Why Join the Farm Bureau

Amongst folks I've talked to about food and agriculture issues, the Farm Bureau and 2008's Ohio Issue 2 (overview here on Ballotpedia and here on the League of Women Voters' Smart Voter) both carry decidedly negative connotations.  But, truthfully, I don't deeply understand either.  So, while I've generally formed opinions, if I'm being honest with myself I have to be open to new ideas until I have significantly more knowledge on the subjects.

Doing some shopping this past weekend, we ran into a Northside neighbor - Cynthia Brown.  We struck up a conversation and the Farm Bureau came up, followed by Issue 2.  I thought she had such an interesting perspective that I asked her to share her thoughts about why to join the Farm Bureau and her take on Issue 2.  I think this is very relevant to thoughtful farmers and consumers alike that are interested in building a sustainable food system - and it touches on key issues around organizing, power, and how to make systemic change.  So, without further ado...
There is an old saying that you cannot really change the system from within the system. I believe that most of the time. I do believe, however, that there are exceptions to the rules about almost everything.  The Farm Bureau is one of those things. Every farming member of the Bureau has a vote. That means that if you have a working farm and earn some income from your farm, you can have a vote on all policy issues the Farm Bureau addresses. You can even help select the issues that the Bureau is going to address. So, if you join the Bureau, you can join the policy committee and, at the annual membership meeting, you can vote for or against supporting policies which are then taken to the state and national levels.

The question then becomes, who does the Farm Bureau really represent? At this time, on the national level, it is agribusiness. Why? They have all the money. Why join the Farm Bureau now? At this critical moment in time, when the local movement is really gaining momentum, when urban agriculture is taking hold and garnering a great deal of United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) funding, when small, diversified farms are being examined as engines of local commerce, there is strength in numbers. Further, the age of the small farmers, the micro-processor, the urban growers is significantly lower than the traditional agri-business farmers. Add to that, the social media available to the younger generation and the time is really right to pack the house, so to speak.

If every person who grows and sells at small farmers markets and every person looking to find an urban plot to grow food for commerce joined the Farm Bureau, the sheer numbers would change the focus and policies of the organization. There has never been a better time to make your one vote count. And, the organization is completely democratic – one member, one vote. Further, while currently in bed with corporate interests, the Bureau is still on the forefront of agricultural issues. The Bureau membership is constantly updated on potential legislation etc. and many times those issues are still in committee and not even on the floor of the state or national legislature.

Look at issue 2. The Farm Bureau made a presentation to its membership on the need to pass the issue months before the campaign went public, months before the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA) or any other agency was aware it was really coming. Why was the Farm Bureau for Issue 2? They helped create it. When the Humane Society of the United States passed their ballot initiative in California, they came to the Ohio Dept. of Agriculture and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and told them they were going to pass the same kind of legislation in Ohio. They asked those two agencies to work with them. Both agencies listened, smiled, thanked them for their time and, after the Humane Society left, they decided to do something to stop them.

The question became, “How do you block a ballot initiative?” The correct answer, legally, is with the passage of a constitutional amendment. The answer was correct; the question was wrong. The question should have been, “How can we get the farmers in Ohio to help us defeat this initiative?” The Farm Bureau is the largest lobby in the country and has deeper pockets than big oil. If they had mobilized to get the vote out against the Humane Society rather than mobilizing for a constitutional amendment, the outcome would have been very different. The Humane Society would have learned that all Ohio farmers were opposed to their initiative, not jut the well-oiled Farm Bureau war machine. Of course small farmers are worried that the new commission will be heavily weighted toward agribusiness, and, it will, because the Bureau membership is also weighted that way. To change that, small farmers need to make sure they are represented on that commission. How do they do that? By joining the organization that is helping to form that commission. They need to make sure that the commission fairly represents small, diversified farms. And, in the future, when outside interests try to change how Ohio farmers do things, the entire state can and will speak with one voice. In our world of convoluted politics, there are not many opportunities for the individual to really make a difference. In an organization like the Farm Bureau, time, age and the wave of new ideas, means farmers have that opportunity. The question is will the new generation of small farmers, both urban and rural, take it?
- Cynthia M. Brown
So, what do you think?

Personally, this made me think about how it disappoints me when folks simultaneously say they don't pay attention to politics because all the politicians are the same or because Congress gets nothing done, when really they just don't know (Jay Smooth does an excellent video blog about this).  It's ok to not know, and it's ok to have a take on politics, but you can't have both at the same time.  And so when I look myself in the mirror, I have to say that on the Farm Bureau and Issue 2, I still just don't know.

