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Farmers Union, Farm Bureau rivalry remains fixture of area ag

"Growing up in upper Midwest agriculture taught me the certainty of two things: consistently inconsistent weather and regular disputes between the Farm Bureau and Farmers Union, the area's two largest farm organizations."

farmfest policy panel.jpg
A panel of farm group leaders talked about the future of farm policy at Minnesota Farmfest on Aug. 3, 2021. Farmers Union and Farm Bureau, the two biggest farm groups, tend to attract different philosophies, but most farmers now recognize the commonalities between the groups.
Agweek file photo
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Growing up in upper Midwest agriculture taught me the certainty of two things: consistently inconsistent weather and regular disputes between the Farm Bureau and Farmers Union, the area's two largest farm organizations.

Generalizing is always risky, but a few traits of the two groups almost always hold true. Farmers Union members tend to be Democrats with serious doubts about the free market and who consequently support a certain level of government involvement in markets worldwide. They also emphasize policies that they say promote small towns, rural schools, and smaller, more numerous farms owned and operated by families.

Farm Bureau members tend to be Republicans with serious doubts about government involvement in ag and who consequently support the free market. They're not overly concerned with farm size, arguing that skilled, successful farmers should be free to enlarge their operations. They also say they support family farms, small towns and rural schools, but stress that the world has changed and ag must change with it.

Few Bureau and Union members join because they've thought carefully about it. They typically join because their parents and grandparents were members of that group. Membership, in most cases, is generational.

People outside ag may not realize how passionate members of the two groups can become about their respective beliefs. But consider all that's involved: family identity, economic livelihood, way of life, and often Democratic vs. GOP political campaigns. The stakes are high, so differences inevitably take on greater import.

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Sometimes feelings run too strong, with legitimate political and economic arguments boiling over into personal nastiness. No doubt some of the anecdotes are exaggerated. but there are many stories of Union and Bureau members deliberately snubbing each other at local stores or public events. At the very least, social contact between some members of the respective groups is limited, even though they have much in common as individuals, families and farmers.

Personal animosity has lessened over time, thank goodness. Most farm communities have lost so many farm families that the remaining farmers can't be too choosy with whom they hang out. Bureau and Union members who once wanted nothing to do with each other have learned through newfound personal contact that (gasp!) members of the other group are human beings after all.

Disputes on the political level are somewhat muted today, too. Agriculture's collective voice is often drowned out in our modern world, so members of the two groups usually stress publicly what they have in common, most notably support for federal safety-net programs. Pragmatic flexibility has developed over time. Union members may distrust the free market, but they'll take the strong profits that the free market sometimes provides. Bureau members may dislike government involvement, but they'll take safety-net payments when the free market fails to cooperate.

As a journalist, I've walked the fields and sat at the kitchen tables of both Bureau and Union members. I've found that neither group's membership has a monopoly on good farmers or good human beings. I've also found that each group has a few rascals, too. (All groups do, of course.)

Curious where I stand? Well, a news-media-hating caller once denounced me as a "blankety-blank big-city liberal because all you blankety-blank journalists are blankety-blank big-city liberals." But regular readers of this column — very small in number but with abundant, much-appreciated loyalty — know I'm a small-town guy who believes less government is usually better government. That makes me a stronger, though imperfect, fit in the Farm Bureau school of thought.

But what matters is that both the Farmers Union and Farm Bureau advocate policies they sincerely believe are best for American ag. Their disputes aside, neither group has a monopoly on good ideas. All of us in ag would do well to remember that.

Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at packerfanknutson@gmail.com.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURERURAL LIFE
Opinion by Jonathan Knutson
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