Good morning, class! I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about the role Texas Farmers Union and National Farmers Union play in the development of our state and national agricultural policies.
To quote former President Eisenhower, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.” This quote sums up the necessity of an organization like the Farmers Union. Our mission is to ensure that those who influence decisions at all levels of government and within the private sector understand what is going on out in rural America.
Brief History and Background
Our organization has a long history. Founded in 1902 in Point, Texas by a man named Newt Gresham, who was seeking fair market treatment for local cotton producers; the organization has grown to a national membership of about 250,000 farm and ranch families throughout the United States.
Officially named the Farmers Education and Cooperative Union of America, the NFU continues to promote education, cooperative development and a legislative agenda that will benefit all farm and ranch families and their rural communities.
The organization is expansive and has grown significantly over the years. NFU is a federation that represents farmers and ranchers in all states. We have 25 official chapters throughout the country that are either state- or region-wide. Within the last couple of years, New England Farmers Union was established, and last year a Hawaii chapter was formed as part of our California Farmers Union. The presidents of each of the state or regional organizations form the board of directors, along with our national president and vice president. Currently, our national president is Tom Buis, who is a farmer originally from Indiana and now lives in the Washington, D.C., and our vice president is Claudia Svarstad from Colorado.
For its 107 year life, NFU’s primary goal has been to sustain and strengthen family farm and ranch agriculture. The key to this goal has been Farmers Union’s grassroots structure in which policy positions for both the state chapters as well as the national organization are initiated locally.
The process initiates at the grassroots level where local and county organizations meet and develop policy ideas which are then discussed at the state level usually during the state convention. State convention delegates adopt a new policy each year and they elect delegates to the national convention who will work on revising the national policy.
At the national level, a committee of NFU members is selected each year to review our national policy and provide recommendations our convention for debate, amendment and action by the convention delegates. In addition, any NFU member attending the national convention may offer policy recommendations from the floor. In fact, our national policy committee met a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., to begin the process of updating our national policy to fit with the changing political and economic environment. In addition to regular policy issues that cover a wide range of interests, delegates also consider several special orders of business that, if adopted, establish immediate priorities for the organization.
The Farmers Union Triangle
As you may have seen if you’ve done any research about Farmers Union, or if you are a member yourself, our symbol is a triangle with each side representing a different function of the organization. The base is education with cooperation and legislation forming the sides.
The educational foundation of the organization is based on the idea that we must continue to teach our members, both young and old, about agriculture and the benefits of cooperation. Most of our state organizations have state-wide or region-wide camps and there is also an annual national camp in Colorado for our young people to attend.
At both the state and national levels, we sponsor a number of activities designed to ensure our members remain at the forefront of their industry in terms of production, marketing, public policy and rural development.
These activities may include everything from expert panel discussions at our meetings to the regular fly-ins to Washington, DC that we encourage as many of our members to attend as possible so they can tell their story directly to policy makers.
Cooperation is an important function of Farmers Union. It was one of the founding principles when Newt Gresham was fighting against farm instability and rapidly declining farm income. If farmers could work together for a common purpose, it was thought, they might be able to generate better economic well-being for all. NFU successfully fought for the Capper-Volstead Act in 1922 enabling farmers to voluntarily form cooperative associations for producing, handling and marketing agricultural products. Before that time, farmers were precluded from acting cooperatively because of anti-trust laws. The ability of farmers to work together has provided new avenues for economic development for rural communities and has enabled farmers to provide alternative competitive sources of a variety of services important to their farming and ranching operations.
An example of where Farmers Union has been highly successful in developing a cooperative enterprise, look to CHS, previously known as Cenex Harvest States. In 1927, Farmers Union launched the Farmers Union Central Exchange which was the very original name of CHS. All Cenex gas stations you come across are cooperatively owned. CHS is one of the largest agriculture cooperatives in the world and is listed among the Fortune 500 of top businesses.
Farmers Union promotes rural economic and cooperative development by supporting existing agricultural co-ops and helping form new farmer co-ops and other rural businesses. Our co-op development director assists ventures in not only securing financing but also in developing business plans and providing administrative support.
One of the primary objectives of the cooperative development program is to help family farmers and ranchers add value to the food, fiber and energy they produce. NFU provides various types of assistance to producers with the purpose of helping them retain ownership of their commodity further into the processing channel and enhance market returns on their investment. It is by working together cooperatively that farmers and ranchers are more efficiently and effectively able to develop their farms and enterprises.
