Sunday, October 29, 2006

The problem with living in a Big Tent...

I noted an interesting political exchange in the Des Moines Register this morning. It caught my eye because some of the people involved are friends of mine. In a letter to the editor, an Iowa Farm Bureau member took issue with IFB President Craig Lang:
Recently, Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Lang sent a letter soliciting funds for the Republican Party's candidate for secretary of agriculture, Bill Northey. Lang's letter attacked the Democratic Party's candidate, Denise O'Brien, and misrepresented her position on animal agriculture in Iowa. Borrowing from John Edwards' remarks about George Bush in Iraq, I dare say it seems Lang's "proactive stupidity" will backfire.

As a 50-year member of the Iowa Farm Bureau, I strongly object to Lang's degrading letter, which was sent to a select group only. Lang's candidate supports "stay-the-course" agricultural policies, big business and continued state-government control of livestock farm locations.

Denise O'Brien supports sustainable agriculture and local zoning of livestock operations. She supports changes in policy that would help control the proliferation of large, confined animal operations. Her policies will make it possible for more people to raise livestock, not fewer. She will help save our rural communities and ensure quality of life for all citizens.

Denise O'Brien is a kind, compassionate and intelligent person who has run a very positive campaign, standing firm on her principles without mudslinging. O'Brien's principles will serve us well as secretary of agriculture.

Donna Winburn,
I quote the entire letter to provide context and also demonstrate how a forceful but civil political debate should look like. The writer (who I do not know) is articulate and clear.

I do know both Bill Northey and Craig Lang and like and admire them. If you want to call this an endorsement , you can, but crimony - I'm from Illinois, so it could be more of a curse. In my judgment both men have hopes for improving life on farms, but are - as is now standard in politics - constrained by the positions they hold/seek and the powers they represent.

I have discussed farm politics with both gentlemen and empathize with their positions as farm leaders. Both of them seem to be frustrated with the limited range of options available to leaders today. You dare not stray off the reservation too far.

One key reason behind this is Farm Bureau's absolute insistence on "grassroots" political decision-making. Any attempt at leadership - truly going before - is smacked down as uppity presumption. Further complicating this inflexibility is the painfully slow annualized policy-making process. When your reaction time is say, 10 months you aren't going to play much of a role in a 24/7 world.

I often ask people who talk admiringly about "grassroots", "What about the grass?" If it's all about roots, what's the point? Roots are unseen, have no impact above ground. Farm Bureau has so few blades of grass sticking up into the real world because the roots jealously cut them off. Taking the analogy to the extreme, is it any wonder the organization lacks the energy it should have without any chance at real world photosysnthesis?

Above all the unfortunate Farm Bureau decision to try to fool the world by counting insurance buyers as in involuntary "members" makes for plump membership numbers to impress politicians and ample funds for running the organization but has now thoroughly diluted the soul of the whole effort.

Farm Bureau struggles to represent all kinds of agriculture but as I have written below, our profession is evolving healthy sectors that neither need nor are attracted to FB. Coupled with their inability to change and their intolerance to leaders who espouse change, FB could possibly dwindle in importance, just like current farm policy as agriculture evolves beyond them.

That would be a shame. But it is also their right to choose this path to pointlessness.

And the roots are insisting on that choice, it seems.

[Full disclosure: I have been a Farm Bureau member since I first bought their insurance many decades ago. I have been privileged to serve as a county leader and aspired to higher positions but proved to be perfectly inelectable. While it could be charged my comments are of the disgruntled employee nature, Jan and I are now convinced something like divine intervention prevented a disastrous situation for both me FB and me. I have great respect for the organization, but fear its inertia prevents it from being anywhere close to the force it could be for farmers.]


Anonymous said...

Local zoning, you've gotta be kidding. Local zoning people like to exert power they don't have. Heaven forbid anyone gives them power over agriculture endeavors. They'll tell you what color your line fence has to be.

John Phipps said...

Actually, I favor no control, but control at the local level is a valid choice. Regardless, local citizens will live with the consequences.

My point was the letter writer was offering her opinion in a classy way, I thought.

Anonymous said...

We have local zoning for such things as industry, housing and whether or not a condo owner can hang their laundry out on a line. I think agriculture can survive.
My rights end at your front door.