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The North Dakota Stockmen's Association's 15th annual feedlot tour attracted close to 100 people to the four stops, which included the Wanner feedlot near Hebron, N.D. The Stockmen's Association is one of many agricultural groups that work on member education and policy advocacy in the region. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Finding a voice: Agricultural membership organizations offer a way to speak up

On Sept. 5, something happened in Adams County that hasn't happened in at least four years: The county Farm Bureau held an annual meeting.

Tyler Kostelecky, one of the younger farmers getting the group back up and running, says only six or seven people attended the meeting. But he considers it a start.

At 35, Kostelecky is among the older members of the new Adams County Farm Bureau. The small collection didn't join Farm Bureau for social reasons or to add something to their resumes.

"There are issues in the agricultural field that need to be brought up or evaluated in some way. That's why we got it going again," Kostelecky says. "So we can have a voice."

Issues of concern for the group include weather modification and an animal abuse case in neighboring Stark County. By joining Farm Bureau, members hope to have more impact on those and other issues, as well as work toward better consumer relations, than they would have on their own.

And that, leaders of agricultural groups say, is the point of belonging to membership groups in agriculture — so that producers can make their voices heard above the noise of a society that often doesn't understand nor care about issues that affect the agriculture industry.

North Dakota Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies points to the drought that hit North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana throughout the summer as an illustration as to the voice NDFB offers. Lies texted Zippy Duvall, president of American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest ag organization, about opening Conservation Reserve Program acres for emergency haying. Duvall, in turn, texted Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. And shortly thereafter, the acres opened up.

"We're a pretty powerful organization," Lies says of the AFBF's nationwide membership of more than 6 million people.

But being in an ag group doesn't just mean having a network. It means having a part in the process and a place to make your voice heard.

"You can stand on the sidelines and probably be fine. It's not that something's going to terribly happen to you differently," says Mark Watne, president of North Dakota Farmers Union. "But you also lose that input. And it's kind of like voting: If you don't participate, it's kind of hard to complain."

Reaching out

On Sept. 6, representatives from several North Dakota agricultural groups attended President Donald Trump's speech in Mandan, N.D., which included a shout-out to North Dakota Stockmen's Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson.

Ellingson says the Stockmen's contingent had the opportunity to discuss their policies and priorities with decision makers at the highest level. Since those priorities and policies are set by members, it was an example of how grassroots industry groups can have real impact, far beyond what any one farmer or rancher could do alone.

"Many voices consolidated together make a louder noise," Ellingson says.

It's that advocacy — the ability to band together to get things done on the local, state and national levels — that most ag groups tout as the main benefit of membership.

Without ag groups, both large membership groups and smaller commodity-specific groups, many of the programs and systems farmers rely on, including crop insurance, wouldn't exist, Watne explains.

Montana Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President Errol Rice says being a member of a group like his means having lobbyists in state capitols working with legislators, and it means connections to Washington, D.C., to work on national issues.

"For not a lot of money, you have someone in Helena day in, day out," Rice says.

That's also what makes active participation — rather than just membership — important, leaders say.

"The only way we can truly represent you is if you give us some input," Watne says.

Participation can vary from active, almost daily, tasks for an organization to showing up to vote at local or state meetings, Lies says. But without that input, the issues won't be argued as effectively.

"We want people to be involved in the organization, because it helps us make better decisions," Rice says.

While outreach to government officials on legislation and regulations are important, outreach and advocacy to consumers are becoming more important.

NDFU uses their high-end East Coast restaurants to teach consumers far from the farm about food production. Other efforts include educational programming for children, youth camps and getting members to tell their stories so people more removed from the farm are exposed to the realities of agriculture.

"Sometimes we just take this food for granted," Watne says.

Kostelecky says working to spread accurate information about agriculture is one of the goals of the fledgling Adams County Farm Bureau. They want to make sure there are fewer people who "think fruit is grown in the back of the grocery store."

Getting younger

While the American Farm Bureau Federation is the largest ag group in the U.S., North Dakota Farmers Union is the biggest in North Dakota. Watne says membership, driven largely by customers in cooperatives and insurance companies, has stayed strong year after year. Active participation, though, is the constant struggle for all organizations.

In recent years, NDFU's active members have become younger, with more female participation, Watne says. That's largely because of the group's programming, including its Women In Leadership Development, or WILD, program, scheduled for this week in Jamestown, N.D.

Ronda Throener, a Cogswell, N.D., farmer and rancher and an NDFU board member, says the Farmers Union camps were her first connection to the organization and a place where she learned leadership skills. As she left college and she and her husband began farming, they were approached about joining their county Farmers Union and became more and more involved.

Other groups share similar successes for attracting younger members. Lies says Farm Bureau's Young Farmers and Ranchers program has been a reliable source of new leadership and new voices. Ellingson says the North Dakota Stockmen's Association has maintained a diverse membership roll, in keeping with the diverse landscape of the cattle industry. Younger members in the Stockmen's Association often come by way of student memberships and participation in youth events.

Rice says Montana Stockgrowers Association also has seen more younger people joining up, but he points out that the priorities of younger members have meant changes for the 133-year-old organization. While simply being a member was enough for past generations, younger members want to see more tangible benefits, including education and advocacy opportunities.

When deciding what organization to put time into, Lies suggests looking at a group's values and priorities. Watne says different organizations may have different ways of doing things and different focuses, but they all offer opportunities to speak up about agriculture. Throener agrees.

"No matter which organization you choose, just become involved," she says. "Become involved in more than one. Just have a voice. Don't just wait for everybody else."

Attracting new members will continue to be a focus for ag groups. And as the average age of agriculture producers has reached into the upper 50s, attracting younger members will be key.

"They've done a great job," Kostelecky says about past members. "And now it's our opportunity and our time to step in."