This is important for folks interested in the Farm Bureau in our tri-state neighbors Kentucky and Indiana too, as well as folks in every state - livestock care boards will make their way to you as well eventually. Finally, a big thank you to Cynthia for putting her ideas out there!  They won't be popular with some folks - Humane Society folks will disagree with the basic premise regarding Issue 2, farmer's with poor experiences with the Farm Bureau may have understandably lost hope, etc.  I hope that there will be a constructive dialogue about this topic though, because this is exactly the kind of thing we want to foster on Amateur Foodies - a place for folks to learn from one another.

Please forward and post this with your networks, and please comment below.


Foodstuffs said...

This is such an interesting issue, and it's become an issue about which I have developed stronger feelings in the past 2 years. My normal cynicism aside, I agree with Ms. Brown's assessment. While supporting the effort of the Farm Bureau may seem a bit like strange bedfellows for many farmers, it really does seem to be the only avenue for state-wide and/or national policy and changes to move forward.

Of course it's not without some internal angst I support the measure or would support small, independent farmers to join the FB. It will certainly be discouraging and disheartening for smaller farmers to have their voices heard or their priorities laid clear in the face of the conflicting priorities of agribusiness. But the more smaller, independent farmers who can join, who can add their voices to the discussion, and who can make it clear that their priorities are OUR priorities, then some things may change for farmers and those of us who benefit from their efforts and work.

In the meantime, as Michael Pollan stressed in his appearance in "Food, Inc." and throughout much of his own writing, as consumers we "vote" three times a day indicating our food preferences and priorities. When we make it clear that we care about how farms, farmers, and their animals are treated by supporting those farms who comport themselves in humane and sustainable ways, then perhaps the numbers of those such farms will grow, and their collective voice will become the more dominant one on the FB and in the more prevalent discussions happening on this topic.

Mike Haley said...

I totally agree that membership is what drives Farm Bureau. I would like to point out one thing though, Ohio Farm Bureau did not ask the question of "What can we do to stop HSUS" They knew there was no way to stop them as we are seeing today. What the question they asked was "what can we do to make sure that correct management practices are created in Ohio?" This is where the livestock care board came into play, a board that continually looks at new information and determines the best care practices for livestock in our state.

I also understand your concerns on how it will effect small farmers, just as large farmers are concerned. I encourage you to attend the information sessions listed below and share your concerns about how legislation may negatively effect your farming practices.

May 12, Independence Elementary School, Lima; May 13, Columbus Global Academy, Columbus; May 18, Miami Valley Career Technology Center, Clayton; May 25, Mideast Career & Technology Center, Senacaville; and May 26, Carver Community Center, Chillicothe.

John's Custom Meats said...

Small farmer down here in Kentucky...waving! We raise cattle and operate a small USDA inspected slaughter facility that specializes in farm to fork. All of our cattle are marketed directly to the public. We also purchase livestock from other area farms to fill the protein needs of our niche for alternativly raised (non feedlot) meats.

I agree with Cynthia. In order to have policy change that directly affects your farm (whatever it may look like) you must be involved. They cannot address issues they do not know about. We are members of our state's Farm Bureau and very proud of that.

We have created many advantages for our smaller farmers from Roadside stand listings to TV/Media shows spotlighting these farms.

If you want to create & reflect change, IMO Farm Bureau is where it's at. Help your voice get heard. It's worked for us.

Gavin DeVore Leonard said...

Thanks for the comments - great stuff everyone!

DanatOFBF said...

Hi Gavin,

This blog post and especially Cynthia’s opinion does a good job summarizing what Farm Bureau has always been about. Farm Bureau has always been an organization of, for and directed by the farmers of Ohio. Our grassroots policy development process comes from our members, who represent all facets of agriculture. Whether it’s conventional or organic, or hobby farmers to those that raise thousands of animals, each farmer has a say in the direction of the organization. (Learn more about our policy development process here: http://ofbf.org/policy-and-politics/policy-development/)

Our current membership includes nearly 80 percent (more than 60,000) of Ohio’s 76,000 farm families, so our organization largely reflects the demographics of Ohio agriculture. We certainly encourage the other 20 percent to become members and be sure their voices are heard.

When we see a diverse group of farmers get together, we often find their interests are not always at odds, so we welcome all shapes and sizes of farmers who wish to participate.

To learn more about Ohio Farm Bureau or to join, you can visit http://GrowWithFB.org.
Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

If you have further questions, you can reach us at info@ofbf.org.

Carriage House Farm said...

This is one of the many reasons why we recently joined the Hamilton County FB.

Lately I have had issue with this constant commentary on how new farming practices that are leading away from chemical reliance and over farming of what used to be some of the best soils on this planet is somehow heading back to "40 Acres and a Mule".

We have a 300 acre farm and as we head AWAY from Corn and Soybean and get a better understanding how to TRULY grow in a sustainable fashion I can tell you that the last thing we are heading towards is "40 acres and a mule".

I want to help change that mentality.