Farming Magazine - November, 2012


New England Farmers Union: Farmers Union: A Voice of Moderation in Partisan Times

By Brittany Jablonsky and Annie Cheatham

Red state, blue state. Liberal, conservative. Fox News, MSNBC. Rush Limbaugh, Jim Hightower. Far left, far right. GMO, no GMO.

Campaign season is almost over and citizens in swing states, tired of campaign ads, must be watching movies from Netflix at a record rate. The rest of us are doing anything we can to escape the vitriol, the accusations, the counteraccusations, the false statements, the corrections to false statements, the defenses, the shrill tone. How can our government function with this level of discord and unrest? Where are the moderate voices?

Olympia Snowe, Republican senator from Maine, is not running for re-election this November. In February, she announced that she would step down, saying, "I find it frustrating that polarization and 'my way or the highway' ideologies have become pervasive attitudes in campaigns and in our governing institutions."

Snowe continued, "I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us. ... We must return to an era of civility in government, driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America."

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has been a moderate voice for agriculture policy for 111 years, representing family farmers across America. According to Leland Swenson, former president, "Farmers Union kept its core principles, and that is one of the reasons we have kept the respect of organizations and individuals we work with; people know who we are and why we stand together even though issues change all the time."

Here are a few issues that the National Farmers Union has championed in the last six months.

Move the farm bill through Congress

With a record drought impacting farmers, and Congress dragging its feet on farm legislation, the NFU led a coalition of 39 agriculture organizations to a rally on the Capitol grounds in September in an effort to raise public awareness about the need for Congress to act on new, comprehensive farm policy before farm programs ran out that same month.

"Calling the farm bill the 'farm bill' suggests its impact is limited only to farms and to the rural areas to which they are so closely tied," said Roger Johnson, NFU president, at the rally. "It's really a jobs bill, a food bill, a conservation bill, a research bill, an energy bill, a trade bill. In other words, it's a bill that affects every American."

"The farm bill has a broad impact on our citizens and our economy," he continued. "It provides healthy food to millions of schoolchildren and nutritious options to families in need. It develops and expands trade with valuable foreign markets. And yes, it benefits American farms - 98 percent of which are owned and operated by families. It helps big farms and small farms, major crops and specialty crops, organic farmers and conventional farmers, cattle ranchers and cotton ginners, farmers' markets and national suppliers and the vast range of other pursuits that make up American agriculture."

As of this writing, we don't know what the result of this action will be, or whether or not a deeply divided Congress will come together to pass a bipartisan, five-year farm bill. But the coalition, called Farm Bill Now, will continue to demonstrate, even though each organization involved has strong and distinct policy priorities. And NFU will continue to be a leader for a civil dialogue and bipartisan solutions.

Genetically modified crops

Differences in philosophy can have far-reaching impacts when you are deciding issues of national policy. An example of how that plays out comes from the highly controversial debate over GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The House Committee on Agriculture's version of the farm bill differed significantly from the bill passed by the Senate when it came to regulation of GMO crops. The provisions, found in the horticulture title of the House bill, would change the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) review process for new genetically modified crops by establishing significantly shorter deadlines, removing some regulatory agencies' authority, and putting into place other provisions to expedite and deregulate the process.

Under the provisions, if the USDA's initial review of a new crop indicates it may not pose a risk, and the USDA is unable to respond to a petition within the time frame required, the crop would automatically be approved under the law. This backdoor approval would also exist for applications that are currently under review by the USDA and have gone through an initial public comment period.

NFU policy does not call for an outlawing of biotechnology in agriculture. The organization understands that this technology has been adopted by many of its members, and that research has not shown it to be detrimental to public health. However, the NFU does oppose provisions that give unfair advantages to the biotech industry that will use the USDA approval process to speed the release of products. NFU maintains that the existing regulatory oversight of the agricultural biotechnology approval process should remain rigorous and transparent.

Drought relief

Although NFU members felt the effects of the drought all summer, with more than 1,200 counties in 29 states granted disaster declarations by mid-July, the USDA's ability to provide assistance to farmers in these counties was limited because permanent disaster programs authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill had expired. That farm bill created the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE), Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), and other programs that were designed to provide emergency assistance to farmers and ranchers without the need for Congress to pass ad hoc disaster aid legislation. But in order to save money when writing the farm bill, Congress set these programs to expire in September 2011, instead of September 2012. This situation left producers "high and dry" in this year's disastrous drought.

When the NFU board of directors met in July, it passed a resolution supporting legislation sponsored by Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), which would extend the permanent disaster programs for one year. As we know, the House and Senate were unable to agree on this before the August recess, and left Washington to visit drought-stricken farms in person.

A moderate voice

Snowe's call for moderate, civil voices in the national dialogue is important as we tackle issues like climate change, education, financial stability and food policy. The NFU has provided that kind of voice and a venue for civil discussion around difficult issues facing agriculture for many decades, and is celebrating its 111th birthday in 2013. The annual convention will be held in Springfield, Mass., March 2 through 6, 2013. This will be an opportunity for northeast farmers and their friends to learn more about this national friend of family farmers, and to tell the story of our unique agriculture. It will also be a chance to celebrate the formation of the New England Farmers Union, the youngest member of the Farmers Union family. To learn more, visit and click on "Events," then choose "2013 NFU Convention" from the drop-down menu.

Brittany Jablonsky, a government relations representative for the National Farmers Union, works out of the Washington, D.C., headquarters, Annie Cheatham is executive director of the New England Farmers Union,