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.”
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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.
Although illustrative, Christen’s case is not unusual. From California to New York, the Farm Bureau leads the charge for industrial-scale food production. It opposes the labeling of genetically engineered food, animal welfare reform and environmental regulation. In Washington, its well-funded team of lobbyists and lawyers seeks to undermine the federal Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, opposing pesticide restrictions and increased scrutiny of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from CAFOs, like the “farm” up the road from Christen.
The Farm Bureau has sued the EPA, which is trying to limit farm runoff from polluting the Chesapeake Bay. At the same time, the Bureau pushes hard to expand international trade and lobbies for the stream of government subsidies that disproportionately benefit the nation’s biggest commodity farm operations and, indirectly, the agribusinesses at the heart of this system.
In Washington, the 2012 Farm Bill has predictably been a top priority for the Farm Bureau lobby team. They have surprised players from both sides of the debate by conceding cuts in traditional subsidies in exchange for a large expansion of subsidized crop insurance that protects against disasters and falling prices at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $9 billion a year. The tactical, philosophical shift garnered praise even from Farm Bureau adversaries. Nonetheless, it should be noted that crop insurance is a small, but significant piece of Farm Bureau insurance companies’ portfolio. In 2011, they collected over $300 million in crop insurance premiums.
In rural areas, the Farm Bureau grooms compliant political candidates, mostly Republicans; it wields the power to dictate outcomes of legislative elections and appointments to powerful state agriculture committees. Then it influences which farm-related bills become law. Along the way, it has become a close second to Monsanto in lobby expenditures for agriculture-related issues, spending nearly $6 million in 2011 —all in the name of “farmers.”
American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman was succinct, almost militant in his opening address last year at the group’s annual meeting: “We will not stand idly by while opponents of today’s American agriculture…try to drag us down…try to bury us in bureaucratic red tape and costly regulation—and try to destroy the most productive and efficient agricultural system in the world,” he said.
Stallman could well have been talking about Christen and his neighbors.
* * *
Christen has firsthand experience with the underbelly of that efficient system, because hog-raising is a messy business. Although afforded similar status to farms, CAFOs are more like automobile assembly-line factories, where thousands of animals are birthed, nourished with corn and other grains and supplemented with antibiotics and growth-promoting supplements. They are raised in climate-controlled darkness, confined to pens so cramped they cannot turn around. Hogs produce four times the waste of humans, and these CAFOs produce millions of gallons of manure annually. But in cities, human waste ends up at a sewage treatment plant; in CAFOs, untreated livestock waste is flushed out of confinement buildings into large lagoons, sprayed on fields as fertilizer and then too often migrates into streams and groundwater. In Missouri, this waste not only fouls the air; it has made its way into the rivers, streams and groundwater of surrounding communities.
By 1995, Christen had found two local farmers, Terry Spence and Scott Dye, to join him in his fight. Rebuffed at every turn by the Farm Bureau, elected officials and regulatory agencies, they concluded their only hope was in the courts. So, they went lawyer shopping and found an unlikely candidate in Charlie Speer, a Kansas City attorney, who was once a financial analyst for Ford Motor Company and then represented corporate polluters who had fallen out of favor with the EPA.
The three men provided Speer with evidence of a litany of infractions by Premium Standard’s operation—breaches of their lagoons, runoff from spreading manure on the land, burst pipes that sent hog waste flowing into streams, lakes and onto neighboring properties, causing miles of polluted streams and killing fish. Speer would soon discover that Premium Standard operations emit more ammonia and hydrogen sulfide than any other industry in Missouri. Neighboring farmers would later testify about the effects of the ubiquitous odor—burning eyes, noses and throats, gagging, nausea, vomiting and headaches.
In fact, Smithfield and its subsidiaries have been the subject of numerous environmental enforcement actions by the state and the federal government over water and air pollution caused by their hog production factories. From 1997 to 2004, Smithfield was fined $19 million. Bo Manly, president of Premium Standard at the time and now executive vice president and chief financial officer at Smithfield, admitted in a deposition with Speer that Premium Standard was the most fined agriculture company in Missouri.
