Down on the farm: Frist dons right-wing farmer overalls

Posted by R. Neal

Like a West Wing script in which the candidate has to go to Iowa to talk to farmers about ethanol, Sen. Dr. Bill Frist (R-TN) was at the Farm Bureau Federation's national convention this past weekend in Nashville to accept the coveted "Golden Plow" award (not to be confused with Les Nessman's "Silver Sow" award):

Sen. Bill Frist promised 6,000 farmers better access to health care, a plan to research alternative energy sources such as ethanol, a temporary worker program for immigrants and an end to the inheritance "death tax" during a speech yesterday.

Frist accepted the Golden Plow Award at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 87th annual convention at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. The award is the highest honor bestowed on members of Congress for their support of the nation's farmers, said Mark Maslyn, the federation's public policy executive director.

Hey, that sounds like a real honor. Good for Sen. Dr. Frist for standing up for the American farmer. And that American Farm Bureau Federation sounds like a pretty swell outfit, being the "voice of American agriculture" and the champion of America's family farms, right?

But wait. What's with all the empty rhetoric and right-wing talking points (including the exploitation of illegal immigrants) and the perennial ethanol pandering (which is the only alternative energy "plan" any politician ever talks about, and only when they're running for something and talking to farmers)?

Not only that, the article mentions that previous recipients of the Golden Plow award include Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., and Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. What's up with all those Rs?

My only direct experience with the Farm Bureau has been benign. I got an insurance quote from them one time, and some gardening tips from my Dad's copy of the Tennessee Farm Bureau's magazine. Oh, and our family's traditional annual cheese order from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau (which is an excellent deal if you know someone who can get you on their exclusive super-secret cheese order mailing list.)

But as it turns out, there are a number of renegade environmental and farm organizations who believe the American Farm Bureau Federation is a tax-exempt front for a large insurance and investment business and a tool of right-wing corporate agribusiness (which, as you know, is one of the world's largest petrochemical businesses). Or, as NY representative Joseph Resnick called them in 1967, "the right wing in overalls."

In its profile of the Farm Bureau, says:

With nearly five million members the AFBF is the nation's largest farm organization and is said to be among the most powerful special interest groups in Washington, DC. But many, if not most, of its members are not farmers at all, having become members simply by buying its products, such as insurance, via a Farm Bureau company.

In fact, while posing as a nonprofit organization whose tax-subsidised activities are intended to improve the lot of American Farmers, the Farm Bureau is a gigantic agribusiness and insurance conglomerate. It has a stock portfolio that includes such agribusiness giants as Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra, Monsanto, Phillip Morris, Dupont, Novartis and Dow.


According to Mississippi Farm Bureau farmer, Fred Stokes, 'Farm Bureau has the same relationship to its members as Sears and Roebuck does to its customers'. When it was discovered that American Farm Bureau's Washington lobbyists had sent a letter opposing a moratorium on agribusiness mergers to all Congressional members, the Mississippi Farm Bureau passed a resolution 'rebuking' the Farm Bureau's national leadership for 'conflicts of interests.'

According to Stokes, 'The national Farm Bureau policy book is full of statements expressing concern about concentration of market power and monopoly in agribusiness. Yet AFBF president Dean Kleckner and the national staff consistently sell out their members and jump in bed with agribusiness.' (Lords of the Land)

According to John Hansen, when president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, 'I've been working on farming concerns for 30 years and I can't think of a major issue where the Farm Bureau didn't have the same position as the grain and meat processors. It's impossible to represent the interests of food producers (farmers) as well as food processors like ConAgra, IBP and ADM. The two groups' economic interests are almost always at odds.'

The profile also says that the Farm Bureau has taken positions against the Voting Rights Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, increasing the minimum wage, and various environmental regulations. And, while it doesn't exactly appear to be a farm issue, several state Farm Bureaus have even adopted positions opposing gay marriage.

For more on your friendly local Farm Bureau, read the Defenders of Wildlife's "Amber Waves of Gain" report. And here's a CBS 60 Minutes report on the Farm Bureau's business operations.

Anyway, Sen. Dr. Bill Frist made lots of promises to American farmers at the Farm Bureau convention. That's an awful lot for a lame duck Senator to accomplish in one final session of Congress. You don't suppose he's tuning up his obligatory farmer ethanol speech for... Nah. Couldn't be. Could it?

Ok, then.