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“Tell me how you really feel”: Media coverage of the Farm Bureau

First, thanks to Judd Legum, owner/operator of Popular Information (one of the best examples of new, independent media outlets), who inspired me to write this blog — and to send him a tip. Judd does deep dives on big picture corporate corruption, electoral politics, and a variety of topics that affect communities across the U.S. — crime, abortion access, school boards, truth and lies, etc. He does it clearly, in an easy-to-read format, without ads and, if you can’t afford a subscription, he’s figuring out how to make that happen. I am a free subscriber.

Judd also likes to engage with readers, so when he invited subscribers to “Tell me how you really feel” in a live “chat” session on Substack, I put my 2 cents in.

Below is what I sent to Judd (posted in the chat session and also via personal email), suggesting an important topic that very few people cover: The role of American Farm Bureau in industrializing U.S. agriculture, in U.S. climate denial, in the overbearing insurance industry, in promoting corporate profit over farmers, eaters, and truth, and general throwing-their-weight-around activities.

This is a delicate blog to post and, if Judd takes on the topic, it will be a delicate newsletter (or series of newsletters) to write. There are good people in Farm Bureau. Over the years, the Farm Bureau no doubt provided beneficial community for people in rural areas. In 2021, Farm Bureau’s presence in a given community might even be more beneficial than ever, given the decreasing population of U.S. farming communities and the increase in stresses.

But, as a spiritual teacher once wrote about a specific organized religion, “sincere” and nice doesn’t cut it; it’s what they do and what they teach, especially as a large, over-powerful organization. (And, yes, I think I just stuck both feet in my mouth at once in terms of good relations with rural farming communities.) My larger question is: To what extent has Farm Bureau been (and still is) part of the extraction mechanism know as the national U.S. and global economy?

In my private email to Judd, I added a P.S. (expanded here for more context):
Numerous farmers have told me that the Farm Bureau was originally bankrolled by the Rockefeller family. I haven’t been able to find any definitive proof except occasional informal references that some Rockefeller did fund an early planning meeting that included representatives from 30 states (held in Chicago, around 1919). The fact that Farm Bureau was founded in New York (in 1911) with financial support from a railroad company (Lackawanna) suggests that research might be productive.

P.S. to other U.S. media, independent or not:
Feel free to steal this idea. It’s only when the nefarious aspects of Farm Bureau make headlines everywhere that we might start addressing the corruption problems in our food & farm system.

“POPULAR INFORMATION looks at the Farm Bureau”
A headline I’d like to see in a future newsletter

Suggestion sent to Judd Legum on Oct. 13, 2021
(lightly edited for clarity)

As an urban activist for food & farm justice, I’d like to see a NATIONAL discussion about the AMERICAN FARM BUREAU, which is really in bed with agri-business — not small farmers, not eaters, not the land. But most urban people, including legislators, think that the Farm Bureau speaks for ALL farmers.

Some recent articles are a start, but they don’t get to the bottom of the corporate problem: 

1. The Iowa Farm Bureau is a small nonprofit. It’s sitting on a huge business empire
by Sky Chadde, Eli Hoff, Mark Ossolinski 
(Investigate Midwest, Oct. 11, 2021) 

2.  How the Farm Bureau’s Climate Agenda is Failing its Farmers 
by Georgina Gustin, Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman, Jr. 
(Oct. 24, 2018, Inside Climate News); 

3.  Iowa Farm Bureau: insurance company or voice of farmer 
(op-ed, Des Moines Register, June 2018) by Austin Frerick
Frerick is now at Yale (Deputy Director of Thurman Arnold Project — competition policy, antitrust enforcement). Organized 2020 conference: “Big Ag & Antitrust: Competition Policy for a Sustainable and Humane Food System” at Yale Law School. Was an economist at U.S. Dept of Treasury, Office of Tax Analysis.

4.  A Green New Deal for Agriculture  
by Raj Patel, Jim Goodman 
(April 2019, Jacobin) 

Quote from article:
Today, the Farm Bureau has around 6 million member families. The number of farms in the US is around 2 million. The claim to be “the voice of the American farmer” rings hollow when most Farm Bureau members don’t actually farm. The membership numbers are goosed up by the bureau’s main revenue streams: insurance. This isn’t crop insurance for farmers, but auto, home, health, and life insurance for anyone who becomes a “member.” In order to benefit from discounts, you have to join. 

My comment as a lifelong (70 years) resident of Cook County:
To put this in context, Cook County Farm Bureau in Illinois has the most members of any county in the U.S. That’s because lots of Chicago-area folks buy Country Financial Insurance. So they’re all counted as “members” of FB even though they may not know anything about farming. 

