The Farm Bureau Four

Food and farm reformers have rightly been focusing on the presidential primary season, urging candidates to talk about agriculture and engage in “good food” issues. But there’s another presidential race that will have profound impacts on our future food and farm system. And this contest has been flying under the radar of the good food movement.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is the largest and most influential agriculture group in the country (here’s an in-depth profile I did on the group for Civil Eats). The group and its powerful state level bureaus are broadly responsible for our current agriculture system that prioritizes industrial-scale grain farms and livestock operators over smaller and more diverse operations. This system championed and tenaciously fought for by Farm Bureau members efficiently churns out cheap calories while externalizing environmental costs and social impacts onto the American public.

After 16 years at the helm, current president Bob Stallman announced his retirement earlier this year. Stallman has steered the organization through an era of intense transformation and scrutiny. Americans are now more focused on what they eat and how their food is grown than ever before. This has given rise to a host of contentious issues from GMO labeling to agriculture pollutants contaminating drinking water.

To that end, four men with leadership experience at state level have officially entered into the race to lead the national Farm Bureau.  A helpful lens to view the Farm Bureau presidential race through is that of a binary political equation. In this equation, there’s food activists or the “Food Party” on one side. On the other side is a consortium of conservative-leaning agriculture groups like the Farm Bureau, corporate food lobbyists and far-right politicians like Iowa’s Steve King. A group I’ve taken to calling the “Corn”servatives. Thus, for the Food Party, the election of a new Farm Bureau president should be viewed as an event akin to electing a new RNC chairman.

Tomorrow, January 12th, at the Farm Bureau’s annual national convention in Orlando, Florida, delegates from state bureaus across the country will elect a new leader. According to Southeast Farm Press:

The AFBF presidential election, which is for a two-year term, will be at the annual AFBF convention in Orlando Jan. 12. Each state is allotted voting delegates based on its number of Farm Bureau members. Additional delegates come from the AFBF Women’s Leadership and Young Farmers & Ranchers Committees and the sitting AFBF president for a total of 355 voting delegates. The next AFBF president will need the support of 179 voting delegates at the convention.

Now no candidate is going to stray from the Farm Bureau’s conservative roots, nor will they propose agriculture policy changes contrary to the current industrial agriculture model. There will be no exaltations of organics or praise for local food systems. If anything, a president’s mandate is to ensure the status quo. By reading through agriculture trade press coverage of the race there is plenty of Cornservative talk from candidates about keeping government away from farmers and ranchers in the form of regulation and keeping taxpayers close in the form of unlimited opaque subsidies to mega farms.

The men vying to be the next Farm Bureau majordomo are:

Zippy Duvall has been president of the Georgia Farm Bureau for 9 years and is considered the odds on favorite to win due to the large number of southern members who could support him. Duvall is a relatively modest recipient of federal farm subsidy support receiving $233,000. (That number does not include crop insurance subsidies — now the main form of delivering federal agriculture welfare – because that information is barred by law from being released to the taxpayers that fund it.)

Duvall and his wife run a 250 brood-cow beef operation and raise poultry and hay. Duvall is fairly measured in his election rhetoric, sticking to meat and potatoes issues farm bureau members respond to like government overreach. For example, when asked by AgriNews, “what’s the biggest issue facing farm families?” Duvall’s reply was “the biggest issue is probably the gradual loss of our private property rights through the clean air, clean water and endangered species acts.”

Don Villwock of Indiana has been the director of the Indiana Farm Service Agency and president of Indiana Farm Bureau. He is the candidate most likely to give Zippy Duvall a competitive race. Next to the South, the Corn Belt has the biggest voting block. Villwock, it seems, is also prone to more heated language than Duvall.

Villwock told Growing Georgia that he wants to “help our farmers and ranchers go on the offense and stand up against groups who do not necessarily share those values.” Sounds like a call to arms against Food Party goals. He expounded on those sentiments with AgriNews, saying, “Our members want to go on the offense. They are tired of being abused in the media and on the Internet by false accusations. They want our positive story to be told and they want to be proactive rather than being reactive. I want to be their spokesperson or help quarterback a team that shares our great story.”

Villwock also alluded to the free pass industrial agriculture gets in terms of pollution and externalized costs with AgriNews, underscoring the need to keep the rigged game in place. “Keeping our unwritten license with society to do what we do best will be our biggest challenge in the future.”

Barry Bushue has been the Oregon Farm Bureau president since 1999. He faces an uphill battle for the big seat due to Oregon’s lack of influence as relayed by this profile in Farm Progress.

Oregon farmer Barry Bushue knows that the cards aren’t stacked in his favor for succeeding Bob Stallman as president of the country’s largest agricultural organization.

Only one candidate from the West—the late Allan Grant of California—has won the presidency since the AFBF started in 1919.

Though the president has historically come from the Midwest and South, the two regions with the highest number of voting delegates, Bushue says that issues fronting farmers and ranchers today are much more broad-based than in years past.

Bushue is running on the perceived strength of a more diverse agriculture economy in Oregon. His anemic subsidy take of $90,000 is a reflection of the historic and comparative lack of large-scale commodity agriculture in his state in favor of “specialty crops.” Bushe is also hyping his experience in running a conservative farm organization in a Democratic state as a bipartisan advantage. Sadly, most Cornservatives aren’t that interested in playing nice with Democrats nationally.

Kevin Rogers of Arizona is a vice president with the Arizona Cotton Growers, and served on the Arizona Wheat Growers Association board. He’s also been an AFBF Board member for six years including a three-year stint on the AFBF executive committee.

Rogers is staunch defender of the farm subsidy regime both in rhetoric and receipts. He told Western Farm Press “My experience ranges from supporting a safety net for program crops to defending multiple uses on public lands.” His family’s farm has also received $6.9 million in federal farm subsidies.

When asked what’s the biggest issue facing farm families by AgriNews, Rodgers said (after fighting regulation) “the public’s scrutinizing on what we do on farms and ranches.” So should his long shot candidacy prevail, look for more ag-gag law talk.

Also, Rodgers isn’t above throwing some friendly shade at his competitors by saying, “I’m the only one who wears a cowboy hat.”

Hopefully once the winner is announced, I’ll be able to follow up with an interview.

Don Carr