“I quickly learned that the ag industry today is like when I was working at Ford Motor,” Speer said. “It’s cheaper to pay the fines and keep dumping the paint in the creek.”
With this kind of evidence in hand, Speer initially thought the case was a slam-dunk and easy money. It would be neither. In 1997, Christen and 60 of his neighbors formed the Citizens Legal Environmental Action Network, or CLEAN. With Speer as their counsel, they filed a federal citizens-action suit against Premium Standard alleging improper waste disposal near their homes. In 1999, the US EPA intervened in the suit, joining CLEAN as a co-plaintiff against Premium Standard.
After the CLEAN suit was filed, Premium Standard spokesman Charlie Arnot weighed in with his view, one that has dominated the national discussion over food: “I think people need to understand that this [CAFO] is part of an ongoing changing structure in agriculture…. It’s a different model than we’ve ever seen before. Is it the right model? Not for everybody. But I think communities that want to continue to sustain a quality rural way of life have to begin to look beyond what we’ve always looked at in the past.”
Christen and CLEAN—fully aware of what that “quality rural way of life” means—emerged victorious in its lawsuit, leading to a 2002 federal consent decree requiring Smithfield and Premium Standard to clean up its act. But enforcement is still being argued in the courts by both sides, and, Christen says, the air at his house still stinks. “It pisses me off that after fifteen years the company still does not even acknowledge that there is a problem up here,” he says.
As it turned out, Christen and his friends weren’t an anomaly. Since meeting with the group, Speer has racked up big damage awards on behalf of individual farmers living next to these hog CAFOs throughout Missouri. In 2010, Speer attracted national attention with a record $11 million verdict awarded to fifteen plaintiffs who had been subject to the foul odors emanating from a Premium Standard pig CAFO in northwestern Missouri. In total, Speer has won over $25 million for 101 neighbors of CAFOs in eight “odor nuisance suits,” as they are called.
To date, Speer has filed nearly 500 odor nuisance complaints in seven states, roughly half in Missouri. In one of Speer’s odor cases, it became evident that the Missouri Farm Bureau had more than a philosophical interest in the issue. A Missouri Farm Bureau insurance affiliate (that’s right, those family farmers at the Farm Bureau have a big hand in the insurance industry) was the carrier for one of the hog producer defendants. It paid $550,000 to settle the case, and also paid the defendant’s legal bills.
The court battles have become a threat to the bottom line of America’s biggest pork producers. In fact, Smithfield Foods threatened to pull all of its hog operations out of Missouri after Speer’s $11 million judgment—and that put the issue front and center for the Missouri Farm Bureau.
In response, the Farm Bureau moved the battlefield to its favored arena—the Statehouse floor —with a bill from a friendly legislator the bureau helped elect. The aim of the bill: to keep all the farmers like Christen from seeking meaningful legal redress against the pollution from CAFO operations.
In the waning days of the 2011 Missouri legislative session, Senate Bill 187 was signed into law, limiting citizens’ ability to sue large agribusinesses over the harm their factories inflict on neighboring property owners. The Farm Bureau had been pushing various forms of this bill for years, but with a Republican surge in the 2010 legislative elections and a new crop of freshman legislators, it finally passed. Though its sponsors spun the bill as protection for family farmers, it was, in reality, exactly the opposite. Senate Bill 187 limits the number of times a farmer can sue and caps damages at property value, which of course have decreased after the CAFOs moved in.
Despite its track record, the Farm Bureau insists it has been and always will be the champion of the small farmer and rural America. To those who claim the Farm Bureau has sided squarely with one side, against the interests of many farmers, the Bureau’s Maslyn responds, “I’d say they’ve never been to one of our meetings.”
