Farm Lobbies Squabble Over Climate Details

by Jesse Zwick | July 23, 2009

It's common knowledge that most farmers oppose a cap-and-trade bill—or at least it was common knowledge until last month. That's when the National Farmers Union (NFU) issued a press release that urged House members to approve Rep. Collin Peterson's controversial and farm-friendly additions to the House climate bill. "Upon approval," urged NFU President Roger Johnson, "we urge members to vote in favor of the climate change legislation."

Still, most influential farm lobbies like the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) have maintained their opposition to the House bill. This divide was highlighted on Wednesday when the Senate Agriculture Committee held its first hearing on climate legislation, in which the NFU and the AFBF presidents sat side by side on the first panel and aired opposing views on the net benefits of cap-and-trade for farmers.

What's the beef? I asked Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of numerous books on agricultural and environmental policy, and this is how he breaks it down:

Historically the American Farm Bureau has always been the bigger and stronger of the two. It's been around since the early 20th century and it currently represents the interests of large, commercial producers, plus the industries that provide those farmers with machinery, seeds, and chemicals. ... Farm Bureau farmers are highly capitalized, low cost producers, [who are] quite competitive and many are export-oriented. They're also predominantly Republican. ...

The National Farmers Union has a different history. It was originally an organization of ‘prairie populists' from the Northern Plains, smaller farmers and mostly wheat growers. They have trouble competing with bigger farms, so they've always been more comfortable with a large role for government in the agricultural sector. ... Both groups are now addicted to the subsidies contained in the Farm Bill, but the Farm Bureau wants these subsidies to take the form of cash while the Farmers Union has traditionally been more comfortable with government programs that control markets.

Republican opponents want to make it appear as though the American Farm Bureau represents the American farmer, while the Democrats want to do the same with the National Farmers Union. ... Each is presented by their respective party as the voice of farmers in America.

Larger farms rely to a greater extent on energy-intensive inputs like nitrogen-based fertilizers and compete more on international markets--markets in which, the large farmers fear, they'd lose ground to countries like India and China if those countries don't follow our lead and put a price on carbon.

But this split might also signal an opening for those hoping to get 60 Senate votes in favor of a climate bill. That's because many of the key "fence-sitters," such as Blanche Lincoln, Kent Conrad, Debbie Stabenow, Ben Nelson, and Byron Dorgan all happen to be Democratic Senators who hail from farm states. With the NFU's endorsement sealed by Peterson, these senators could vote in favor of the bill and still claim in good conscience to be carrying out the will of the American farmer. Well, at least some of them.

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