultural goods?

“I feel like farmers and farm organizations don’t have the money that some of those organizations do,” said the Utah farmer. “And then they say, tell your story, get on Facebook, get on Instagram, but who has flipping time? I don’t have time to post something every day. I just don’t have time.”

Another man expressed his frustration that farmers have somehow become the villain of the story, when all they tried to do was what the government told them: to produce enough food to feed the world as cheaply as possible. This push to produce cheap food, he said, is what necessitated using vast swaths of fertilizers to grow crops on marginal land, wrecking the environment in the process. But when his comments turned critical of the dairy industry’s push to produce ever-larger quantities of milk, the woman from Utah grew defensive and interrupted him.

“How much would your milk cost? Are you willing to pay $10 a gallon for—”

“But they will pay,” he said, cutting back.

“Not the average consumer,” she said. “In the news one of the first things you hear is the price of a gallon of milk. But the price of milk is so cheap compared to that energy drink you just bought.”

‘Fighting for Pie’

Innovation and “New Frontiers” enjoyed center billing at the convention, but the farm bill stole the show—thanks in part to Farm Bureau officials who, in nearly every session, urged attendees to lobby their elected officials about the Farm Bureau’s farm bill priorities.

“We have to send a resounding message to Congress,” said Duvall, who exhorted members to pick up a card with a QR code linking to Farm Bureau’s advocacy priorities. “We have to send a resounding message to Congress to deliver a new farm bill for our farms and our country.”

According to Joe Gilson, the Farm Bureau’s director of government affairs, Congress must increase baseline funding for “farm program” commitments in the farm bill—namely federal crop insurance and commodity programs—and at the same time maintain a “unified” farm bill that includes nutrition programs together with farm programs.

Joe Gilson, a director of government affairs at Farm Bureau, moderates a panel at the Farm Bureau’s 2024 convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. (AFBF)

But with Republican Congressional leaders looking to cut overall spending, this could be a tall order. As a result, Farm Bureau leaders and allies have been looking to free up money by cutting other programs. As in years past, one of their biggest targets—quite literally, in terms of dollar amounts—is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps, which derives its funding from the farm bill.

“We’re spending 80% more on SNAP than the 2018 Farm Bill projected, and when we say we would like more resources for the people who actually grow the food, people come up with lint in their pockets,” said Dustin Sherer, another director of government affairs for the Farm Bureau, during a session on federal policy. “That is one of the reasons that the farm bill hasn’t been done yet.”

John Newton, chief economist for the Senate Agriculture Republicans and former chief economist for the Farm Bureau, pointed to another potential source of funds: the Inflation Reduction Act’s conservation programs. Since those funds could expire in 2031 if left unused, Newton and other Republican members of Congress argue that about $37 billion in funds for USDA programs can be repurposed into the farm bill and reallocated.

But Clark Ogilvie, special counsel to the Committee on Agriculture in the U.S. House of Representatives, warned that limiting federal food assistance or repurposing Inflation Reduction Act funds was likely a non-starter for Democrats, whose votes will be needed to pass the farm bill.

“The only way you get a farm bill passed is you have everyone going in the same direction, and have everyone feel that they have a vested interest,” he said. “If you start robbing Peter to pay Paul, Paul tends to get a little upset about that. … If everyone is fighting for pie, it’s hard to keep that coalition together.”

If the farm bill does not pass by late March, he said, members of the House and Senate will likely become distracted with the need to campaign during the election season. Congress may opt to pass a one-year extension instead of renewing the farm bill for a full five-year term, which would create more instability in an already volatile agricultural market.

‘Do you think this job is easy?’

If the Biden- and Obama-appointed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack felt anxious about this political deadlock, he didn’t show it. At the convention’s awards ceremony, Vilsack proudly announced $207 million in funding to support renewable energy and fertilizer production on farms across 42 states and offered his view on the state of agriculture.

Small and mid-sized farms, Vilsack said, are a central component of the U.S. economy. But more than that, they also represent a pillar of democracy. Such farms represent a values system inherent to rural America, said Vilsack, one that understands “nothing is given, that everything is earned.” 

Since 1981, he said, the U.S. has seen hundreds of thousands of mostly small family farms close, a loss he attributes to industry consolidation.

The USDA’s 2022 Census of Agriculture, released in February, underscores this point. Between 2017 and 2022, the United States lost 7 percent of its farms, or more than 141,000 farms. The only category of farm that increased in number were the largest: farms with more than 5,000 acres of land. Similarly, farms with sales of $5 million or more account for less than 1% of all farms but reaped 42% of all farm sales. Farms with sales greater than $1 million account for 5.5% of all farms but took in more than 78% of total farm sales. 