The legislative side of the triangle represents the need for family farmers and ranchers to have a voice in the role that government plays in agriculture at the local, state and national levels and both the state and federal legislatures.
At the national level, we have a professional government relations staff in Washington, D.C., which advocates and works to implements the policy positions established every year. As you probably know, our national office was quite busy the last two years advocating for our positions on the 2008 Farm Bill. Legislation that generally comes up for renewal every five years, the Farm Bill sets national commodity, nutrition, agricultural trade and energy policies, among many others. At the state level, Texas Farmers Union is very active in lobbying the state legislature as well as the governor’s office on laws and regulations affecting farmers and ranchers.
Important Issues for Farmers Union
Over the last year, there have been several national issues on which Farmers Union has been an active voice and national leader among farm organizations. As I mentioned before, the Farm Bill required much attention from our national staff, Board of Directors and membership.
Within the bill, Farmers Union was a staunch advocate of country of origin labeling. Originally passed in the 2002 Farm Bill, COOL, as it is known, was never implemented. It is now mandatory and is in a transition period before it will begin being enforced within the next few months. The law requires the originating country be printed on various non-processed agricultural products. We believe that if given the information and choice, consumers would rather buy products from America’s farmers and ranchers.
Another important priority for Farmers Union in the Farm Bill was the establishment of a permanent disaster program, which was ultimately adopted by the Congress. Prior to its passage, we had to rely on ad hoc programs in for which Congressional approval was required every time there was an agricultural disaster in order to get necessary financial assistance for farmers and ranchers. Under the new Farm Bill, disaster payments will be automatically triggered when specified disaster losses occur. This program will be more timely, cost effective, predictable and consistent than the arbitrary measures that have been used since 1998. We felt under a permanent program, farmers would not be subject to the whim of the political environment of the day. This is a useful argument because virtually every state and every congressional district is impacted by a natural disaster at some point or another.
NFU also led in the fight to expand the funding and authorities’ necessary to “grow” the renewable fuels industry in the U.S. This represents one of the great economic opportunities for agricultural producers all across our country.
In addition, we supported expanded funding of conservation programs based on providing incentives to producers rather than government mandates and regulations to help them ensure our natural resource base is protected and managed in way that it can continue to benefit not just our producers but all of our citizens into the future.
As many of you are aware, President Bush vetoed the 2008 Farm Bill after it was approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In fact, due to a clerical error, the President actually vetoed the bill twice. The NFU organized a letter to Congress that contained over 1000 signatures of farm, conservation, nutrition and rural development groups encouraging Congress to override each of the President’s vetoes. Not only were the vetoes overridden, but the vote margins greatly exceeded the level required for the override.
Following passage of the Farm Bill, Farmers Union has been closely following implementation of the programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our work extends beyond just the legislative branch into the executive branch as well. For example, we provided detailed comments to USDA regarding how country-of-origin labeling should be implemented. When the initial rules were written, there were several loopholes that would have allowed meat packing companies the ability to label all meat as “country of multiple origin,” rather than specifying that products born, raised and processed or produced and processed in the U.S. would be so labeled. Under that sort of rule, the whole purpose of labeling the country of origin is meaningless. Following that announcement, Farmers Union stepped into action lobbying the administration to ensure that the law would be carried out as Congress intended. The Obama administration has stopped the implementation of the final rules developed by the prior administration and we are working with the new President and his appointees to ensure the law is implemented in a way that will benefit U.S. farmers and ranchers.
Renewable energy development has also long been a priority for Farmers Union. We support ethanol from all sources, biodiesel and wind energy. While ethanol is currently commercially produced from mostly corn, we also see the need to shift to other sources of ethanol, such as cellulosic material like switchgrass, woodchips and corn stalks. Among our priorities in ethanol policy are increasing the limits on the amount of ethanol that can be safely and efficiently blended into gasoline and maintaining the Renewable Fuels Standard which was initially passed in 2005 and expanded last year. The law requires a progressively increasing amount of ethanol be produced and mixed with gasoline. We are also advocates of similar standards for biodiesel fuel.
Our position on ethanol is based on the idea that a new market for our product will enable us to earn a greater market return on our products. Ethanol development is also essential for rural economic development because it’s in rural areas where ethanol plants are built. Ethanol plants create jobs in rural communities and therefore increases the demand for local goods and services from those rural communities.
