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American Farm Bureau Federation : The Enemy Within
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective
Issue # 73
May 8, 2000
By: A.V. Krebs
Alarming as Mike Wallace's recent "60
Minutes" essay on the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) was to
millions of Sunday evening television viewers, the scandalous history of the
80-year old organization also reveals that time after time it has ignored the
best interests of its farm members in favor of those goals and objectives
favoring corporate agribusiness.
When one reads Dale Kramer's timely The TRUTH
About the Farm Bureau, published in the mid-30's and reprinted in 1950, or
Wesley McCune's well-documented The Farm Bloc, published in 1943, or Samuel R.
Berger's telling Dollar Harvest: An Expose of the Farm Bureau, published in
1971, or Grant McConnell's thoughtful The Decline of Agrarian Democracy
published in 1977 it is clear to see that the Farm Bureau has indeed been the
"enemy within" agriculture, that it's leadership has paid scant
attention to the needs of family farmers while enriching themselves at the
expense of those same members.
Indeed with the long train of policy
manipulations and abuse of its farm membership as its legacy being exposed by
such investigative reports as "60 Minutes" and the recent Defenders of
the Wildlife Amber Waves of Gain, the Farm Bureau's day of reckoning may be at
hand and Nebraska's famed U.S. Senator George Norris's thundering prophecy seven
decades ago may now become a reality: "The time will come when the rank and
file of American farmers will realize by whom they are being deceived."
PLYING THE "TACTICS OF A RURAL
An enduring mystery of the post-World War II era
is that while the American Farm Bureau Federation has grown so politically
powerful, both within the farm community and in the halls of congress, pushing
both its legislative agenda while destroying agencies and organizations it saw
as a threat, there has Keen an almost total lack of critical analysis by farmers
or their elected representatives about the ways and the means and the goals the
Farm Bureau often employs in its pursuit of political and economic power.
The story of Rep. Joseph Resnick (Dem.-N.Y.) and
the fate of his 1967inquiry into the affairs of the Farm Bureau possibly
clarifies why we have seen so few "profiles in courage" in evidence in
the Congress of the United States in all the years that the Farm Bureau has
claimed to be "the voice of American agriculture."
In June, 1967, Resnick, Chairman of the House
Agriculture Subcommittee on rural development, was holding unprecedented
hearings on the affects of Federal programs in rural America and their role in
alleviating rural poverty. The AFBF was invited to testify in regards to the
role they were playing in meeting the needs of the rural poor, but at the
initial hearing time expired before the Farm Bureau representative could
complete his testimony.
At the following week's hearings and before the
completion of the Farm bureau representative's testimony, Resnick had uncovered
material strongly indicating that the Farm Bureau had substantial nonfarm
membership and that it was conducting widespread and questionable financial and
commercial activities. Resnick further noted that the Bureau was a gigantic
interlocking, nationwide combine of insurance and reinsurance companies which
were unrelated to the interests of farmers.
Once again, however, time expired before the Farm
Bureau could complete its testimony or challenge Resnick's charges, so the
Congressman invited the Bureau representative to come back before the committee
and complete his remarks.
In the following week, however, Roger Fleming,
the then AFBF secretary-treasurer, dispatched a letter to House Agriculture
Committee chairman W.R. Poage, with copies to each committee member, specifying
those terms by which he would appear before Resnick to continue the Bureau's
testimony. In effect the letter was what Resnick later called "a blueprint
for Agriculture Committee action to silence me and prevent me from making
further revelations about the Farm Bureau." In part the letter stated:
"In the interest of justice and fair play
we urge the full committee give immediate consideration to the charges made by [Resnick]
against the Farm Bureau organization (county, state and national) . . . if the
Committee does not concur in these charges, then we feel that the Committee
should clear the record by adopting a resolution in which it disassociates
itself from the attacks on the Farm Bureau made by [Resnick] and by making known
to the public at an early date its disposition of this matter."
Within 24 hours of receiving the letter five
members of Resnickís subcommittee, four of which were reportedly Farm Bureau
members, issued a statement attacking their chairman's criticisms of the farm
Bureau with language almost identical to that in the Bureau letter.
Their statement was followed by action
unprecedented in the history of the U.S. Congress. Within 48 hours of receiving
Fleming's letter, the full Ag Committee met behind closed doors in executive
session without Resnick present and issued a statement declaring it did "in
no manner endorse, condone or support the personal attack launched by the
Chairman of the Subcommittee on Rural Development upon the AFBF."
