Produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network.
The American Farm Bureau, with its 6 million “member families” and carefully cultivated grassroots image, talks a good game. In the pitched battle over US farm policy—with agribusiness giants on one side, and small family farmers, organic and local food advocates and environmentalists on the other—the Farm Bureau positions itself as the voice of the farmer.
“If you know agriculture in this country, it is dominated by family farms, and those are the people who come to our meetings, those are the people who set our policies,” claims Mark Maslyn, executive director of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s public policy department, a team of twenty-two registered federal lobbyists that spend more than $2 million annually on a variety of agriculture issues.
But Rolf Christen, a cattle farmer in Missouri who was at one time an enthusiastic member of his local farm bureau’s board, tells a different story.
Christen realized that the bureau’s “family farmer” talk was cheap when he sought its help battling an industrial scale hog operation with 80,000 animals just up the road from his farm in northern Missouri beginning in 1993. The waste from the facility created a sickening, eye-watering stench that seeped across the land and into the homes of Christen and his neighbors, starting what would be an epic battle against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that continues to this day.
At that time, Christen had become the leader of local resistance to the CAFO, then owned by Premium Standard Farms. He organized town meetings and lobbied elected officials to fight Premium Standard. But he hadn’t counted on also fighting his local Farm Bureau, which he had joined as a young farmer in 1983, even getting involved with state legislative issues. When it came to this fight, the Farm Bureau sided with Premium Standard and cut Christen and his small farmer friends loose.
“All of a sudden laws were changed in the state in order to make it easier for [Premium Standard], and that’s where the Farm Bureau and I quickly parted ways,” said Christen. Then, and to this day, Christen says, the “Farm Bureau has always supported the industry…and not the small farmers.”
How had this happened? Missouri had become a popular destination for the pork industry. The state produces millions of pigs a year, predominantly for Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, which purchased Premium Standard in 2007. The rise of the factory farm has been the death knell for the small family farmer in Missouri, as it has across the country. In 1964, there were 62,000 pig farms in Missouri; as of 2007, there were about 3,000, producing roughly the same number of pigs. To these giant hog producers, who depend on the support of the Farm Bureau to keep their efficient model humming, farmers like Christen and their worries about air and water quality are little more than troublemakers.