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Advocates push ag industry to speak up on social issues

Ag advocates like Megan Brown have helped influence organizations like the National Farmers Union and American Farm Bureau Federation to speak out against unrest in the United States, like the recent violence in Washington, D.C. over a peaceful transfer of power by President Donald Trump.

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Smoke billows in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 6, after a mob stormed the building. REUTERS / Stephanie Keith

Online pushback from a corps of farmers and agricultural workers has led the country's biggest member organizations to condemn first the death of George Floyd and now the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.

When George Floyd died on Memorial Day last year at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the National Farmers Union released a statement afterwards against police brutality and structural racism in America. It was unprecedented for a member organization consisting of farmers and ag professionals. The move led to a flood of similar statements from other ag groups at the national, state and local level.

The stance itself was enough for Megan Brown, a sixth-generation cattle rancher who's lived on her family's California ranch her entire life, to become an NFU member shortly after.

"That's why I joined (NFU), because they were outspoken and they were tackling issues that I had never seen agriculture tackle," Brown said. "And once they did that, it set a precedent, where people like me realized that agriculture groups could be on the right side of history."

Brown said NFU's willingness to take an unapologetic stance on an important social issues gave way for people like her to use their platforms to call out ag groups who were still being silent.

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NFU President Rob Larew issued the following statement in response to the Jan. 5 riots at the Capitol:
“National Farmers Union and its members support all Americans’ right to free speech and peaceful protest, but these acts of intimidation and terror have no place in this country, and they cannot be condoned or brushed aside. More than that, this event demonstrates just how fragile democracy truly is. It doesn’t exist simply because it is written in the Constitution; it requires action on the part of every American."

Brown calls raising heritage pigs her "side hustle", was a 4H'r and FFA member in her adolescence and has an ag business degree, making her a genuine product of the ag education system in America.

But unlike most of her peers, Brown said she skews more liberal, and she's not afraid of being exposed for that.

"Agriculture made me this way," Brown said from a couch with her dog at her home in northern California. "I was abused, yelled at and screamed at so much that I have become what a lot of agriculture hates, I guess."

On Twitter, where her bio includes "provocatrice", it's obvious Brown's dissimilarity from others in the industry is something she wears like a badge of honor.

Megan Brown
Contributed photo

Attack on the Capitol

Brown realized the seriousness of the unrest at the seat of America's federal government on Jan. 6 during a trip into town to pick up day-old cookies for her pigs. By the time she got back to the ranch, an angry mob of supporters of President Donald Trump had stormed through security at the U.S. Capitol.

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She followed the events on social media as insurrectionists bombarded proceedings in the House and Senate as members of Congress were counting Electoral College votes.

"I was shocked but then again I wasn't," she said. "I knew when Trump got into office that things were going to go down, people were going to die, but I didn't think it was going to be this bad."

On the day after the Capitol riots, Brown tweeted out the statement from NFU, calling on other ag groups to take note. She's still waiting on her local farm bureau and other livestock specific groups to make a statement, but Brown was pleased to see a release from the American Farm Bureau Federation, historically known for its conservativeness.

The following statement came from AFBF President Zippy Duvall:

“Our democracy is precious, and our dedication to the peaceful transfer of power is what sets us apart from much of the rest of the world. This nation was founded on the belief that we can debate our differences without resorting to violence. Storming the U.S. Capitol or any federal building and threatening the lives of police officers, first responders and elected leaders is not the answer."

The statement from AFBF, which has featured President Trump as a keynote speaker at its meeting and conventions, was a good sign to Brown that things were really changing in the industry.

She also understands the initial hesitancy from farm bureau groups to dispute the the sitting president. Under the Trump administration, direct farm aid increased each year, from $11.5 billion in 2017 to over $32 billion in 2020. Brown said she received more assistance for her farm animals than some of her friends who lost their jobs did, which makes her feel "horrible."

"Agriculture was very well taken care of, and we're not dumb, so we're not going to bite the hand that feeds us," she said. "I mean most of us won't. But I will."

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She credits a number of individuals in the ag industry for inspiring her to use her own voice more, including Sarah Mock, a freelance ag writer; Sarah Taber, a crop and food safety scientist; Rebecca Harrison, an agricultural biotechnologist and social scientist; and Natasha Paris, an agri-science high school teacher in Wisconsin. In recent years, Brown said an online community of mostly females is starting to make waves in the industry.

"In ag, if you rock that boat, and are a little bit different, you're going to be on the firing line," Brown said. "But I see more women doing it, and more of the younger generation doing it, and I am here for it."

Her inclination to speak out publicly coincide with Brown's day-to-day work, as she continues the process of taking over the family ranch.

"The more empowered I feel on the ranch, the more empowered I feel online," she said.

"It's not a safe place"

Brown's advice to members of ag organizations who aren't seeing the kind of leadership they desire is two-sided. She tried one route earlier in her life, which was speaking up and trying to take leadership roles herself in organizations populated mostly with men twice her age.

"A lot of times I tried to get more involved with local groups, it did not go well," she said. "They'd usually just haul me into a meeting, where a group of men — some my teachers, neighbors, yelled at me until I stopped. It's not a safe place."

She encourages people who feel safe enough to have those hard conversations to pursue them wholeheartedly. But if it doesn't feel safe, just go elsewhere.

"Start your own group, get a social media account and talk about it in the open, because that's what it's going to take," Brown said passionately.

Because her local farm bureau group wasn't promoting the Black Lives Matter movement this summer or pushing back against political candidates she found troubling, Brown left. She joined a farm bureau group in Wisconsin, led by Natasha Paris, an agri-science teacher and FFA advisor at Ripon High School.

"It's night and day difference," she said of the two groups.

More ag groups speak up

National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation are not alone among ag groups speaking out against the insurrection attempt on Jan. 6. Here are a few other statements:

Statement by S ophie Ackoff, co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition:

"Our coalition condemns the violent actions of the rioters at our nation’s Capitol yesterday and the baseless claims of election fraud by President Trump that incited these protests. These insurrectionists sought to disrupt a peaceful transition of power which should result from a fair and just election process. Their actions were a violation and a disgrace,”

Statement by Barb Glenn, CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture:

“NASDA supports the peaceful transition of power, which is the foundation of our democracy. The violent actions against elected officials and destruction of federal property that occurred on Wednesday were reprehensible actions that failed in their intended purpose to intimidate our democratic process."

Statement from Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation:

"Yesterday's reprehensible violence was an attack on our democracy, intended to undermine the results of a free and fair election and desecrate the sovereign will of the American people."

Megan Brown
Brown (Contributed photo by Shannon Rosan)

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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