National Farmers Union

Representing and supporting family farmers and small-scale producers for 114 years
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Dana Merk-Wynne

On average farmers and ranchers in the U.S. receive only 15.8 cents of every food dollar that consumers spend on food. Rising crop input costs coupled with off-farm costs such as marketing, processing, wholesaling, distributing and retailing account for the majority of every food dollar, leaving a small piece of the pie for America’s family farmers.

Since forming in 1902 in Texas, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has worked to return more food dollars back to the farm, ensuring family farms not only stay in business and make a good living, but also thrive for generations. Through three core areas of service: cooperation, education and legislation, NFU works to build a transparent agricultural marketplace and fair competition in an industry dominated by large corporations and ongoing consolidation.

Fair competition, healthy rural economies

Today NFU represents farmers and ranchers in all corners of the country with organized divisions in 33 states. Representing some 200,000 family farmers, NFU serves mainly small-to-medium sized producers.

“We’ve been around for more than 100 years and most of our membership is up and down the Great Plains, but we represent 33 states nationwide,” says Roger Johnson, president of NFU.

National Farmers Union

“Back when we started we were a vehicle to ensure competition in agricultural markets as the farm industry developed. In many areas there was only a single buyer of the farm commodities, as well as only one or two sellers of the inputs farmers needed. As a consequence, there was relatively no competition and farmers paid too much for inputs and received too little for what they produced.”

NFU spent its formative years organizing business cooperatives to offer more options for local farmers and increase competition. “We set up cooperatives and encouraged more competitors to come into the marketplace to ensure robust options on the input and output side,” says Johnson.

Johnson says even after 114 years this focus hasn’t changed a great deal. “We still promote fair and robust competition in the agricultural marketplace and work to ensure quality of life for family farmers,” he says. “Many of the jobs on the farm translate to other jobs in the community, which is why the health of the local farm economy is so important. While we’re focused on this, we look beyond the farm at the larger economic and social issues that impact folks in rural communities and advocate for their best interest in policy positions nationwide.”

A major issue many producers face is ongoing industry consolidation. “Especially on the input side, the supply chain is represented by only a half dozen major seed companies,” says Johnson. “We’re active in the political arena to keep them from continuing to merge and creating monopolistic price pressures; the same is true in the fertilizer industry.”

Change from the local level up

With organized divisions in 33 states, NFU’s key to success in policy change has been its grassroots structure in which policy positions are initiated locally. “Affecting public policy is either done with money or with people — we do it with the strength of proactive people and thousands of farmers behind us,” says Johnson.

“We make a point to talk to our membership. We also conduct a regular survey to put numbers behind our efforts,” says Johnson. “We’re constantly working to make sure there are safety net protections in place for farmers against risks they cannot control such as market price declines and major weather disasters. Our members don’t hesitate to call in and talk to our national government relations staff and let them know the issues they’re facing.”

Lately, new regulations from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), transportation issues and trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership have been at the forefront of the dialogue at NFU’s offices and on the hill in Washington, D.C. “In terms of the new FSMA rules, we’ve been deeply involved. Yes, we want to have a safe food supply, but most of our work is cutting through unnecessary requirements that simply add costs and don’t hold any food safety benefits, especially when dealing with smaller suppliers,” explains Johnson.

The front lines of climate change

Other issues NFU works to bring to light are ones that didn’t exist a century ago when the organization took root. “Today, climate change is a major focus for us because family farmers have been on the front lines of climate change for a number of years,” says Johnson. “They’re the ones feeling the impact of extreme weather volatility and are dealing with it on a daily basis. Our staff helps to ensure that the policy supports farmer adaptation and that new climate change laws in place help them reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their carbon foot print in the best way possible. There’s tremendous potential for the ag community to help mitigate climate change, but the right policy needs to be behind this.”

An example is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS). The RFS is a program requiring the displacement of petroleum-based fuels in the U.S. transportation sector by renewable fuels that curb GHG emissions. The RFS is intended to break the petroleum monopoly on the transportation fuels market and allow consumers to choose lower-carbon renewable biofuels. “We’ve been in talks with the EPA, submitting comments and testifying on our members’ behalf to make sure the rules stay on track with the law and that the EPA does not undermine the intent of the RFS by Congress,” says Johnson.

Appealing careers on the farm

Addressing climate change is the first step to protect the longevity of agriculture; the next is finding and employing the next generation of farmers, an issue that also weighs heavily in NFU’s long-term goals. “The average age of the farmer is 58, according to the latest ag census,” says Andrew Jerome, communications director at NFU. “There’s a big need for younger farmers, so through both educational programs that introduce young people to the farm and through legislative work that strives for incentives and programs to help young farmers start out, we’re working to change this and attract youth to agriculture.”

NFU is working in terms of greater educational programs to attract more young people to careers in farming. “We have organized the Beginning Farmers Institute,” adds Jerome. “This program hosts three different annual sessions throughout the country, offering tours, educational sessions and meetings with the USDA and other agencies. The point is to help young people or those who are new to farming learn the ins and outs of farm startup.”

Uniting in Minneapolis

The Beginning Farmers Institute also has a presence at NFU’s annual convention — this year, March 5-8 in Minneapolis. “The annual convention is our biggest event with about 500 to 600 people in attendance, about half of which are NFU delegates [policy makers and committee members],” says Johnson.

The convention kicks off with major industry speakers, tours of the city and many breakout sessions focusing on pertinent issues. “We will focus on farm safety, and we’ll address our legislative efforts in terms of the FSMA, climate change and transportation issues,” says Johnson.

There’s much to glean from the convention, but probably the most significant aspect is the policy development process. “In the final days of the annual convention, our delegates meet and vote on policy changes,” says Johnson. Anything that changes is clearly and effectively communicated to and from members.

Johnson says this constant flow of information — from internal policy changes to updates on rules and regulations — is what serves members most. “We work hard to support and reflect the policies our members adopt at convention,” he says. “The best way to create this is a constant flow of information to our members.”

With strong backing, the National Farmers Union continues its grassroots mission, serving and supporting the nation’s family farmers, while ensuring vibrant rural communities and the proliferation of agriculture. 

View state union features here:

MN Farmers Union

KS Farmers Union

NE Farmers Union

WI Farmers Union

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