Christen takes issue, as do a growing number of small farmers: “The point is, operators that raise hundreds of thousands of animals in confinement are ‘industrial operations’ and need to be regulated. And the Farm Bureau is never going to concede to this,” he said. “Their argument and scare tactic was and is: If we regulate the ‘big’ guys, we will have to regulate the ‘little guys’ also. Soon it will be too late, there will not be any family farmers left. But why would the Farm Bureau worry; they will sell their insurance anyway. The billboard in my town reads: ‘You don’t have to be a farmer to insure with us.’ ”
* * *
Christen is referring to that other, lesser-known facet of the Farm Bureau. It’s not just a non-profit “farmers organization” but a multi-billion dollar network of for-profit insurance companies, the third-largest insurance group in the United States. Its premiums generated more than $11 billion last year alone, on top of has assets worth more than $22 billion. In many states, Missouri among them, members of the Farm Bureau board and the board of its affiliated insurance company are one and the same, sharing office buildings and support staff.
And those 6 million farmers it claims as members? In many states, anyone who signs up for Farm Bureau insurance becomes a member of the Farm Bureau automatically, which explains why the American Farm Bureau Federation boasts 6 million members when the United States has only about 2 million farmers. In Missouri, less than a third of its members are farmers. Nonetheless, all of its 113,000 members pay annual dues, as they do throughout the country, which fuels a potent political machine.
In addition to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s twenty-two lobbyists, no fewer than 20 of the state Farm Bureaus, including Missouri, have registered lobbyists in Washington, leading the field of agribusiness lobbyists. Over the past decade, the nation’s ten largest agribusiness interests gave $35 million to Congressional candidates—led by the Farm Bureau, which gave $16 million, or 45 percent of the total. Farm Bureau PACS donated another $16 million to state candidates, according to election records.
The Farm Bureau also has a financial interest in agribusiness corporations. In recent years, its insurance affiliates have bought stock in companies like Cargill, ConAgra, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Tyson and Archer Daniels Midland, all major food industry players. The Southern Farm Bureau Annuity Insurance Co. once owned more than 18,000 shares of Premium Standard stock.
It has also grown increasingly concerned about the mounting resistance to the get-big-or-get-out agribusiness model, which has led increasing numbers of farmers and consumers to seek out alternatives.
So the American Farm Bureau has pushed into public relations, spearheading the launch of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, an advertising/social media/PR campaign to paint agriculture in a more favorable light. With an $11 million annual budget and most of the national commodity groups on board, the big ag-business players are now joining—DuPont, John Deere, Monsanto and BASF.
“Our adversaries are smart and resourceful,” said the American Farm Bureau’s Stallman, who also heads the Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. “But we’re now matching them in using new communications tools, new strategies and new tactics.” The group’s promotional videos display polished vignettes but they are not filmed inside CAFOs; rather they are shot in sunlit fields of wheat and corn with attractive and articulate family farmers and distributed to partners such as the Discovery network on cable TV. It is the Rockwellian image of the farmer America loves, and one the Farm Bureau uses to pursue public approval for its agenda—and against small farmers like Christen.
Christen, now 58, is still fighting Premium Standard and the Farm Bureau; it has pretty much consumed his life. Now, a 140,000 hog factory is located seven miles south of him. As his original lawsuit drags on, the stench persists. Whether Speer’s legal barrage proves to be a game-changer or merely an aggravating blip on the EKG of corporate agriculture has yet to be seen. It’s also unclear whether the voices of small farmers, like Christen, will be strong enough to counter the ingrained image of the Farm Bureau as their savior andprotector.
“There’s only so many times you can tell farmers you’re acting in their interest, and then act in the complete opposite manner,” says Rhonda Perry, a Missouri farmer and a former Farm Bureau “princess” who runs the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a grassroots organization supporting family farmers. “So, now they’re saying we have to convince the consumers that agriculture is good and this new way of producing animals is really the best way.”
Then she sighs.
“As long as you have money to perpetuate the myth, the war is going to go on and on and on.…”
Watch Missouri farmer Rolf Christen discuss his frustrations with the Farm Bureau:
Lauren Hasler, a freelance journalist, contributed to this report. It was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent non-profit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture and environmental health.