Remember the Populists from your late 19th and early 20th century history?
Well, some of their great grandsons and daughters will be in Wichita this weekend as the 113-year old National Farmers Union holds its annual national convention at the Hyatt Regency Wichita from Saturday through Tuesday.
Two major Obama administration officials – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy – will address the group on Monday.
About 600 people are expected.
The group sometimes puts itself at odds with much of the rest of the nation’s agriculture industry. One of its goals is to reduce the market power of large agribusinesses, such as food processing companies, on farm prices and practices.
For instance, in 2010 Vilsack proposed rules changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act that would have strengthened the traditional cattle barn auction system with its public pricing – and attacked the increasingly prevalent sale of beef cattle by private contract.
Most of the industry, ranchers as well as packers, fought the proposal, saying private agreements allowed packers to improve the beef supply and meet consumers’ demands by paying higher prices to producers who raised superior quality beef.
The National Farmers Union supported the rules change, saying open markets would mean farmers would get the best price for their product. The rules change was never enacted.
“We may not be the voice of agriculture, but we are the conscience of agriculture,” said Donn Teske, a livestock farmer north of Manhattan, head of Kansas Farmers Union and vice president of the National Farmers Union.
Teske regrets the evolution of the family farm into larger and more automated operations – and more like other corporations.
In the 1920 and 1930s, he said, there were 110,000 Farmers Union members in Kansas. Today, there are 1,000 dues-paying members, or 7,000 if you include family members. There are about 200,000 nationwide, he said.
“I often tell people we are more for the family farm and keeping agriculture family farm agriculture,” he said.
Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, director of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies at Kansas State University, said that in the late 19th century and early 20th century most of the Populist movement’s early issues more or less became national policy: the secret ballot, direct election of U.S. senators, women’s right to vote, departure from the gold standard, farmer-owned co-operatives.
The Populists’ political influence declined as the 20th-century progressed, and other groups, such as the National Farm Bureau, grew in influence. It became the voice of farmers and, in the depths of the Depression, it led the drive to develop a new strategy to aid farmers: federal price supports through mechanisms contained in a national farm bill, legislation that has been tweaked and renewed periodically ever since.
In Kansas, particularly, she said, as farms have grown larger, more productive, more professionally run and more technologically advanced, the National Farmers Union seems more and more a relic of the past.
But on a national level, it retains clout, particularly under Democratic administrations, she said.
“You might call it an anachronism in Kansas, but their philosophy has remained unchanged and, nationally, they remain important,” she said.