For 40 years, California farmers have made their state the nation's leading agricultural producer. Yet, when the 3.6-million-member American Farm Bureau Federation met this month to decide its national legislative policy, California's delegation ranked only as an also-ran.
Based on its 99,281 members, California's federation of 57 county farm bureaus stands 13th among the 49 member states and Puerto Rico. (Alabama broke with the national federation in 1981.) California is flanked by Ohio with 112,950 members and Michigan with 92,910.
"It bothers me something terrible how we can be so successful in farming and have so little influence (on policy)," Henry J. Voss, California Farm Bureau president, complained in an interview as delegates voted on scores of political, economic and social issues that will form the national organization's lobbying agenda in Washington.
"We're almost twice as big as any of the next three contenders," Voss said, "but they have far more members and, therefore, votes."
Yet, while Voss finds himself "very frustrated" at times, he also acknowledges that the national federation's skill at compromising regional differences is a lot of its strength.
These differences are often most evident in California's traditional staunch opposition to government farm subsidies. The Californians' anti-subsidy position stems less from any special virtue than from the fact that most of them produce fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts--crops that are unsubsidized.
Their Midwestern and Southern counterparts, on the other hand, have fewer crop alternatives and also enjoy far less clement climates, leaving them to produce prodigious quantities of the dozen basic farm commodities and foodstuffs--wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans and feed grains--whose prices have been supported by the government for more than half a century.
Moreover, many California farmers who do grow so-called program crops are excluded from subsidies by income limitations imposed by Congress--usually $50,000 in annual crop sales--to target aid to smaller, more vulnerable (and often less efficient) producers.
Still, California farmers earned $14.5 billion for their crops in 1986 and probably more than $15 billion last year (which also makes farming the state's leading industry in terms of sales). Iowa ran a distant second to California with 1986 crop sales of $9.1 billion, followed by Texas with $8.5 billion, and Nebraska and Illinois with $6.9 billion each.
Yet, California's clout in the American Farm Bureau Federation--by far the nation's largest organization of family farmers and ranchers--diminishes further in dealing with regional concerns, Voss said. The federation's 12-state Western Region accounts for 30% of the nation's crop value but casts only 10% of the 294 votes in the policy-setting House of Delegates, he explained. In contrast, the South (even without Alabama) controls more than half the total votes.
"There are actually more farms in other states," Voss acknowledged, "though it's not because our farms are larger on average, as many people think. The value per acre is higher in California because of the kinds of (specialty) crops we grow."
Voss estimated that 85% of California's farmers belong to the county farm bureaus, the grass-roots units formed early in the century as forums to receive agricultural research developed under new government programs. These county units form the essence of the state federations and the national federation that they organized in 1919. Among farm operators who generate gross annual income of $30,000 or more, as many as 95% are members, Voss said.
Farmers in tobacco states, on the other hand, evolved from a share-cropper tradition in which their predecessors worked small plots of land for absentee landlords. One result has been a large number of very small farms, many of which remain viable only because of government aid in the form of federal allocations of tobacco production quotas. Those small units translate, however, into large numbers of farm operators--and, therefore, farm bureau members, Voss said.
'Strength in Diversity'
In addition, Voss said, some state federations define "farmer" more loosely than does California, including people who earn as little as $1,000 a year from farming, further resulting in swollen farm bureau membership. North Carolina, for example, produced 1986 crops valued at $3.8 billion but contributed 255,016 members, 2 1/2 times California's membership. Other states count as members anyone who buys automobile- or property-insurance policies sold by companies affiliated with the state federations.
"We do have regional differences," acknowledged Harry S. Bell, a South Carolina cotton grower and national vice president, "but we do our best to hold them down. There certainly is strength in diversity."
Dean R. Kleckner, an Iowa hog farmer who was unanimously reelected here to a second two-year term as president, agreed with Bell. "The regionalism is less important today than it was," he said. "What differences we have are more due to the commodities involved than to the regions."
Regional divisions were somewhat less pronounced this year because the Food Security Act of 1985, which spells out the gradually declining subsidy programs, will not be up for renewal until 1990. The federation's policy--maintained at New Orleans despite some challenges--holds that the five-year program should remain intact as a transition measure under which subsidies are scheduled to be sharply reduced and eventually removed.
