The National Farmers Union's Roger Johnson on Consolidation, Politics & More - Modern Farmer

The National Farmers Union’s Roger Johnson on Consolidation, Politics & More

A non-partisan assessment of the 2016 political landscape from a relatively unknown, yet influential, coalition of American farmers.

Roger Johnson on his farm.
Photography Courtesy National Farmers Union

The ideologies – very broadly speaking”“look something like this: Conservative farmers favor less onerous environmental regulations and voice support for the subsidies that prop up industrial-scale commodity crop farming, while liberals rant about Monsanto and argue that small-scale organic producers don’t get the support they deserve.

But there is at least one agricultural advocacy group that willingly straddles the ideological divide. The National Farmers Union lobbies state and federal legislators to act in the best interests of the entire spectrum of the agricultural community, and is in the thick of political deliberations on almost every major agricultural issue. As a non-partisan organization, the NFU works with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to craft policies that support prosperous, equitable, and sustainable agricultural livelihoods.

NFU president Roger Johnson, a canola farmer and former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner, says that the organization’s 200,000 members, which represent about 10 percent of the farms in the country, largely fit the bill of “family farms” and tilt slightly left of center on the whole, but are quite diverse with significant numbers in both political camps. “Our fastest growing membership is in the area of CSAs and farmers markets, direct marketing, things of that nature,” Johnson says.

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NFU president Roger Johnson testifying to the U.S. House of Representatives Agricultural Subcommittee in April 2016. Courtesy National Farmers Union

Earlier this month, the NFU had their annual “fly-in” on Capitol Hill, where 275 farmers from around the country descended on Washington to voice their opinions to lawmakers. Last week, Johnson testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the trend of corporate consolidation in the agriculture industry, including the pending merger of Bayer and Monsanto.

Johnson spoke with Modern Farmer by phone from Washington about the merger, his views on the differing political camps in the agriculture community, and what he hopes to get done this year.

Modern Farmer: Tell us a little about the history of the NFU.

Roger Johnson: We were organized in 1902 in Point, Texas. In the early 1900s we grew very rapidly, spread across the deep South, and then up the Midwest. The Deep South organizations withered over the ensuing decades because we were one of the earlier organizations that supported civil rights. That ended up destroying our organization in the South. Where we were strongest, and remain so today, is in the Great Plains states. We also have a presence in New England and out west.

MF: How is the NFU different from a typical union?

RJ: We are not a union in the sense of a labor union. We are union in the sense of being united. We are a general farm organization, sort of like the Farm Bureau. We are both officially nonpartisan, but the Farm Bureau tends to lean pretty heavy to the right. We tend to be more in the center and lean a bit to the left.

MF: Tell us about the “fly-in” you did last week.

RJ: We do this every year in September right after Congress comes back from their August recess. We had 275 members come for the fly-in from all over the country. We visit with every office on Capitol Hill, including the representatives in the Senate and the House of both parties.

MF: What was your number one priority that you discussed with them?

RJ: First on the list is the economic difficulties that a lot of farmers are facing, and the need to advance the next farm bill – to do it early to try to fix some of the safety net issues that are plaguing farmers today. With commodity prices where they are at, basically about half of what they were three years ago, there is getting to be a lot of financial stress. The dairy industry in particular is not well served.

MF: What are your thoughts on the corporate consolidation happening in the ag industry right now?

RJ: It’s a really big deal for farmers. One of the principal reasons the Farmers Union was organized more than 100 years ago was to deal with the fact that we had very few input providers, and as a result, farmers felt like they were being taken advantage of when they had to buy supplies. And then they had very few places to market what they produced. So they were taken advantage of when they brought their products to market as well. Many of our formative years were spent organizing cooperatives so we could bring competition into the marketplace, and as a result create fair costs on the input side for farmers and fair prices on the output side for what we produced.

The undeniable results of those is that farmers are going to end up paying a higher cost for their seed and crop protection products.

MF: I would think that what is happening now must dwarf the monopolization in the industry 100 years ago.

RJ: As [US Senate Judiciary Chairman] Chuck Grassley said yesterday, this is a tsunami, a merger mania that is sweeping the country. In fact, it is sweeping the world right now. We have five of the big six seed and pesticide companies that are in various stages of mergers and acquisitions. The undeniable results of those is that farmers are going to end up paying a higher cost for their seed and crop protection products. And there will likely be less innovation when its all over and done with because there will be significantly less competition.

MF: What is the connection between competition and innovation?

RJ: The reason that you pay higher costs and have less innovation is because competition will be significantly impaired as a result of these mergers. Most economists would say when you get to the point where you have the top few firms controlling 40 or 50 percent of the market, you begin to have market competition impairment. In this case, depending on what you are measuring, the concentration levels will range from 60 to as much as 90 percent of among the top four firms [based on the planned mergers]. So we are clearly beyond the threshold above which competition is impaired.

