Farm Bureau: Not Just for Dairy Farmers

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If you’ve ever heard people talk about Farm Bureau, chances are you didn’t pay attention. As far as most horse people know, Farm Bureau is strictly concerned with cows and crops. That perception is wrong. Actually, the 80-year-old American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) works for the preservation and betterment of all agricultural endeavors, including those related to horses. In fact, with its sweeping slate of benefits—from insurance plans and educational resources to a strong presence in the legislative arena—the Farm Bureau offers distinct benefits to your equine operation.

What Is Farm Bureau?

Farm Bureau’s overriding goal is to make the business of farming (from aquaculture to warmbloods) more profitable and to make communities better places to live. To do this, the group works via a grassroots structure that begins with 2,800 county-level offices across the country encompassing five million member families. These county branches meld into state Farm Bureaus, one in each of the 50 states plus Puerto Rico, and finally into the national AFBF.

Amazingly, this giant octopus of an organization manages to present a powerful, unified voice that carries serious weight in town hall meetings, state legislatures and Washington, D.C. This alone—so different from the notorious independence of most horse associations—should make any equine industry professional sit up and take notice.

The topics addressed by Farm Bureau should also capture your attention. Broad-based and nonpartisan, the group’s interests touch on everything from natural resource usage and animal waste management to taxation and property rights. In short, what matters to its members is what matters to Farm Bureau.

“Because this is a grassroots organization, the people who join are the ones that make the decisions. Everything is open to membership voting,” says Amy Stegall, chairperson of the Connecticut Farm Bureau’s equine committee and owner of a thoroughbred and warmblood breeding facility in Stafford, Conn. “You can approach your local Farm Bureau committee, call things to their attention and get them to take action.”

Everyone Benefits

As further proof of its member focus, Farm Bureau offers numerous handy and money-saving perks. Although benefits vary from state to state, common examples include:

• Insurance policies purchased through the American Agricultural Insurance Company (for farm, home, business, auto, personal liability, equine mortality, etc.)

• Discounts or rebates on Dodge Motor Company vehicles

• Special deals on vehicle leases

• Communication services discounts (such as for cell phones)

• Prescription drug benefits

• Financial and banking services

• Travel services

• Discounts for veterinary care at major universities

The Equine Angle

Because of Farm Bureau’s unique structure, not only benefits, but also programs and priorities vary according to state. Some states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and Texas (see box below), have strong and active equine committees. But others have little direct involvement with their equine populations—a state of affairs that more equestrian members in Farm Bureau could quickly reverse, as Stegall proved in Connecticut.

As a member of her state’s equine advisory committee, Stegall ran into a Farm Bureau member during a meeting with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture about four years ago. “As a horse person, he wanted another horse person involved, so I joined the Farm Bureau,” she explains. “We quickly discovered that the equine sector didn’t know about Farm Bureau.”

To change that, Stegall worked with the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, which already had a solid equestrian membership. The two states shared a booth at The Equine Affaire in Springfield, Mass., last November and Connecticut plans to host its own booth at this year’s event. Just as important, Stegall pushed for new programs specifically designed to attract new equine members.

Her hard work paid off: Today, the Connecticut Farm Bureau claims more than 600 members specializing in the horse industry out of a total of 5,000 members. As a result, more equine-oriented programs are being offered within the state’s Farm Bureau to meet the needs of this growing percentage of membership.

For example, along with regular business meetings, Connecticut Farm Bureau holds free informational and educational sessions. Recent programs have included a tour of a new equine aqua-therapy facility, a tax-preparation seminar conducted by an equine tax attorney and a meeting with the state veterinarian, who updated members on the West Nile virus, discussing its impacts on the equine industry and personal health.

Social and charitable events also factor in. Stegall hopes to offer a bus trip to a Madison Square Garden horse show this fall and plans to run the group’s second annual trail ride to benefit breast cancer research.

Legislation and Outreach

One important factor of any Farm Bureau is its ability and willingness to work closely with other organizations, such as state councils, state departments of agriculture and the EPA in order to foster close working relationships and keep active in legislative issues that affect the industry.