But the challenges here--and the federation's ability to reconcile them--illustrated the sometimes-uneasy alliance that underlies basic farm bureau policies. John Dennison, who grows soybeans in southwestern Louisiana, furnished the clearest example, when he asked delegates to extend a 2-year-old "marketing loan" program for rice and cotton to soybeans, Louisiana's leading crop.
What is unique about the rice and cotton loans, which, like other government subsidies, cover production costs and a predetermined profit, is that participating farmers can make full repayment by turning over their crop proceeds, even if they are less than the face amount of the loan. (They also agree to reduce acreage planted to those crops.) This uncoupling of income support from crop prices has allowed the prices of rice and cotton--important California crops--to fall to world levels, where they readily sold.
Although marketing loans clearly are subsidies, California rice and cotton farmers joined producers in other states to campaign strongly for including them in the 1985 act. The goal, they pointed out, was to unload huge and costly government-owned surpluses, created by the traditional subsidy system of rigid price supports, which permitted new foreign competitors, knowing the U.S. prices, to offer their crops for less, sometimes with the benefit of their own export subsidies.
Fear of Foreign Rivals
The program's success is indicated by sharply reduced government inventories and a corresponding strengthening of market prices as competitors look to crops where the U.S. government continues to provide price supports--including soybeans.
While soybeans currently command profitable prices without subsidies, Dennison told the delegates, U.S. producers are afraid that the mere existence of price supports will attract those competitors, sharply boosting supplies and reducing world prices to the unprofitable levels prevailing over the previous six years. Extending the marketing loan concept to soybeans would likely deter Brazilian farmers from planting soybeans in the huge tracts of jungle being cleared in the Amazon basin, he said.
Dennison's plea, opposed by California (which grows no soybeans), failed 70-215, the delegates' resolve strengthened after bureau President Kleckner intervened. Kleckner warned them that voting for the proposal would violate a U.S. "standstill" agreement under which countries participating in the current "Uruguay Round" of trade talks agreed to refrain from imposing any new subsidies or trade barriers during negotiations.
"A marketing loan is a subsidy," Kleckner pointed out.
Undaunted by the lopsided vote, however, Dennison asked the delegates to leave the door open to a soybean marketing loan in case prices do fall. "We're simply asking that we have a chance to compete equally," Andy Wisenkoff of Arkansas said in support.
The watered-down measure to refer the issue to the federation's board of directors this time passed narrowly, 146-133--apparently placating the soybean contingent and the politically potent South.
Later, Kleckner denied to reporters that the second vote ran counter to the farm bureau's free-trade position or repudiated its policy that the current farm bill be left intact.
"At this point," he said, "the farm bureau does not have a policy for a marketing loan for soybeans. It's strictly up to the board."
On the other hand, Kleckner added, delegates clearly voted against a Texas proposal to add lamb to the Meat Import Quota Act, a protectionist measure covering beef, in the face of growing low-priced competition from New Zealand and Australia.
"That was kind of a pro-trade vote," Kleckner pointed out. "As we come out of this convention," he added, the national body remains in support of free trade and opposed to the remaining protectionist proposals in Congress.
But for Voss, the jury remains out on the federation's resolve to use the 1985 farm act to wean farmers from subsidies and restore their competitiveness.
"I wonder if we have the will to do what we say we are going to do: eliminate government subsidies," he said. "No one wants to give away their subsidies--their teddy bears."
AMERICAN FARM BUREAU MEMBERSHIP AND CROP VALUES
CROP VALUE VALUE STATE MEMBERS (in billions) RANK Texas 334,162 $8.5 3 Illinois 310,404 6.9 5 Tennessee 303,391 2.0 25 Kentucky 275,082 2.4 23 Indiana 261,267 4.1 10 North Carolina 255,016 3.8 11 Georgia 166,466 3.2 14 Mississippi 156,287 1.8 28 Iowa 150,938 9.1 2 Arkansas 128,590 3.0 17 Ohio 112,950 3.6 12 Kansas 126,025 5.4 7 California 99,281 14.5 1 Michigan 92,910 2.7 19 Virginia 91,473 1.6 30 National Total: 3,599,420 $135.9
Sources: American Farm Bureau Federation; U.S. Department of Agriculture