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS on covering agriculture, agri-business, and reality
(not included in my comment to Popular Information)

In my Illinois experience, Farm Bureau is not interested in working with other organizations as peers. In 2009 a large coalition (rural-urban-suburban) passed a premier “local foods” economic plan for the state (Local Food, Farms & Jobs: Growing the Illinois Economy, adopted in 2009) emphasizing coordination, subsidiarity, and support for all Illinois farmers and eaters who wanted to be part of re-localizing Illinois’s food system. Illinois Farm Bureau attempted to co-opt the original lobbying process (2007), the 2-year task force charged with writing the plan, and the success of our work afterwords. 

Local farmers, other local businesses, and other local food advocates have had a very difficult time in breaking through the institutional monoliths that have hijacked the food & farm economy. For example, in 2010-11, members of the Illinois Food, Farms & Jobs coalition worked with a Northwestern University program to find ways to tap into school lunch programs in Illinois. The program (MSLOC) is a Master’s program in the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) that studies “learning and organizational change”. It is an action-learning program, which means they take on real organizational clients and make real recommendations for real organizational change.

After two years of working with the IFFJ coalition and the Illinois Farm-to-School network, the basic finding of these super-smart Master’s candidates was that Illinois school lunch programs are a “black box” — dark, opaque, with no entrance from the outside. Ten years later, this was corroborated by a Real Food Generation report, Be-trayed: How Kickbacks in the Cafeteria Industry Harm our Community — and what to do about it. As the title suggests, the report found that the success of the three major dining services — Compass, Aramark, Sodexo — in monopolizing institutional feeding programs across the country (including Illinois, including schools, hospitals, colleges, etc.) were facilitated and maintained through kickbacks.

In my limited experience, trying to work with both Illinois Farm Bureau and Cook County Farm Bureau, Farm Bureau as an organization, a corporation, is similarly opaque — a black box that dominates food and farm policy, but that doesn’t work with or represent most farmers or most eaters as peers.

A hyper-recent example of this domination (800-pound gorilla style) is the announcement by Debra Shore of her appointment by President Biden as the new Administrator for EPA Region 5, based here in Chicago and representing six Midwest states (IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI) and Tribal Nations in those states. In her announcement, Debra listed some organizations that supported her nomination, including the Cook County and Illinois Farm Bureaus.

She did not mention any “local food & farm” or “regenerative food & farm” organizations that supported her nomination, such as: Regeneration Midwest (a 12-state coalition and listserv), Organic Farming Assn., Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Advocates for Urban Agriculture (Greater Chicago), Ohio Ecological Food & Farming Assn. (OEFFA), Land Stewardship Project (MN), Michigan Local Food Council Network, MOSES (WI), etc. Were the 35 Tribal Nations asked for their input? My guess is that these organizations (just the tip of food & farm organizations in Region 5) were not asked for their support or input — by Debra, by U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan, by President Biden, or anyone else involved in the nominating process. I’d be happy to learn otherwise.

This is just one example of how the 100+ year-old institution of Farm Bureau takes up unearned space in the minds of the public and officials by monopolizing and repeating an outdated U.S. farm narrative, to the detriment of eaters, our planet, and farmers themselves. As the articles cited suggest, there are many ways to tell the true story about Farm Bureau. Hopefully some 21st century media — rural, suburban, and urban — will have the awareness and courage to do so.


Growing up in Chicago, I used to be perplexed by the headlines in our local newspapers’ business pages. Laying on the living room floor with the Chicago Daily News or, later (after the Daily News & Sun-Times merged) at the kitchen table with the dreaded Chicago Tribune (“Dewey beats Truman”), the message was the same: “The outlook for agriculture is rosy.” As a child of the Baby Boom era, surrounded by population growth and urban sprawl — i.e., people who need to be fed — I couldn’t understand how the outlook for agriculture shouldn’t always be rosy. 

It took me many years to discover how stupid our culture is, measuring economic progress in total money changing hands (GDP) rather than in quality of life for all our citizens and inhabitants (including non-humans). It took decades of bad decisions based on GDP for some of us to realize that GDP had nothing to do with the quality of anything or anyone or the quantity of economic actors benefiting from a high GDP, even as many of us were living out a reduced standard of living. In fact we could have a huge GDP and we wouldn’t know, looking at the numbers, whether the such an economy had benefited everyone in the country or just a handful of super-rich people. Nor would we know, just looking at the numbers, whether we had a peaceful, prosperous civilization or cities of empty buildings, prisons, and homeless people surrounded by soilless land, polluted watersheds, and low-oxygen air.

For too long urban and suburban Americans have left decisions about the food system business to rural politicians. We became more and more ignorant about where our food comes from, how it’s produced, and, most importantly, who grows it. We lost sight of how much work it is to grow food (and other farm products), day in and day out, and what a crap shoot good farming is. Good journalists and independent media outlets can help re-connect the dots and re-connect rural, suburban, and urban people around restored land, water, and local economies—in all communities.