For example, in Connecticut, the state’s Farm Bureau:

• Helped make it legal for non-veterinarians to float equine teeth

• Worked for passage of the equine liability law where, previously, stable owners and operators had no protection

• Helped gain recognition of equine boarding facilities as agricultural operations, so they can receive the same benefits and protection as any other farm

• Worked to defeat an anti-rodeo bill that, according to Stegall, “was being pushed by animal rights people and would have been a stepping stone to getting rid of all horse sports.”

A HEAPing Good Idea

One of the Connecticut Farm Bureau’s biggest undertakings has been its year-old Horse ­Enviro­nmental Awareness Program (HEAP). Its goal is to improve manure management techniques at farms throughout the state, awarding qualified facilities the title of “Farm of Distinction.”

The project is a cooperative venture developed with roughly a dozen other agencies, including the University of Connecticut and the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

It’s a prime example of Farm Bureau’s response to member needs, says Walstedt. “Connecticut is fairly urban, but it’s also second in horse population density, with about 60,000 head in our small state,” she explains, noting that this makes manure management and community relations primary concerns. “One week, I received three calls from horse people dealing with manure issues,” she recalls. “Some were being harassed by neighbors.” Deciding it was high time to get both horse people and town populations educated on the issue, Stegall called her contacts at the NRCS and got things rolling.

Since HEAP’s inception, six facilities have earned the Farm of Distinction designation. Any facility can earn the title simply by applying for, and passing, a judging panel’s inspection of its manure management program. In the end, the farms improve, the operators gain public recognition for their efforts and community relations get better.

Farm Bureau Responds to 60 Minutes Accusations

On April 9, 2000, the CBS show 60 Minutes aired a segment called “Voice of the Farmer.” Hosted by Mike Wallace and including interviews with Farm Bureau members, officers and opponents, the piece painted a negative picture of the American Farm Bureau Federation. We asked Cindy Walstedt, of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, to respond to some of the show’s contentions.

*60 Minutes contends: Farm Bureau does little today to help family farmers. Instead, the group spends its time “building a financial empire worth billions” and supporting the agribusinesses that threaten the existence of family farms.

Cindy Walstedt responds: “Mike Wallace painted a totally one-sided picture and a lot of people recognize that. I think it was propaganda more suited to a grocery store tabloid. The story was without balance. There are thousands of local farmers who are leaders at the national level; if they had been interviewed, there wouldn’t even have been a story.”

*60 Minutes: Farm Bureau is among the most powerful lobbying forces in the nation’s capital. Yet it uses its weight for private agendas (including enhancement of the corporate investment portfolio), not to aid small family farms.

Walstedt: “You have the Farm Bureau to thank for the reduction in the estate tax and capital gains tax, and the ability to write-off self-employment expenses. Furthermore, investing outside the ag industry is simply managing an investment portfolio properly by diversifying. But we can’t do any of these investments without the consent of Farm Bureau members, who give their yes or no at the county level.”

*60 Minutes: Farm Bureau also uses its political power to further causes unrelated to farming or the agricultural industry. Ken Cook, of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and an admitted enemy of the Farm Bureau, notes that Farm Bureau policies oppose the Voting Rights Act, oppose raising the minimum wage, support off-shore drilling and support a repeal of the Internal Revenue (Tax) Code. [Editor’s Note: EWG is a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization that provides content to public interest groups and litigators campaigning for pro-environmental causes.]

Walstedt: “Ken Cook makes his living getting people to give money to Environmental Working Group, and I’m sure his portrayal [on 60 Minutes] was good for a number of contributions. The irony here is that his radical causes threaten family farms. He is the last lobbyist in Washington to care about Farm Bureau members. And the policies [he addressed in the show] are all non-environmental issues. He is in attack mode and wants to discredit Farm Bureau.

