Sold Out by Farm Bureau
By Karin Bergener
Farm Bureau members who have asked what their Farm Bureau is doing to stop the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) are surprised to learn that Farm Bureau - at least the American Farm Bureau Foundation - supports the NAIS. If so many members are against the NAIS, how did Farm Bureau decide to support it? What can members do about it? Can Farm Bureau's policies be changed? If not, what does that mean for Farm Bureau members?
According to Farm Bureau's policy statement:
"We support the establishment and implementation of a mandatory national animal identification system capable of providing support for animal disease control and eradication, as well as enhancing food safety. Only non-profit agricultural or meat/livestock organizations should have control of the animal ID program. Private 'for profit' companies should not control the program. Cost-sharing support from the federal government is important for development and implementation. The identification of animals should not be required until the animal is moved from the original registered premise [sic]. Producer information should be confidential and exempt under the Freedom of Information Act."
The introduction to this policy statement covers the USDA's legal basis for the NAIS, and the role of the states. It lists Farm Bureau's two concerns - cost and confidentiality - and adds a third, that the NAIS should protect producers from food adulteration claims.
Nothing about this statement is fuzzy or difficult to interpret. Farm Bureau wants a mandatory animal identification system. It wants taxpayers to shoulder the costs. It wants all information involving animal movements to be kept confidential.
This policy conflicts directly with other long-held American Farm Bureau policies. Two of those policies, as stated in Farm Bureau Policies for 2006, are:
How do these Farm Bureau policies square with a mandatory NAIS?
Farm Bureau has been involved in designing and building the NAIS for almost two decades. Its involvement began at least by the early 1990s. In a meeting on August 15, 2006, requested by concerned Illinois horse owner Don Shepherd and attended by Illinois state Senator Brad Burzynski and Representative Bob Pritchard, Jim Fraley (Livestock Program Director for Illinois Farm Bureau) stated that he'd "been developing this since 1994."
But the roots of Farm Bureau's involvement reach back even farther. At the 1994 National Livestock Identification Symposium, Nancy Robinson (vice president for government and industry affairs of the Livestock Marketing Association) said that the mission of those attending, including Farm Bureau representative Kenneth Olson, was the same as it had been in 1988:
"To evaluate current and potential identification procedures of various species and recommend options that will lead to increasing the percentage of animals uniquely identified, with immediate emphasis on identification in such a way to permit tracing from farm through slaughter, along with an aim towards standardization."
Her statement makes clear that those attending the 1994 meeting already had been working together for six years.
Let's pause here to look at some of the players in this little drama. First is the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), which recommended the structure of the NAIS to USDA. Until 1999 the organization was known as Livestock Conservation Institute (LCI). In 2000 the NIAA was established and LCI merged with it. Farm Bureau, for this discussion, means to the American Farm Bureau Federation, unless referred to by a particular state's name. Certain individual players stand out in the pro-NAIS crowd:
Consensus on Animal ID
Now let's go back to that 1994 technology conference. Nancy Robinson's remarks make clear that the attending organizations had long been involved in designing an animal identification system. The minutes, posted by NIAA, provide us a stake in the ground - they've been at it at least 12 years. At the end of the symposium Robinson led a discussion on what the components of an animal identification system would be. Kenneth Olson, on behalf of the American Farm Bureau, was among those speaking on the record.
Robinson challenged the group to come to a consensus on animal identification. The group complied. Among the aspects participants specified were that animal ID:
During the discussion Nancy Robinson asked, "Do we need a national ID system other than what we already have in place?" The minutes state, "YES - Audience agrees."
So what was left to develop or decide? Very little.
Farm Bureau was in from the beginning. Farm Bureau knew, by at least 1994 and likely well before then, what the large producers and government were advocating. Farm Bureau helped design the NAIS. Farm Bureau was an active participant and advocate.
Farm Bureau is not, as it implies to its members, just trying to help members follow government policies. Farm Bureau [made] the policies.
For a fun-filled afternoon, try tracing all the interwoven boards among the organizations involved in developing the NAIS, and how their staff move from one organization to another - a consultant one year, an employee of another company the next, and then a government worker. You already have a start with Farm Bureau's Jim Fraley and David Miller as members of the NIAA board of directors, to which you can add Jon Johnson of Texas Farm Bureau. Another prime example is Kevin Kirk, who began his career with Farm Bureau, and is now NIAA treasurer, and also the person responsible for implementing premises registration and mandatory radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on cattle, in his job with the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the beginning of NAIS in Michigan.