MF: Do you think the government will ultimately sign off on all of the mergers?

RJ: If you look at the history of what’s happened with these things, there will occasionally be a rejection, but in the vast majority of cases what happens is they might have to divest this little piece or that little piece. That is clearly the expectation that Dow and DuPont have. It came through loud and clear during the hearing when I talked about the problem in terms of how both of those companies are aggressive competitors today in a crop that I grow on my farm, which is canola. There aren’t very many [canola] seed choices – five from one of them and three from the other. So you put them both in the same company and suddenly these are no longer competing products, they are aligned products, which means that they are probably able to charge a higher price for it, and they are probably not going to keep all of them, which means I’m going to have fewer seed choices.

MF: How did they respond when you brought that up?

RJ: Their response was, “well, we expect that the Department of Justice is going to look at that, and that may be an area where one company or the other may have to divest its canola breeding program.” Monsanto went through something similar 10 years ago when they bought Deltapine. The DOJ required that they divest of their cotton seed line for competition reasons. And of course the divestment meant that the overlapping cotton line ended up going to Bayer. Now you put Bayer and Monsanto back together and you basically have remarried up the same divested companies from 10 years ago.

MF: Sounds like a game of musical chairs! Not in a good way.

RJ: The bottom line is what’s likely to happen is these companies are going to have to divest maybe 1 percent of their combined businesses to meet those objections.

MF: On another note, what’s your view on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

RJ: We oppose the TPP. We might be the only farm organization in the country that has taken their view. We look at it from a broader perspective than a lot of the rest of agriculture.

MF: How does a trade deal like the TPP impact farmers?

RJ: For many years US ag trade has had a surplus. That’s a good thing; it means we sell more food and agricultural products in this country then we buy. That surplus means we can create more jobs, more economic activity. The problem is the rest of the country is hemorrhaging jobs as a result of an enormous trade deficit. We could take the parochial view that agriculture might be better off with these trade agreements, but the rest of the economy certainly is not. That gives you some perspective on how we tend to look at these deals.

Climate change was another priority issue at the fly-in. We are not afraid to use the words.

MF: Where does the NFU stand on the environmental issues inherent in agriculture?

RJ: Climate change was another priority issue at the fly-in. We are not afraid to use the words. We recognize the science, and we advocate for lots of different kinds of policy positions that will help us reduce the impacts of climate change. It’s one of the reasons we supported the renewable fuel standard. We support all kinds of renewal energy including wind and solar. Lots of conservation measures are high on our priority list because they contribute to building soil, adding organic matter, and sequestering carbon.

MF: As a non-partisan group, I assume you don’t endorse candidates.

RJ: In the presidential race we do not endorse. We have a very small PAC, so we do endorse in senate and congressional races. We endorse in both parties, although more Democrats than Republicans. Our primary goal to help educate our members about the positions that the candidates have.

MF: Would you be willing to share any thoughts on how the front-runner presidential candidates are likely to affect agricultural policy?

RJ: Trump doesn’t have nearly as much information on his website about what he would do, so you are left to look at his ag committee, which is pretty much corporate agriculture. So that gives you some idea of the kind of agricultural policy he will support. There is an awful lot of anti-regulatory stuff [in his platform] about disbanding the EPA and other federal agencies, rolling back all sorts of regs.

MF: What’s your view on his anti-regulatory stance?

RJ: It is nuanced because I think our members are quite often of the view that our regulatory system is sometimes broken and overreaching, and not very functional. So I think there is some appeal to that. There is probably more appeal to, “let’s get the regulatory system right” and “let’s make sure that we in fact do end up with clean water and clean air.” We don’t want to get rid of these agencies that try to put us in a position where we have a better environment, and a better climate for the earth. So we would tend to lean in that direction.

MF: What about Hillary Clinton?

RJ: If you look at Clinton’s [platform] you’ll find a lot more consistency between what she is saying and what our policy says. So we would educate folks about those differences, and they are going to make their own choices. I’m sure you’ll find a lot more of our members in the Clinton camp than in the Trump camp. But we will have members that vote for Trump, make no mistake about it.

MF: Are there particular policy areas where the NFU differs from Clinton’s platform?

RJ: Our policy on the TPP lines up a lot more with where Trump is at, than with Clinton. There’s a lot of people who think Clinton is saying that she is against the TPP, but it’s a “soft” against. There is some expectation, at least suspicion, that upon getting elected she may do what Obama did, which is to campaign against these trade deals and then become a proponent of them after getting in office. That’s an example of where we might be closer to Trump. But in most other cases – consolidation, climate, renewable energy, the need for a safety net in agriculture – there’s not much question that our members would be much more inclined to support Clinton.

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