Letter from Langdon: Does N.D. Right-to-Farm Vote Signal Change?

Last month North Dakotans voted overwhelmingly to keep the state’s anti-corporate farming laws, reversing a trend toward approving so-called “right-to-farm” initiatives. Perhaps those voters learned from the producer check-off programs that measures sold as protecting the “little guy” are really more about protecting big corporations.

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Here’s what happens: Someone has a good idea about a way to turn the tide in favor of the little guy. The idea is pursued. Other people pick up on it. Eventually it might even become the law of the land.

If that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the way farmers and ranchers tackle problems of disappearing profits, low prices and weak demand for their products. Someone sees a way to help consumers place a higher value on products like pork or beef. Or maybe it’s products refined from cotton, corn, or soybeans. If the goal is to raise awareness of, say, pork’s many fine attributes, then the proper action is to make buyers aware of the product so they will buy it.

Eventually, even the government may step in.

A few decades ago, the way we decided to help make people aware of some agricultural products was through something called a “check off.” Check offs are taxes we farmers voted in and assessed against ourselves. They are we controlled (or so we thought) so that they could be used for research and advertising intended to improve demand and prices for products.

At first it worked.

What we all know is that it takes one type of selfless people to come up with a good idea for the entire group. Once established and working, another type of person takes over the cash the idea generated. They aren’t afraid to use it for their own advantage. At first, legislation made check-off taxes voluntary. Farmers could get a refund quite easily. Thanks to the other type of people, over the years refunds have become difficult or impossible to get.

Voluntary taxes became mandatory.

The agricultural growers’ associations that were supported by the check-off programs started on a shoestring. Plenty of people, farmers and ranchers, donated their time to the cause. That’s why a majority of people responded to help make those associations successful. Once they achieve that, tired leaders stepped down and other people stepped forward offering their leadership. Those are the people who like to profit from another’s good idea. It is that reality, combined with the growing affiliation between BIG, for-profit corporations and farm producer groups, that has led farmers to question the coercion of check-off programs and the insertion of state law in local matters, as right-to-farm legislation does.

A few years ago, before pork production in America was almost fully corporatized, pork producers were disillusioned by the lack of results and perceived corporate finagling of pork check-off dollars. Pork producers from across the nation overwhelmingly voted to end their check off. Then the government stepped in. Agriculture Secretary Anne Venneman set the vote aside by calling the check off “government speech.” It was beyond control of the people who voted it in and paid for it … day after day, year after year after year.

That ruling obviously left hog-owning, tax-paying family farmers speechless.

Abraham Lincoln has been credited with saying, “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Back in Lincoln’s day, more people than not were farmers. He must have been talking about them, because once again, that saying pretty well sums it up now that heavily promoted agricultural initiatives in a couple of Midwestern states have bitten the dust.

When it comes to cattle, you just can’t beat the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for representing multinational aspects of beef. Yes, their name implies they are American cattlemen. But their membership includes big, multinational packers, and their actions show they represent a broader cross-section than just American producers — this part of the Americas, anyway — because the product they promote with full bore help from U.S. beef producers check-off dollars is a multinational hodge-podge of beef from almost anywhere including South America. The beef association, which purports to represent all U.S. beef producers, opposed U.S. cattlemen’s right to label their beef in American stores. They got their wish. With Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) effectively killed by Congress and the World Trade Organization (WTO), the cattlemen said it was time for the states to do more to promote beef.

Gee. I wonder why?

That’s when Missouri Cattlemens Association, aided by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, took the bit in their teeth and ran with it. Missouri cattlemen needed to double down with a one dollar per head state check off – in addition to the national one dollar check off – to help find new demand for beef.

Under this plan, the Missouri ag department (government) would administrate the new tax for a percentage of the take.

All the heavy hitters in Missouri agriculture parroted the party line. It was assumed loyal Missouri farmers and ranchers would follow the instructions of their political leaders and pony up another buck a head. It looked like such a sure thing in fact, that state ag department bothered to host only one listening session on the tax, even though it would affect every beef producer of the state with the second largest beef herd in the nation. (Missouri is second only to Texas.) That listening session yielded more questions than answers about producer support.

But the Missouri Department of Agriculture had their ears plugged.

That stands in contrast to proposed mandatory National Animal Identification System for all U.S. livestock. For that proposal, the federal Department of Agriculture held multiple listening sessions around the country over a period of several months. One of the best-attended hearings was held in Jefferson City, Missouri, where producer reservations on the law helped to forestall it, resulting in major changes to the original proposal.

USDA heard producer complaints loud and clear. But they didn’t like it.

Back to check-off taxes … A funny thing happened on the way to a beef tax increase. Missouri beef producers showed they could think for themselves, and what they thought did not reflect the opinions of government or leadership among Missouri cattlemen. In fact, it resembled the animal identification backlash years before. The proposal was defeated with a deafening 3 to 1 vote against beef producers paying that additional dollar-per-head tax.

Maybe Missouri cattlemen were awakened by the fact that Missouri’s right-to-farm amendment to the state constitution nearly failed, with less than a one-quarter percent (0.24 percentage points) majority in favor. The tiny margin was a far cry from the projection that the measure would win 3 to 1. Right-to-farm supporters were expecting nearly universal support from beef producers. It doesn’t look like they got it. Maybe that’s because those producers saw what happened with the check-off program, which started out supporting the little guy and turned into one of the biggest corporate supported ruses in the country.

Nothing gets a farmers attention faster than a thin bank account. Astounding years of profit were over. Prices were headed lower after the defeat of Country of Origin Labeling. If Lincoln were alive, he might say what Missouri beef producers were thinking: “Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me”.

In North Dakota, when a right-to-farm amendment similar to the one passed in Missouri failed by its own 3 to 1 margin, it signaled what might be considered a bellwether for U.S. agriculture.

With one of the smallest populations of any American state, not much more than a decade ago North Dakota was little more than a sleepy farming community where small grains, sheep, and beef were among the largest industries. Then shale oil developers started fracking, suddenly overshadowing agriculture as the number one industry.

Seen as a major contributor to climate change, it is ironic that shale oil is a product of North Dakota where climate change has contributed to cropping shifts allowing their agriculture to join the ranks of other Midwestern states where corn and soybeans are king and queen of row-crop production. It is those shifts in major commodity production that accompanied the tide toward more conservative government, and the perhaps mistaken notion that North Dakota farmers and ranchers, and voters in general, would support the corporate backed right-to-farm (some called right to harm) amendment.

While climate change may have added a few days to the growing season there, winters are still long.

There’s time to think.

North Dakota right-to-farm voters obviously used it to good advantage.

Richard Oswald is a farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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