Wind energy has also been a hot topic lately. Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, recently introduced an amendment to the economic stimulus package that would make permanent the wind production tax credit, a proposal with the potential to significantly increase the capacity of wind energy in this country. It is important to farmers because it’s on our land where wind turbines will be built. You’re not going to see them put up in metropolitan areas like Houston or Dallas. They’ll be up on the prairies of the Great Plains where the wind and land are both plentiful and affordable. It is of great importance that agriculture plays a significant role in the establishment of wind policy to ensure that farmers can get their fair share of the benefits of its development.
Farmers Union has also long been an advocate of community-owned provisions in any wind energy legislation in which a certain percentage of the ownership of a venture must be owned by individuals within a certain radius of the project. Through this sort of requirement, farmers and rural communities have a better opportunity to fully realize the economic benefits of wind energy projects.
Another important issue at the forefront of Farmers Union’s policy agenda this year is speculation in the commodities markets. The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson from Minnesota, has indicated that he intends to tighten the regulatory authority of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in overseeing the commodities markets as well as over the counter markets which have traditionally been unregulated.
One final issue that is important to our membership is climate change. NFU’s top priority in this area is to ensure that farmers and ranchers do not become simply the subject of increased regulatory costs but have the opportunity to generate revenue from their ability to reduce greenhouse gases.
In fact, Farmers Union has been at the forefront of promoting a cap and trade system that incorporates new income opportunities for farmers by being a national aggregator of carbon credits. Begun just a few years ago, the National Farmers Union Carbon Credit Program enables agricultural producers to enter into a legally binding contract in which the producer captures carbon by agreeing to utilize carbon sequestration practices such as no-till farming. In return, the producer gets a certain number of credits that are traded on the Chicago Climate Exchange and where farmers and ranchers are paid far the carbon they have sequestered. The program is entirely private and there is no government-imposed requirement for producers to enter such contracts, but once they do, they are legally bound to it. We like to think of our program as a “test version” for a mandatory cap and trade system.
Involvement of Farmers Union in the Policy Development Process
Now moving on to how National Farmers Union and Texas Farmers Union get into the process of developing agricultural policy. As I have said, Farmers Union’s agenda is developed and redeveloped from the grassroots level. Our lobbyists in Washington can only do and advocate for what our members tell them to do. That fact, in and of itself, is very useful when sending our message to Capitol Hill because we can tell them that our agenda comes directly from their constituents. With the stigma lobbyists have in Washington, it’s very powerful to be able to tell Members of Congress how particular legislation will impact and be interpreted by their constituents back home in their district.
While Farmers Union follows a specific policy agenda developed by our members, we also recognize that we must negotiate and compromise. We can disagree with other groups, but that is different from being disagreeable. In order for our organization to be taken seriously and be called upon as a valued resource, we have found that we must be able to work with other groups and with lawmakers to find compromise. When we are seen as an organization that truly wants to find a compromise, we are much more likely to get what we want.
As mentioned earlier, in addition to our professional lobbyists, we have also been engaged in the use grassroots lobbying in which we have our members travel to Washington, D.C., twice a year to meet directly with their own lawmakers. Lobbying is much more effective when it comes directly from constituents. It is also beneficial when our members have the opportunity to develop relationships with their representatives and staff and be able to maintain contact with them throughout legislative sessions.
Our members also engage their representatives when our D.C. office initiates a “Take Action” campaign where our members are emailed with a request to call their representatives about a particular issue. This enables Farmers Union to maintain a clear message while ensuring it is delivered to as broad a Congressional audience as possible.
In conclusion, Farmers Union was established as a way for farmers and ranchers to cooperatively gather and work for a common purpose. With the dwindling number of farmers in this country, it’s now more important than ever that an organization such as ours cooperatively pursues a common agenda to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers and our rural communities. When our representatives in Congress or in the State legislature are developing laws that impact our livelihood, it’s our responsibility to inform them about how their decisions will impact us. Farmers Union has grown and developed significantly since it was founded in 1902. Yet it still fights for the same general goals and mission. It’s that long history that has also enabled us to be an effective and clear voice for farmers throughout the country.
|Texas Farmers Union, P.O. Box 738, Sweetwater, Tx 79556|