“I’ve looked in our policy book. The opposition is philosophical and is based on state’s rights, not individual rights. We advocate civil rights, private property rights and upholding the rights of individuals. Members make the policies—and like every organization, not everyone agrees all the time. But if the county accepts and approves the policies, they go on to the state. Each state has a say in the national policy, which we review annually. Members vote on policies and they can take out or add in policies. The Farm Bureau has always had these processes to protect the rights of individuals. If members don’t like the wording of a policy, or the ramifications, or the money attached to it, they can change it.

“Finally, Farm Bureau does [support] off-shore drilling. We believe it has no detrimental environmental effects. Furthermore, the United States is becoming more and more dependent on foreign oil, and we need to keep some of the oil supply at home.”

*60 Minutes: Farm Bureau has also used its political clout in efforts to aid failing business investments, such as the soured Access Air start-up. This lobbying can come at the expense of supporting other farmer-friendly initiatives.

Walstedt: “Members need to get involved politically themselves, such as sponsor fundraisers for ag-friendly legislators. It’s important to show financial support for those in public office who are policy makers. It’s important for members to get involved and rotate leadership roles. Farm Bureau even offers political education workshops that can help members learn how to better participate in the system.”

*60 Minutes: The Iowa Farm Bureau “owns and operates a for-profit, $3.5 billion financial services company”—FBL Financial Group, whose investments include ConAgra, an agribusiness. Other Farm Bureau investments also support agribusiness, such as a Mississippi Farm Bureau company that owns shares in a corporate farm—hog processor Premium Standard Farms. The average Farm Bureau member knows nothing or very little about such investments.

[Editor’s Note: PSF is one of the largest pork producers in the country, with 1999 sales of $231.7 million and 2,500 employees. It has paid fines and faced protests in the past for economic and environmental reasons, but now boasts a “sustained environmental management system.” It is 51 percent owned by the agribusiness ContiGroup. FBL Financial Group sells insurance and annuity products through approximately 1,600 Farm Bureau agents in 14 states and through alliances with other non-Farm Bureau companies and dealers.]

Walstedt: “The term ‘corporate farm’ is overused and improperly used. Environmental and animal-rights activists love that term. But if you take the 1-1/2 percent of the population that farms, about 95 percent of those are family farms that have often been in a family for three generations or more and are incorporated for tax and legal reasons. The Farm Bureau has always, and will always, support family farms. Farm Bureau does not always support large agribusinesses, but those entities do put a lot of research back into agriculture, and we utilize the information they have to offer.”

*60 Minutes: Iowa Farm Bureau president Ed Wiederstein—along with 13 other state Farm Bureau presidents—received stock options for serving as directors of FBL. Average family farmers don’t have that benefit.

Walstedt: “Farm Bureau is a big organization in that state. No one talks about multi-billion-dollar animal-right’s groups that pay half-million dollar salaries to their executives.”

*60 Minutes: A radio talk show host, Ron Thorson, lost his job when disgruntled Farm Bureau members complained to the station’s general manager. Some of Thorson’s shows had criticized Farm Bureau.

Walstedt: “He was a critic of Farm Bureau. Local Farm Bureau members did complain, and that’s their right. He was fired because he had an ax to grind with Farm Bureau, and his comments were inappropriate.”

*60 Minutes: Paul and Linda Shutt, bread-store owners in downtown Chicago, were investigated by the FBI after collecting petitions for Defenders of Wildlife—a group trying to stop the plan to remove wolves from Yellowstone National Park. Farm Bureau supports the removal, and the Shutts sent their petitions to the local Farm Bureau office. The FBI came knocking a week later.

Walstedt: “60 Minutes failed to tell viewers that there had been terrorist threats made against the Farm Bureau office in Chicago. And that was not the first time we’d had bomb threats related to the wolves in Yellow­stone—which we oppose because they are not indigenous. When a bomb threat is made, the FBI is called in to investigate. Because the store owners were asking people to sign a petition about the wolves, they became part of the investigation. That’s just standard police work.”

To obtain a transcript of “Voice of the Farmer,” call (800) 777-TEXT or write to Burrelle’s Transcripts, P.O. Box 7, Livingston, NJ 07039. Transcripts are $9 each.