At the same time, the committee was issuing its
statement, the Farm bureau's Fleming was distributing a press release which
stated: "This judgment by his Congressional colleagues should make it clear
that Congressman Resnick's charges against the Farm Bureau Federation are
reckless, unwarranted, and unfounded." Later,in a speech to the House of
Representatives Resnick reflected:
"While any reading of the committee
resolution would make it obvious that Mr. Fleming's statement did not contain a
single grain of truth, and was in no way related to the specific and documented
charges I have made against the Farm Bureau, not one single member of the
committee has risen to criticize him for it . .. [The AFBF] reaction, and the
reaction of the Committee on Agriculture is all the more remarkable when we
recognize that I am being attacked --- not for telling lies about the Farm
Bureau --- but for revealing the truth. The plain fact is that this powerful
organization has at no time denied or contradicted any of the revelations I have
made about its operations. But before my subcommittee they were evasive,
tight-lipped and downright untruthful."
Later, Resnick added:
"The leaders of the Farm Bureau run their
organization with the heavy-handed tactics of a rural Mafia. As long as the
members pay their dues and their insurance premiums, keep the Farm Bureau gas
bill paid up to date, and do not run up too sizable a bill at the Farm Bureau's
so-called cooperative, they are entitled to all the benefits that membership in
the Farm Bureau bestows on an individual. But, if anyone dares to question
policy or voice disapproval loud enough, the wrath of the magnates of the
Merchandise Mart will rain down upon him and his."
Or as one former woman officer of a county Farm
Bureau wrote to Rep. Resnick: "Most people talk to convey a meaning, the
Farm Bureau talks to keep you from figuring out the meaning."
A BILL OF PARTICULARS
A review of Congressman Joseph Resnick's
"revelations" today concerning the American Farm Bureau Federation's
operations in the 1960's has led an ever increasing number of angry and
disillusioned family farmers to realize that a similar, if not identical set, of
charges could legitimately be made against the present AFBF organization.
Resnick's charges included
* The Farm Bureau is not the organization of
farmers it claims to be. Substantial portion of its membership --- possibly less
than half --- have no agricultural interest whatsoever. (The USDA Agricultural
Census reported in 1997 that there were 1.9 million farmers in the U.S. The Farm
Bureau boasts a membership of 4.9million members.)
*The Farm Bureau has used the American farmer to
build one of the largest insurance and financial empires in the United states.
* The Bureau has misrepresented itself to the
Internal Revenue Service in order to obtain a tax exemption, and to the clerks
of both Houses of Congress.
* The directors and officers of the Farm Bureau
are also directors and officers of insurance companies directly and indirectly
controlled and owned by various State Farm Bureaus. As a result of these
interlocking directorates the Farm Bureau could well be in violation of
* The Farm Bureau has taken advantage of its tax
exempt status in order to expand its business activities which cover the fields
of insurance, real estate, shopping centers, fertilizer, mutual funds, gas
stations, oil wells, grain storage, petroleum refineries, and a considerable
variety of other such ventures.
* Because of its widespread commercial interests
the Farm Bureau has misrepresented its true nature in its dealings with farmers
and its statements to Congressional committees.
* As a tax-exempt organization the Farm Bureau
has been improperly competing in commercial activities with private taxpaying
business concerns, thus enjoying an unfair competitive advantage.
* The Farm Bureau has torpedoed American farmers
by posing as an organization representing their interests when in fact, the
Bureau's widespread commercial activities --- which include the operation of
businesses which sell to the farmer and buy from the farmer --- puts them into a
position of representing a point of view antagonistic to the interests of the
* The Farm Bureau's commercial activities have
generated funds which have found their way illegally into political and lobbying
A RUSTLING IN THE GRASSROOTS
Despite the admonition from his Congressional
colleagues Rep. Joeseph Resnick continued his investigation and attacks on the
Farm Bureau. In the meantime, he received hundreds of letters from farmers
throughout the country ("One might say that the farmers of America have
been my unofficial investigative force in the field") calling his attention
to a plethora of questionable Farm Bureau practices.
