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Published November 19, 2012, 10:51 AM

Exceeding his expectations

Agweek talks with North Dakota Farmers Union President Woody Barth about his first year in the position.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Woody Barth’s first year on the job included drought and the failure by Congress to approve a new farm bill.

Despite the challenges, serving as president of the North Dakota Farmers Union “met and exceeded all my expectations,” he says.

Barth took over as president a year ago, replacing Robert Carlson, who retired after nearly 15 years in the post. Barth previously spent three years as the organization’s vice president.

Much of Barth’s work as president involves overseeing the businesses, including restaurants and an insurance company, with which the North Dakota Farmers Union is involved.

Barth, who farms and ranches near Flasher, N.D., continues to live on the farm with his family. He commutes as needed to the North Dakota Farmers Union office in Jamestown, N.D. The drive is 113 miles each way, with about 100 miles of the trip on Interstate 94.

Agweek talked with Barth just before the organization’s annual state convention Nov. 16 to 17 in Grand Forks, N.D. About 750 people were expected to attend.

What’s your first year on the job been like? Any surprises?

Barth: The year’s been great. It’s great working for family farmers and ranchers, for an organization you believe deeply in, and for the rural citizens of North Dakota.

The one thing that surprised me a little bit was the business aspect of what we’re involved with. The amount of time it takes is a little bit more than I thought. But it’s been a great experience. I really do enjoy the business aspect.

Robert Carlson is so well known in North Dakota agricultural circles. What’s it like to follow him?

Barth: I’ve gotten that question quite a bit. I’ve thought about it quite a bit. It’s a little overwhelming at times, thinking about what Robert has done over the last 15 years and his passion for it. He was a great role model.

What are your thoughts on the next farm bill?

Barth: We are not for an extension. We don’t think an extension is the proper way to go. Our No. 1 priority is to get a five-year farm bill written.

The biggest concern we have is that there will be cuts (to federal ag spending) and that they’ll probably take some money from the crop insurance program.

The North Dakota Legislature kicks off a new session in January. What are your organization’s legislative priorities?

Barth: The main one for us, as always, is no changes to North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law. The family farm structure is best for North Dakota agriculture.

Property tax relief is a top issue for us. Adequate funding for counties, cities and townships is very important. That, in turn, will bring about property tax relief.

(Animal cruelty laws and renewable energy also are areas of key legislative interest for Barth’s group.)

Getting tired of the commute between Flasher and Jamestown?

Barth: No. I enjoy it. I drive it most days when the weather’s good.

North Dakota’s oil economy is booming. Is that obscuring agriculture’s importance to the state?

Barth: Somewhat. But people still understand that agriculture is the driving economic engine.

One of the biggest concerns in area agriculture is that few young people were becoming full-time farmers and ranchers. But that’s changed the past few years, hasn’t it?

Barth: That’s what we’re seeing. More people under the age of 40 are getting active. It’s great to see. There’s a need for producers of that age. The good news is it’s profitable enough in agriculture right now to bring in those producers.

The drought didn’t hurt North Dakota as badly as some other states. What do your counterparts in those states say?

Barth: They’re envious of our situation. It seems North Dakota is usually at the center of any natural disaster. This time we weren’t.