“I never thought I would want to join Farm Bureau, because I didn’t think it spoke for farmers like me.” This was my opening statement in the 2018 Farm Bureau Discussion Meet Contest, and it’s true. My relationship with Farm Bureau hasn’t always been easy, and people I talk to are often surprised that we are active members, so I thought I would take some time to talk about it.
My husband used to say that we would never join Farm Bureau because he didn’t agree with their policies (I had little knowledge of them not having grown up in agriculture), so imagine my surprise when one day I came home and he told me that he had signed us up. I had just gotten my job as an agriculture teacher, and he said that he figured it would be a good idea to join an organization like that to better have a finger on the pulse of the local agricultural community. We went to our first annual meeting a couple weeks later and that’s when my education began.
For those who don’t know, Farm Bureau is an agricultural advocacy organization, the largest one in the country. It is considered the more conservative and “big ag” counterpart to Farmers Union (of which I am also a member, just less active). Now while I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican, conservative is not a word that generally describes my views nor is “big ag” anywhere close to describing my farming practices. Farm Bureau, however, is a funny bird in that they are a grassroots and democratically-run group. So while at that first annual meeting I definitely held back some eyerolls on the policies that were up for vote to be taken to the state level; those were the policies that the farmers in my county had agreed needed attention and would ideally be lobbied for in Madison. It seemed silly at first, but as I have taken a more active role in the process I’ve realized that the policies don’t have to be skewed in one ideological direction, and it’s about who shows up to the meetings to discuss them.
Being a Farm Bureau member hasn’t always been easy. Our county has close ties to some politicians and was letting them actively campaign at our events, which made me uneasy given the organization’s professed nonpartisanship yet the consistent absence of one party. When I’ve competed in the Discussion Meet competition, a somewhat bizarre demonstration of aggressive consultation, it’s been clear that my ideas are not shared by most in the room. A keynote speaker at the state conference made my type of agriculture and my customers the butt of one of her biggest jokes. Last year my husband and I both became members of the county board, and I politely suggested to our president that maybe we make the prayers at our events a little more inclusive since my husband and I are Baha’is, and while it was eventually resolved well at the county level it got blown out of proportion and resulted in a state staff member showing a whole ton of “Christian fragility” and letting me know that I could leave the organization if I didn’t like the way this (professed nonreligious) organization conducted their prayers.
So why do we stay? Two reasons. One, I think I have the best county Farm Bureau in the country. Across the nation you hear about Farm Bureaus coming down on what I think are the wrong side of issues. From water quality in Iowa to intellectual property in California, those are definitely times when I say “not my Farm Bureau.” And it’s true, because for the last few years, our county Farm Bureau has partnered with the Green Lake Association here to host Soil Health Field Days to educate both farmers and consumers about soil health, nutrient management, and how to farm to protect water quality. The Green Lake Association has sponsored the creation of beautiful videos showing farmers using Best Management Practices on their land to help protect the water. Not all the farmers in my county are perfect or using these practices well, but as a county we have stood up and said we want to proactively communicate with consumers and shoreline owners instead of sticking our heads in the sand. I have shown the videos to people across the country that I meet at conferences and they always say, “Wow, I wish my Farm Bureau was like that.”
Reason 1a. The district coordinator for my area is really a gem and has always listened patiently to my concerns. She alone has kept me from unenrolling on multiple of my more frustrated days. We end up seeing each other a lot at county fairs and over the years have talked a lot to the point that I am now glad to call her my friend.
Second, I love Farm Bureau for letting me fly my ag nerd freak flag high. I have made a few good friends through Farm Bureau and we truly enjoy spending a conference hashing out the issues and discussing where ag is going. I recently hosted a movie night for my county and we got to have some really great discussion about ag technology and communicating with the public and where most of agriculture is missing the mark.
But is there hope for Farm Bureau to become more inclusive and right itself on the important issues? A few years ago I would have been afraid to publish this post for fear of being ostracized and my answer would have been no. But a month ago I had the opportunity to attend an American Farm Bureau Conference for the first time. I’m not sure why I wanted to go other than to try to understand the organization at a deeper level and have some fun. I wasn’t expecting to get much out of the sessions, but luckily my best ag nerd Farm Bureau friend took me to the policy sessions with her and it was an enlightening experience. I learned about the policies the members had chosen at a national level, some of which contradict those we want in Wisconsin. I got an idea for where they think the ag markets are headed, which is really valuable in the classroom as I try to give kids a picture about the future of ag. And I watched the bizarre dance of attempts at nonpartisanship, extreme dislike for the current trade wars, but also reverence for the current President of the US while making some really interesting claims about Democrats and their supposed desires for ag and immigration policy, all with some climate change denialism mixed in.
Now I realize that last bit maybe doesn’t sound reassuring, but after those two sessions I looked at the brochure of where to go next. Much to my surprise there was a session on direct marketing, lead by three members of this year’s cohort of the national ag leadership class Farm Bureau offers. It was good, and I realized in that room that I was definitely not alone as there were a lot of other direct marketers (what we do by selling straight to the customer), and that we could actually be a force within Farm Bureau. One of the presenters in particular really seemed like my kind of person, and she happened to be presenting another session later that day so I went to it.
This session was on Farm Bureau Membership in the 21st century. You see in many states Farm Bureau is in a bit of a membership crisis as Nationwide Insurance, which was founded by Ohio Farm Bureau, has stopped attaching Farm Bureau memberships to their policies in many states where they had before. This made up a majority of paying members in some states. In Wisconsin, Rural Mutual Insurance is a Farm Bureau affiliate company that provides us a lot, but by no means a large majority, of our memberships. So the presenters, both younger folks from Maryland, asked the audience what people think of when they think of Farm Bureau. At first the answers were pretty generic about ag and policy, but eventually they got into conservative and anti-environment and the like. This was exactly what the presenters were looking for. They realized that Farm Bureau is not portraying itself well to younger, more environmentally-conscious folks and farmers in the grazing or organic scene. So they put up a booth at the Sustainable Ag conference in Maryland and tried to engage in dialog about what Farm Bureau does and how it works. While the session may not have turned the Titanic of Farm Bureau itself, the presenter and I really hit it off and there was a sense of camaraderie among some of us that this organization belongs to us and we are its future, we just have to make our voice heard.
So while I will continue to grind my teeth at every Farm Bureau representative or agriculturalist in general who goes on about being pro-science in regards to biotechnology while simultaneously dismissing climate change, and I will continue to suppress my eyerolls at some of the old men who make ridiculous comments about all manner of things during meetings, I have claimed Farm Bureau as mine and I’m not letting go. The grassroots nature of Farm Bureau actually makes it easier as anyone can bring something up to their county for policy proposal that could go all the way to the national level. My experience with the American Farm Bureau Fusion Conference taught me that while we are a small faction, there’s more of us than I thought, we know what we are doing, and we can make change. The future of agriculture, our soil, our water, and our planet are too important for me to cede that territory. So that’s why I am Farm Bureau.