Charging that the Farm Bureau had done more to
prevent economic and social advancement than any other organization in America,
Resnick told the pathetic stories he had heard about the misery of migrant
workers and the poverty of rural communities throughout the nation, such as
Belle Glade, Florida (which in later years would become known as "the AIDS
capital of the world") where the second largest industry was the
manufacture of baby coffins.
"The Farm Bureau," Resnick declared,
"is entitled to its full share of the blame for the fact that our rural
areas are burdened with the most poverty, highest unemployment, least social and
economic development, and poorest health facilities in the Nation. Their crime
has not been mere indifference. Quite the contrary. They have intensively fought
every attempt to correct the ills."
There is nothing to which the Farm Bureau has
dedicated more of its resources, save the dismantling of Federal farm programs,
than fighting to destroy attempts by farm labor to achieve economic and social
From both legislative and often times physical
prevention of the organization of farm workers to the prohibiting of strikes,
from promoting the importation of foreign migrant laborers to denying coverage
of social security and unemployment insurance to farm workers, from opposing
coverage of field workers by minimum wage and hour laws to restricting
enforcement of health and safety laws in the field (e.g., its 1985 platform
called for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)), the
Farm Bureau has devoted countless time and effort to stifling progress in rural
When organized labor won their right to
collectively bargain with their employer under provisions of the Wagner Act in
the 1930's it was the AFBF that successfully
campaigned and lobbied against the inclusion of farm labor, a stance they still
maintain to this day as farm workers continue to struggle to obtain those rights
under law enjoyed by the rest of organized labor.
Also, as recently as 1985 the Texas Farm Bureau
voiced its opposition to federal minimum wage for farm workers and reaffirmed
its long-standing opposition to child labor legislation, workers' compensation
and unemployment compensation, and the abolition of the back-breaking
Here too, the Bureau's vested interests are
blatant. In many farm areas, the Farm Bureau has not only operated farm labor
camps, but served as a contractor service in providing local growers with
seasonal workers. Despite fatal fires in what have been described as
"squalid" labor camps and fatal accidents involving over-crowded work
buses, the Farm Bureau has constantly opposed legislation to correct unsafe
conditions claiming each time that such federal or state action would be
inappropriate since no "dire emergency" exists.
The Bureau's role as a farm labor contractor no
doubt explains why when in 1983 the North Carolina State Farm Bureau opposed
Nothing typifies the Farm Bureau's attitude
toward rural poverty and the people who are forced to suffer inhuman conditions
in rural America more poignantly than a statement by the AFBF's one time
president Charles Schuman in an interview with the St. Louis Post Dispatch a
number of years ago.
First, he defined poverty as "a combination
of lack of education, training and lack of ambition . . .I don't think the
Federal Government can do anything about it except spend a lot of money . .
.thievery things which have made our Nation relatively free of poverty ---
freedom to work or play, freedom to spend or save, freedom to own a TV set and a
Cadillac but live in a shack in order to do so. We are already too far down the
road that lead to socialism --- a morally decrepit philosophy which destroys the
initiative to do better."
Later, Schuman, while conceding that the U.S.
indeed had "poverty-stricken families," wrote in Nation's Agriculture:
"What kind of poverty is this. With abundant educational and job
opportunities on every hand, it must be primarily a poverty of the mind and soul
--- a lack of desire."
In all of its public policy statements, which
include everything from pornography (there against it!), to off-track betting,
from the libraries of ex-presidents to pay TV, from ROTC to the National council
of Churches, the Farm Bureau never quite gets around to addressing itself to
rural poverty. Moreover, it has openly fought against the establishment of
Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and attempted to stop the activities of
the National association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Legal
Defense Fund and the National Migrant Ministryís efforts to assist farm
workers and the rural poor.
In other areas of agriculture the Farm Bureau has
distorted the issues, used scare tactics and opposed pro-family farm legislation
that conflicted with its own self-interests. In March, 1985,for example, in the
midst of the nation's farm debt crisis, it called on Congress to defeat national
legislation requiring the secretary of Agriculture to grant deferrals and forego
foreclosures on FmHA loans.
FARM BUREAU COOPERATIVES
During his late 1960's investigation of the AFBF,
Congressman Joseph Resnick sought to show how both the Farm Bureau supply and
marketing cooperatives ranked as "one of the most gigantic and successful
shell games ever practiced."
