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NFU members to vote on new leadership

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(March 3, 2002 – CropChoice opinion) – IRVING, Texas – We support Dave Frederickson to be president of the National Farmers Union. The story of a former Kansas dairyman is part of the reason why.

Donn Teske wants to remain a member of the NFU, but would consider leaving if leadership he considers friendly to corporate interests takes the helm.

"This organization reflects my passion. We’re trying to be a force that challenges the power structure. We want to represent the family farmer," says Teske, who presides over the Kansas Farmers Union and organically grows soybeans, milo, oats, pumpkins, red clover and pasture grass. He used to run a dairy farm in the state but left after the entrance of corporate interests (more about that later). "If NFU changes their direction of political goals, their philosophy, then I have to find a new farmers organization."

One of the tasks that delegates from the 330,000-member Farmers Union have on the agenda here today, the third day of the organization’s 100th annual convention, is the election of a new president. They’ll also set policy on issues ranging from farm payments to conservation to genetically modified crops.

Two state officers are vying for the job of NFU president.

Dave Frederickson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union for 11 years, tells CropChoice that the Union must continue its historic emphasis on three themes – education, cooperation, and legislation.

When it comes to that last item, he believes the National Farmers Union and all the state chapters, save for Oklahoma, are right to favor the Senate version of a new Farm Bill. It bans packer ownership, calls for higher loan rates, requires country-of-origin labeling and features more acreage in conservation reserve. He’s disappointed that the House version, though it allots more money for farmers, proposes lower loan rates and gives the Secretary of Agriculture the discretion to decrease them further.

His opponent, Terry Detrick, vice president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union, says that he supports policies in favor of the family farmer, though he wouldn’t elaborate. The basic difference between the two candidates, he says, is his intention to "take the basic fact of the NFU being a voice for farmers and adding to it an innovative, progressive spirit that can take it into the future."

Detrick’s support for the House Farm Bill upsets Donn Teske and others here.

The House legislation continues the failures of the 1996 Farm Bill and is a giveaway to corporations, says Teske: "It does nothing to limit production. We’re giving away our natural resources at below production cost, just so that input suppliers, grain handlers and processors, and creditors can be satisfied. They’re telling us that if we don’t grow it fence row to fence row, then Brazil will. Fine, let them grow at below production cost."

Teske fears that a Detrick presidency would begin the process of moving the Farmers Union in line with the Farm Bureau, which he left in the late ‘80s after it lobbied in favor of establishing corporate hog farming in the state.

Its eventual success in changing state laws that had barred industrial livestock operations "represented a shift in Kansas agriculture," he says. Between 1992 and 1997, 50 percent of the independent, family hog farmers disappeared. The situation is similar with dairy farmers; 60 percent of those were forced out in the same period.

Normally, this would be an easy victory for Frederickson. After all, he’s president of a state Farmers Union and has the support of 23 of 24 other presidents.

But the Oklahoma Farmers Union, which supports Detrick, boasts the largest membership – more than 100,00 – of all the state chapters. It’s gained these numbers by counting insurance holders as members. Outside the state, holding a Farmers Union policy doesn’t get you membership in the organization. Less than 20,000 of Oklahoma’s members are farmers. The Farm Bureau used this method to build its membership into the millions.

The greater numbers mean more delegates for Oklahoma when it comes to voting on policy and leadership positions.

Detrick says the conclusions that some are drawing from this are wrong. Besides, any president must do the bidding of members as defined through policy that’s developed democratically, right?

Wrong, says Leland Swenson, who is leaving his job as president of the NFU after 14 years.

"The national president has discretionary authority as to how they direct staff to carry out policy defined by members," says Swenson, citing the Union’s relative skepticism -- at least compared to the Farm Bureau and some major commodity organizations -- about the commercialization and export of transgenic crops. A leader who disagrees with this policy doesn't "emphasize the positions of members on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Let companies shove them down Europeans’ throats, let the trade negotiators shove it down their throats."

The departing president believes that Detrick doesn’t have the multi-faceted background of Frederickson.

"Terry (Detrick) is more in line with running a business and single-issue organizations" such as the National Association of Wheat Growers, Swenson says. "He comes from NAWG, with close ties to corporate, commodity agriculture. We believe they have enough resources of their own that they don’t need NFU helping with their agenda."