The same people appear year after year at NIAA meetings and the annual technology conference. It's a closed group of companies that stand to make huge fortunes on animal ID - microchip and software manufacturers, consultants, and database companies. No meaningful input from outsiders ever occurs; instead, the same people kept cycling among the organizations involved. As a member of this closely knit group, Farm Bureau was there from the beginning - not as an advocate for its independent farm members, but as an ally of multinational agribusinesses. Everyone in this group has been, as one anti-NAIS activist put it, "drinking the same Kool-Aid." The result is an unwavering dedication to implementing NAIS.
"Fringe groups need to be listened to, but they will not provide meaningful direction to the industry," said NIAA insider Dr. Holland of South Dakota. If the people making up NIAA have worked together for more than 15 years, without input from the outside - and not even Farm Bureau members were consulted when Farm Bureau established its NAIS policy - then we independent farmers and ranchers must appear to be on the far fringe.
How, you have to wonder, did farmer-members of Farm Bureau become the fringe in NAIS development? The exact origin of the Farm Bureau's NAIS policies is unknown, but all Farm Bureau policies are supposed to start at the county chapter level. As one Nevada Farm Bureau staffer put it, this is the method "in principle" by which policies are created. By 2005, though, many state Farm Bureau organizations had resolutions on the NAIS, and in that year Illinois Farm Bureau amended its existing resolution to insert the word mandatory. An Iowa Farm Bureau staff person told Mark Miller, president of Iowa's Jackson County Farm Bureau, Illinois first raised up the resolution for a mandatory NAIS at the 2006 Farm Bureau annual meeting. In that meeting the word mandatory was inserted into the Farm Bureau policy on animal identification. As we now know, this insertion merely documented Farm Bureau's long-standing position. And a coercive, supposedly voluntary, system that's being implemented across the United States is fine with Farm Bureau.
"The only reason to do this animal ID thing is for the money," David White - executive director of the Ohio Livestock Coalition and the Ohio Farm Bureau's representative at an educational NAIS session in Hillsboro, Ohio - told an anti-NAIS activist. "They're going to get you to do it by strangling you at the slaughterhouse and the auction house," he added, without any indication that something might be amiss with this prediction for our future.
If you are a member of Farm Bureau, when did you first learn about NAIS? Was it from Farm Bureau? If so, did you find out before your state Farm Bureau voted on an animal identification resolution? Did Farm Bureau tell you it includes animals other than cattle? Or about all three aspects of the program - premises registration, individual tagging of multiple species, and tracking and reporting movements? That the costs are estimated to be almost $40/head in Australia and $60/head in the United Kingdom? Is your local Farm Bureau hosting "educational" sessions on the NAIS, and do they invite opponents to speak?
Has your local chapter mentioned that earlier this year Farm Bureau helped form a company to manage the databases? This nonprofit company, the United States Animal Identification Organization (USAIO) has on its board of directors Don Shawcroft, vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau. On March 1, 2006, USAIO, ViaTrace LLC, and Microsoft Corporation jointly announced the launch of an industry-led, multi-species animal tracking database to record movements of livestock from point of origin to processing.
Farm Bureau is in the thick of NAIS. Farm Bureau is helping build the NAIS infrastructure. Farm Bureau has, for a number of years, presented itself as a supporter of mandatory animal identification and made commitments to other members of USAIO to move forward on its plans.
So where are the state delegations and county Farm Bureau chapters? Left in the dust. Members across the country are angry. While some members try to make change from within, others may follow the example of the member who said, "I'm cutting up my membership card and mailing it to [president of Farm Bureau] Bob Stallman."
Each of us who is a member of Farm Bureau and against NAIS must make our own decision. I was a member of the board of my county Farm Bureau. I quit when I realized Farm Bureau would not take a position against NAIS and the rest of my fellow board members didn't even know what NAIS is. They were busy raising such issues as "We need better signage at railroad crossings." Not that signs at crossings aren't important, but if animal ID wipes us all out, we won't be driving teams down the road past those signs anyway.
So how can change be effected, if at all? If quitting is the only moral option, how do we replace Farm Bureau in its capacities as an insurance resource and farmer's advocate?