By transferring their tax burden from themselves
to their patrons, Resnick charged, these "farm cooperatives" evaded
federal income taxes. The vehicle for such a transfer --- worthless dividend
certificates --- was one many farmers had learned about the hard way. Federal
tax laws allowed the Farm Bureau co-ops to distribute such worthless pieces of
paper instead of money, and then deduct their face value from the co-op's
earnings before figuring their taxes.
At the same time the Farm Bureau had used such
"kept money" to expand into contract farming and drive independent
millers, supply houses, oil dealers, warehouses, and grain elevators out of
business. It had likewise made individual farmers captives of the Farm Bureau
Co-op and/or its feed companies. Through this process the co-ops had been taking
over the farm supply and commodity marketing business by buying up and absorbing
private independent companies and becoming gigantic businesses with management
effectively insulated from the farmer patron, who by now had little real voice
in the decision making.
The Farm Bureau, Resnick also noted, had been
repeatedly telling the IRS that its membership was limited to people who
"are engaged in carrying on a farm or farms or who have a major
agricultural interest." Branding such reports to the IRS as "an
outright lie" Resnick pointed out in Illinois (in a pattern that persists
to this day) in 1967, the state where the Farm Bureau has its national
headquarters (often referred to as the "agricultural pentagon") and
its largest state organization, there was a loss of 9000
farms while the State Farm Bureau showed an increase in membership of 10,681.
Discussing the Farm Bureau's membership policies,
Resnick told many stories he had heard of what some farmers called the "gestapo-like
tactics" on the part of the Farm Bureau management; how they waged (in the
Bureau's own words) "neutralization" campaigns against ministers who
spoke out against them and how members who questioned policy would suddenly find
their Farm Bureau insurance policies canceled.
Another area of AFBF activity that Rep. Resnick
found alarming at the time was the Farm Bureau's close ties with the political
far right in the U.S. "What might once have been conservative,
business-oriented organization is now considerably more," the New York
Congressman declared in 1968. "By my calculation, the farm Bureau is the
most efficient conduit now in existence for the dissemination of right-wing
propaganda. The bureau is a perfect sewer line for transporting right-wing
ideology, particularly to our young people."
It would be unfair to blame the AFBF entirely for
the recent spate of fascist, racist, anti-Semitic vigilante farm groups which
have sprung up throughout the U.S. in the past 20-25 years, born in frustration
and nurtured by a continuing farm depression. However, the Farm Bureau, through
its long-standing role as a visible propaganda agent for right-wing extremism,
certainly made itself the spawning ground for the misdirected, unsocial and
violent behavior that has become the hallmark in many of the nation's farm
JOSEPH RESNICK, 1924-1969 --- R.I.P.
In the spring, 1969 Congressman Joseph Resnick
left Washington, D.C. and returned to private law practice. He still harbored,
however, a deep and abiding interest in the AFBF. He and his former staff
person, Samuel R. Berger, decided to co-author a book detailing the activities
of the Farm Bureau and attempt to answer those questions that the Congressman's
earlier probes had raised. Berger traveled across the country, interviewing
hundreds of people and reviewing pages and pages of Congressional documents
amassed during and after Resnick's hearings. Suddenly at age 45, Resnick died in
Berger, now head of Clinton's National Security
Agency (NSA) doggedly pursued the investigation and in 1971 authored Dollar
Harvest: An Expose of the Farm Bureau. Curiously, in Bergerís official
biography the book is now simply referred to as "a book on American rural
politics" and in all the newspaper accounts and profiles of Berger since he
has taken over as the head of the NSA no mention is made of his authorship of
Nevertheless, in chapter after chapter Berger
details how the Farm Bureau could more accurately be described not as a farm
organization, but as a multi-billion dollar business combine with interests
ranging from insurance to oil, fertilizer to finance, mutual funds to urban
"The farmer" he noted, "has
increasingly become the customer, not the constituent of an organization that
today regards agriculture largely as the market for its own goods and services,
as the cornerstone of a commercial empire."
Berger goes to show how the Farm Bureau's
political power stemmed first from its huge business earnings that are
frequently siphoned off (while the IRS is busy elsewhere) into tax-exempt state
and national Farm Bureau chapters to be used for lobbying and other political
ventures. Second, the Farm Bureauís political power has been enhanced by the
public and the Congress's long-standing acceptance of the AFBF as "the
voice of American agriculture," when in fact a near majority of the
membership joined the Bureau only as a prerequisite to buying its insurance.