The Farmers Union, Politics, Pigs and Pork

So the North Dakota Farmers Union held a big rally Friday on the Capitol steps to kick off the petition drive to refer North Dakota Senate Bill 2351, which would exempt dairies and hog farms from our anti-corporation farming laws. It’s nice to see the spunk coming from the NDFU. I hope their referral effort is successful.

They’ve got a little experience at this. They’re fresh from a 2014 ballot initiative victory as part of the coalition formed last year to defeat Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. Their interest in that measure was the fear–completely unfounded–that “big out-of-state conservation organizations” would buy up farmland in competition with farmers. Of course, the anti-corporation farming law they are now about to defend would have prevented that, but it was a line that a lot of people–including many Farmers Union members–bought into, and they carried that fear to the voting booth.

I’d have sworn I heard a reference to that from Farmers Union President Mark Watne yesterday, but I was listening with one ear while someone else was talking in the other (a dangerous thing for someone my age), so this morning I checked with others who were there and I guess I was wrong. So anyone who read this yesterday (Friday) needs to know that. At the bottom of today’s entry, I’ve posted some remarks from former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson, who took exception to some of the things I said in yesterday’s blog post. Robert and I have been friends for many years, and we spoke on the phone this morning,  and this won’t affect our friendship. But his roots go deep in the Farmers Union, much deeper than mine, and his words are to be taken seriously.

In his remarks below, Robert says about Measure 5 “I voted for it because as poorly drafted as it was, it was the only choice to put some needed money into recreation and conservation.” Well, anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I felt exactly the same as Robert, and like him, I held my nose and voted yes. I have faulted the sponsors who drafted such a bad measure almost as much as the lying liars at the Chamber of Commerce and the Petroleum Council for the measure’s overwhelming defeat.

That coalition, which also included the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and the North Dakota Farm Bureau, ran the most despicable and dishonest campaign ever seen in North Dakota. So in that respect, it’s probably a good thing that none of those organizations was present at Friday’s rally, standing beside Watne and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson.

But don’t be surprised if those unlikely 2014 coalition partners of the Farmers Union hold a rally of their own—to fight the Farmers Union’s referral attempt, and defeat their one-time ally. Because those groups have been leaders in the effort to get rid of the state’s anti-corporation farming law for years and years. We’ll get an early indication of the opposition if somebody starts a campaign discouraging people from signing the referral petition. That was one of the tactics the group used last year. It wasn’t successful in keeping the measure off the ballot, but it was a way to get the anti’s message out early, and it set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

I think the leaders of the generally-progressive Farmers Union are about to learn a hard lesson: There’s no loyalty among thieves.

So this year it is about big out-of-state corporate dairies and corporate hog farms invading the state.  Well, guess what? They’re already here. Is anybody following the story about the murder of two people at one of those huge hog farms near Bottineau this week? The manager and one of the employees of Turtle Mountain Pork were murdered by a fellow employee on the farm’s premises. And that’s no family farm.

Hog farm(It’s not really a farm at all—just a big building where mama pigs spend their lives standing up in a pen not big enough to turn around in, spitting out babies. I’m guessing they are artificially inseminated, so they don’t even get the pleasure of a visit from a boar a couple times a year. You think your bacon comes from a pigpen on Old MacDonald’s Farm? Guess again.)

Turtle Mountain Pork, where the murders occurred, is owned by AMVC Management Services, LLC, of Aududon, Iowa. That “LLC” in the name stands for Limited Liability Company. Technically, it’ not a corporation, but a rose, or in this case a hog, by any other name . . . I mean, come on, say the words out loud: LIMITED LIABILITY. Isn’t that the whole idea behind corporations—to protect the shareholders from liability?

AMVC has a wide footprint in North Dakota. In addition to their Bottineau operation, they either own or manage similar operations near Langdon in north central North Dakota and Scranton in southwest North Dakota. There might be more. They also have a wide footprint nationally. amvc-mapThey are listed in farm publications as the 9th largest pork producer in the U.S., with operations in Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. So anyone who believes our anti-corporation farming laws are keeping big out-of-state operators out of North Dakota can think again. (Incidentally, they also operate dairies in other states. Isn’t that convenient?)