Tom Vilsack addresses Farm Bureau members at the 2024 American Farm Bureau Annual Convention. (Michael LoBiondo, AFBF)

Vilsack said USDA had tried to combat farm losses through the Inflation Reduction Act by identifying new diversified means of income for small farms around the country.

“We can’t afford to continue to lose farms and farmland. We have to figure out a better way, a different way, a more exciting way, and that is what I spend virtually every waking moment of my life focused on,” he said. Convention-goers gave him a standing ovation.

But at a press conference following his speech, the crowd struck a different tone when Farm Bureau officials, interspersed among the reporters, began to push Vilsack to respond to accusations that he had not fairly distributed disaster relief funds under the 2022 Emergency Relief Program. In November, more than 140 industry groups—including the Farm Bureau—sent Vilsack a letter criticizing the USDA’s payment methodology, which gave a higher percentage of aid to smaller farmers.

“Do you think this job is easy?” Vilsack fired back. He countered that Congress gave the department $3.7 billion to deal with a $10 billion problem. The decision to decrease payments to larger farms and increase payments to small and mid-sized farms, he explained, was based on the rationale that the larger farms already took home a greater share of income and government benefits.

“The reality is Congress could have solved this problem and they chose not to,” said Vilsack, “and we tried to be fair to the people who needed the help the most.”

Opportunity in a Crisis

At one roundtable discussion on federal legislation, farmers highlighted a litany of concerns with a single theme: burdensome government regulation. For some, it was the Corporate Transparency Act, which will require many farms to disclose their owners. For others, it was regulation of PFAS, or forever chemicals, which could contaminate a farm unbeknownst the farmer via sludge-spreading practices or contaminated water, and trigger liability under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and Safe Drinking Water Act. The audience gasped when informed that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was considering new rules requiring new protections for workers beginning at temperatures of 80 degrees.

Susan Lake, a farmer and rancher from Montana who attended the session, said it left her feeling overwhelmed. “A lot of those environmental organizations—some of them do some really great things—but on the other hand, some of them do some really destructive things, that most people in New York City would think was a great thing, while those of us living in the West would think you’re destroying our culture and you’re destroying our livelihoods,” she said. “And they don’t think any sacrifice is too great… that’s scary to me.”

At another panel, Walker detailed a saga of declining water resources and threats to irrigation.

“All of the demands on the snowpack increase, and the state of the snowpack itself is in decline,” Walker said, rattling off the growing list of demands on water resources in his area including urban development, tribal water rights and the listing of new endangered species such as the coho salmon. “We feel like when more water is needed, we’re the ones they come to. … Why is ag the only knob to turn?”

A delegate at the American Farm Bureau Annual Convention’s annual meeting of voting delegates. (Michael LoBiondo, AFBF)

During a conference session on the Farm Bureau’s ongoing efforts to fight issues like the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule via the court system, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes promised to fight this litany of threats in a spirited address he himself acknowledged sounded like a television commercial. From the BLM’s proposal to allow conservation groups to lease public lands, to gun rights and the opioid epidemic, Reyes said he remained a dedicated champion of rural American values.

“Our fight is not just about esoteric court cases. It’s about your families and your kids and grandkids and them having a future,” he said. Absent this fight, he said, the future of the country looks bleak. “But with your support, I am optimistic we can return this country to rural values, to ag values.”

Reyes noted that despite his promotional speech, he does not plan to run for reelection this year. However, he did not mention the legal complaint filed in Salt Lake City alleging he had intimidated witnesses in a sexual assault case against Tim Ballard, the founder of anti-sex trafficking nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). Ballard resigned from the nonprofit last summer.

Reyes initially denied the allegations against him, but in a later video statement in which he announced he would not seek reelection said that he believed those who accused Ballard of sexual assault and apologized for a “past friendship with Tim Ballard and strong association with OUR [that] contributed to an environment that made them feel powerless and without a voice to fight back for many years.”

At Farm Bureau, however, Reyes simply signed off with a quip. “Don’t believe what you read in the media,” he said. “We are doing a righteous work.”

But if Reyes saw the Farm Bureau convention and its audience—with its economic anxiety and its likely lack of familiarity with the finer details of local news—as a potential opportunity for personal gain, he wasn’t the only one. Walker, in another session, related his success working with local tribal governments. The tribes are more willing to listen and compromise with farmers, he said, and the state of California will defer to whatever the tribes want, enabling farmers to use the tribes to manipulate policy in an otherwise uncooperative state.

And at the end of the day, Walker said, more regulations might put some farms out of business, but the ones that learn to work the system may enjoy higher profit margins down the road.

“Look at the spotted owl issue,” he said. The overall number of timber mills declined, he said, but others survived. “And those loggers and logging companies that saw this coming and were on the forefront… are 10 times more profitable than they were in the 80s.”

Emma Penrod

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