On Monday, the US president will take time out from his regular schedule to talk about agriculture. He’s scheduled to deliver a speech in Nashville at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation (aka “Farm Bureau”). The organization’s president, Zippy Duvall, called this a proud moment, and I’m not surprised. The Farm Bureau and Mr. Trump have a lot in common: they claim to serve farmers but in reality, they’re not doing much to improve most farmers’ lives and prospects.
The Farm Bureau bills itself as the nation’s largest nonprofit farmers’ organization and “the unified national voice of agriculture.” It is a powerful force in Washington, DC, spending millions of dollars each year lobbying Congress, and setting its sights on policy issues that range well beyond agriculture. After a 2016 presidential campaign that highlighted the plight of farming communities, Duvall cheered rural America’s role in electing Donald Trump. And now, the Trump administration is eager to tout its accomplishments for farmers and attempt to cement the support of this critical constituency.
The farmers Trump forgot
The problem is, despite all his populist rhetoric, President Trump and his agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, have delivered far more for agribusiness—the deep-pocketed corporations that buy, process, and trade farm commodities—than for the average farmer and farm worker. And while Secretary Perdue (a big agribiz guy from way back) trumpeted his department’s 2017 accomplishments in a self-congratulatory year-end press release, my assessment of the Trump administration’s actual contributions to the well-being of most farmers and their communities so far is quite different.
In his first 100 days, the president proposed steep cuts to the US Department of Agriculture’s budget, which would impact technical assistance to farmers as well as funding to improve rural water systems, and, potentially, food assistance programs that serve low-income rural residents. His hardline immigration rhetoric and increased deportation actions have led to a farmworker shortage that has affected farms from California to Michigan. He threatened early on to walk away from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which American farmers like because it has expanded markets for their grains, meat, and dairy products. And although President Trump later committed to “renegotiate” the pact with Canada and Mexico, his blustering, bullying tactics (disconcerting even to his own negotiators) may blow up the deal anyway. Many farmers feel betrayed.
Things haven’t gotten better from there.
In October, the Trump USDA rolled back the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, which the previous administration put in place to give poultry and livestock farmers more power in marketing contracts with meat processing companies, and to make it easier for contract farmers to sue those companies. The rollback means that farmers lose their recently-gained protection from exploitation by the consolidated corporate giants who control and monopolize nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The Farm Bureau approved.
And then there’s the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act recently passed by the president’s party in Congress and signed into law. Among the provisions pushed by the White House (and the Farm Bureau) was all-out repeal of the estate tax, which the president said would “protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer” from disaster. With the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimating that only about 80 small business and small farm estates nationwide would face any estate tax in 2017, PolitiFact labeled the president’s statement a “pants-on-fire” claim. (Ultimately, the bill doubled the existing estate tax exemption to $11 million per person.)
In the tax bill as a whole, some observers see more downsides than benefits for all but the richest farmers, and analysis by one national agricultural accounting firm indicates that the benefits to farmers will be temporary. Still, the Farm Bureau applauded the final bill, including its imaginary estate tax benefit for farmers.
“Farm Bureau” ≠ “Farmers”
And of course the Farm Bureau applauded it. Because the agribusiness CEOs and investors that will reap benefits from big tax cuts and other Trump administration policies are the organization’s real constituency. That doesn’t mean the president’s audience in Nashville next week won’t include many honest-to-goodness farmers and ranchers. There will be many, but their actual interests are not served by the Farm Bureau’s federal policy priorities.
Moreover, as actual farmers, they make up a fraction of the Farm Bureau’s claimed membership numbers. Here’s how the organization describes its membership in legal filings:
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), a not-for-profit, voluntary general farm organization, was founded to protect, promote, and represent the business, economic, social, and educational interests of American farmers and ranchers. AFBF has member organizations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, representing about 6 million member families.
But the Farm Bureau’s own website simultaneously acknowledges that there are about 2.2 million farms in the United States today. Now, math isn’t my strong suit, but I’d say it’s impossible for most Farm Bureau “members” to be farm families. Instead, it appears that the organization’s membership figure has been vastly inflated by…wait for it…
Insurance customers. That’s right, many state farm bureau affiliates are heavily invested in, or actually operate, insurance companies. And many, many of the insurance customers that the Farm Bureau then automatically claims as “members” have little or no connection to farming.
Moreover, investments in insurance companies have made at least a few state Farm Bureau affiliates spectacularly wealthy. For example, IRS documents from 2013 show that the Iowa Farm Bureau had investment income topping $46 million and total assets exceeding $1 billion that year. So it’s easy to see why the Farm Bureau would promote big business interests while opposing programs and legislation that would benefit the majority of farmers.
Farmers deserve better champions
Still, many farmers get their information about the public policies that affect them from the Farm Bureau. And the farmers in Nashville will surely be seeking help—from the Farm Bureau and from the president—to succeed in a perilous farm economy that may become a full-blown farm crisis; to cope with the flood, drought, and wildfire disasters that are becoming increasingly common; and to pass down thriving farms to the next generation.
Mr. Trump seems to think he can drop in on the Farm Bureau’s annual shindig and tell them how much he cares about farmers (“believe me”). Perhaps he’ll deliver one of his infamous rally speeches, and maybe the assembled crowd of Farm Bureau leaders in Nashville will eat it up. Or maybe they will realize that it’s all talk, and the administration doesn’t really care about the interests of the average American farm family. As for the president and his team, I suspect they are mistaken to equate the Farm Bureau with “farmers” (and by extension, rural voters), but that remains to be seen.
Ultimately, farmers need more than speeches and slogans. They need real investments in their communities, in research and technical assistance, and in the long-term viability of farming. But it’s unlikely they’ll get it from the Farm Bureau, or the Trump administration.