Farm Bureau is proud of its grassroots organizing. It sends out what it calls opinionnaires to gather information from members. Local Farm Bureaus meet once a year to "develop policy" to bring to the state Farm Bureaus. And, according to a Nevada Farm Bureau source, [Farm Bureau's policy process is supposed to be only for farmer/rancher members.] Who fits into this category depends on how your county Farm Bureau classifies members, as each state has its own system. At the annual state Farm Bureau meetings, delegates vote on policy initiatives that should be taken to the Farm Bureau annual meeting. But the system can either break down, or be strong-armed into submission by those who know how to use it, as is shown by recent events in Iowa.
In 2004 the Iowa Farm Bureau passed a resolution endorsing an animal identification system. The policy did not include the word voluntary, but it also did not include the word mandatory. When the Iowa Farm Bureau delegation went to the 2006 national Farm Bureau convention, and the resolution endorsing a mandatory national animal identification system was put before the delegates, Iowa's delegation decided that their state's policy meant mandatory, even though the word was not contained in the policy statement. How much influence did David Miller - director of research and commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and a member of the Board of Directors of NIAA - have on this outcome? We may never know. What we do know is that the Iowa delegates took it upon themselves to infer mandatory from the policy their members had given them. They overstepped their mandate.
But the Farm Bureau policy-making structure may work. County Farm Bureaus, such as Missouri's Texas County Farm Bureau, are starting to pass resolutions against the NAIS. In Iowa Mark Miller (no relation to David Miller) worked on changing his state's Farm Bureau policy on NAIS. In the state meeting in August this year Iowa's Jackson, Jones, and Linn County Farm Bureaus brought forth a resolution against mandatory animal identification, based on resolutions passed by their county Farm Bureau chapters. Two other counties joined them at the meeting. Although it was only a two-day meeting, and their resolution was new business, it reached the delegates in the late afternoon of the second day. By dinnertime they had 45 minutes of discussion from the floor, and seven or eight people stood up speaking against NAIS. Five or six large producers spoke in favor. Then leadership called the vote. The resolution lost, but the vote count was 31 against mandatory animal identification and 56 for it - only 13 votes short of overturning Iowa's position.
At the end, one person who spoke at length in favor of a mandatory system stopped and took information from Mark Miller. Mark told him that "folks just couldn't see the sense in reporting where you went with your horse, pig, sheep, goat, or chicken... every 4-Her, FFA member...." The pro-NAIS fellow interrupted him and said, "What do you mean? I don't want that! It's only for cattle." Mark could only say, "Well, you just voted for it."
What might the vote at that Iowa meeting have been if everyone had been fully informed? Can Farm Bureau, entrenched in designing and endorsing NAIS, and now set to make money by managing NAIS databases, afford to fully inform its members about the NAIS?
Purveyor of Insurance
Anyone wishing to take on state change must understand Farm Bureau's make-up. Most members think of Farm Bureau as a farmer's advocacy organization that also happens to provide insurance. The farmers for whom Farm Bureau provides advocacy is becoming clear. When you recognize that agribusiness organizations are at the forefront of NAIS, the idea that insurance is secondary crumbles quickly.
Farm Bureau is a large purveyor of insurance. On its website Farm Bureau lists two affiliates: The American Farm Bureau Foundation (which provides educational services) and American Farm Bureau Insurance Services. Looking at this structure with regard to NAIS is more revealing. Farm Bureau has been in the insurance business a long time. Nationwide Insurance Company was formed in 1925 by the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation to provide automobile insurance for Farm Bureau members. According to the environmental activist group Prairie Rivers, as far back as 1999 the Illinois Farm Bureau had significant ownership interest in 21 companies, seven of them being insurance companies. This isn't that odd, as Farm Bureau had 57 insurance affiliates, with 65 "other" business affiliates, across the country. In addition to insurance companies, Prairie Rivers' report listed Illinois Farm Bureau's holdings in fertilizer companies and other providers of farm services and goods.
The percentage of Farm Bureau members who are actually farmers may come as a shock. When Prairie Rivers did its research in 1999, Farm Bureau had more than 4.9 million members nationwide, but for the year directly previous, the USDA counted 1.9 million farmers (not all of whom belonged to Farm Bureau). Based on USDA's 2002 Census of Agriculture (the latest available figures), those numbers are now 5.5 million members and 2.1 million farmers nationwide. On the state level, for example, according to the Illinois Agriculture Statistics Annual Summary, in 1999 Illinois Farm Bureau had 345,000 members, but the state had only 79,000 farm operations.
Even earlier, in 1971 Samuel Berger (later, chief of the National Security Council) wrote in his book Dollar Harvest:
"Whether the non-farmer percentage [of membership in Farm Bureau] is 20%, 30%, or 50%, it is significant enough to deserve full disclosure to government bodies, and to warrant mention in general descriptions of the organization. When such an organization becomes a powerful influence on national farm policy, the public has a right to know such information."
Samuel Berger left out one group of people with a need to know: Farm Bureau members. Shouldn't farmer members be informed they're now in a minority in Farm Bureau?
Farmers are going out of business rapidly - some people estimate at the rate of eight per hour. So we can expect the difference between the number of Farm Bureau members and the number of farmers will continue to widen. What effect does this have on Farm Bureau policy, when farmers are in the minority as members, and the primary business of Farm Bureau is insurance plus, at least in the case of the Illinois Farm Bureau, commercial concerns that sell services and products to farmers? The result is NAIS and similar policies.
The Insurance Issue
The majority of Farm Bureau members belong just for insurance purposes. Few of us require our insurance company to hold the same political views we hold. And in the United States we encourage businesses such as Farm Bureau to thrive. Also, Farm Bureau makes some policy stands that are helpful to independent farmers, as well as corporate agriculture.
Many of us, however, would refuse to do business with a company that is actively working to destroy our livelihood and way of life. How each member should respond to Farm Bureau and its NAIS policy is no easy answer. Each member must decide if the insurance benefits warrant continuing as a Farm Bureau member.
If you decide to leave Farm Bureau, what are your insurance alternatives? Any independent insurance agent can provide information, and quotations, on auto and farm insurance. Crop insurance is unique, and you can obtain information from the Risk Management Agency of the USDA and other sources. Crop insurance is always provided through government programs. For all other types of insurance, farmers and ranchers find coverage the same way other self-employed people find it. Some people receive health insurance through a spouse, for example, and alumni or professional organizations you belong to may have insurance plans. Many farming magazines have ads offering insurance options. Two options popular with farmers are Grange and National Farmers Union (NFU), so be aware that both Grange and NFU support a federally run animal identification program.
If you're set on not doing business with any insurance company related to Farm Bureau, you'll have to do some legwork. According to the research by Prairie Rivers, insurance companies that have been associated with Farm Bureau include not only companies with the words Farm Bureau in their names, but also companies with these words in their names: American Agricultural Insurance, Country (when used as an affiliate of the Country Companies), Farm Family, Western Community Insurance, FBL Financial, Western Agricultural Insurance, EquiTrust Life Insurance, Universal Assurors Life Insurance, Nodak Mutual Insurance, Rural Mutual Insurance, and Tennessee Farmer's. The names may have changed since this list was created, so do your research to be sure a company isn't affiliated with Farm Bureau.
If Farm Bureau's support for the NAIS and corporate agriculture leads you to end your membership, you have some work ahead of you to replace the insurance and advocacy benefits the organization provides. If you continue membership in Farm Bureau and hope to change its policy, you also have work ahead of you. The choice is yours. Hopefully you are now in a position to make an informed choice.
Farm Bureau's Policy Statement on NIAS
National Farmer's Union policy statement
Grange policy (points number 11 & 12)
Minutes of the 1994 National Livestock Identification Symposium
USAIO, ViaTrace, and Microsoft Animal ID partnership
If Farm Bureau is an advocate for the NAIS and generally supports multinational agribusiness policy, who represents independent farmers and ranchers in political and legislative issues? A number of advocacy organizations that don't support the NAIS list their mission as supporting farmers. Among them:
Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance took an early stand against the NAIS and has been active in educating the public and working with legislators to stop the program. Its mission is to protect independent agriculture by serving as an advocate in the legislatures and the courts for independent farmers, ranchers, livestock owners, and homesteaders.
Farmers Legal Action Group provides legal services to family farmers and rural communities, and deals with such issues as resolving credit problems, encouraging sustainable agriculture, and fighting corporate concentration and vertical integration in the poultry and livestock industries.
National Family Farm Coalition strives to change farm and food policy to reverse the economic trends faced by family farmers and rural communities in the United States, and works toward an international trade policy that supports the independence of each country regarding how to develop and protect its capacity to grow food, sustain the livelihood of its food producers, and feed its people.
Karin Bergener is an attorney living in Freedom, Ohio, a former member of the board of directors of the Portage County, Ohio, Farm Bureau, and co-founder of Liberty Ark Coalition. This article originally published in the Holiday 2006 issue of "Rural Heritage."
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