AMVC posted a statement on its website this week, after the murders, from their corporate headquarters in Iowa: “We were devastated and shocked by the tragedy that occurred at Turtle Mountain Pork yesterday morning.  We are cooperating with authorities to ensure the responsible person(s) is brought to justice.”

My guess is the AMC facility is just a taste of what is to come Hog farm exteriorif the referral is unsuccessful and the law passed by this legislature and signed by Jack Dalrymple is allowed to stand. I haven’t seen one of these “farms” but I read a newspaper story that described “a gestation barn roughly the size of two football fields placed end to end.”

But, back to matters at hand. I just hope the Farmers Union knows what it is getting into this year. The organization has been involved in a number of ballot measures over the years, most notably the successful effort to levy a 6.5 per cent tax on oil and gas production in 1980—the famed Measure 6. That year, they were part of another, more traditional coalition, which included the North Dakota AFL-CIO, the North Dakota REC’s and the North Dakota Education Association. Unlike today, those organizations were headed by giants in the North Dakota political arena: Stanley Moore from the Farmers Union, Adrian Dunn from the NDEA, Chub Ulmer from the REC’s and Jim Gerl from the labor groups. And their chief strategist was Deputy Tax commissioner Kent Conrad, whom I have called North Dakota’s best politician ever. If the farm group has half a brain, they will try to put that coalition back together. And bring back Kent.

Today’s Farmers Union is wealthy, the result of successful insurance and other outside business ventures, so it can probably afford to run a campaign. But it lacks political savvy, especially at the top. Its officers and county chairmen actually believed the anti-conservation line they were fed last year by the Chamber, and passed it along to the members. The Chamber needed to suck the state’s largest farm organization into the Measure 5 battle to give itself some credibility beyond the business community. President Watne took the bait, and became a visible part of that dishonest campaign.

All right, I’ve used the word dishonest a few times today, and a number of times in the past. So, prove it, you say. Well, okay then.

I’m not going to rehash the whole campaign, but I want to go back to something I wrote about here a couple months ago, something that influenced the votes of a lot of people who helped defeat the measure. That’s this:

We were told we didn’t need to pass Measure 5 because there was already an Outdoor Heritage Fund which was going to provide $30 million in the current biennium, and, at a key juncture in the campaign, Jack Dalrymple jumped in and promised to add $50 million to that in the next biennium. Turns out, neither of those numbers is true.

There never was $30 million in the kitty for the current biennium. Because of a glitch in the formula that dictates the income to that fund, there was not even $20 million. But no one challenged that number.

There was $50 million in the Governor’s budget proposal for the next biennium, but that number was slashed by the House of Representatives to $40 million. And yesterday, I am told, the Senate Natural Resources Committee cut it back to $30 million. We also now know that, to make up for that shortfall in the current biennium, the Industrial Commission, which approves the grants from that fund, is already borrowing from next biennium’s income, leaving something far less than $30 million  available for the next two years. So the $80 million we were promised last year has shrunk now to below $50 million, spread over 4 years, hardly enough for any major conservation initiatives, and far short of what voters were promised if they defeated Measure 5.

Karleen Fine, the Executive Director of the Industrial Commission, explained to me how this works. As of today, the Industrial Commission has approved more than $19 million in grants from the OHF, but the fund is only going to take in a little more than $18 million by the time the biennium ends June 30. But because a lot of these projects are going to take a few years, maybe even ten years, to complete, the grantees won’t draw down the actual cash in the fund below what is coming in this biennium.

Now there’s a new grant round coming up, with an application deadline of April 1—next week. The requests will be screened by the Outdoor Heritage Advisory Committee and recommendations made to the Industrial Commission, which will likely grant the funds at a meeting in June. But when they do that, they’ll actually be granting from whatever funds the 2015 Legislature approves for 2016-2017.

So if, for example, the Advisory Committee recommends $11 million in grants, and the Industrial Commission approves that amount, to bring the biennial total up to the $30 million they promised, they’ll be committing to spend $11 million of next biennium’s money before that two-year budget period even starts. Because they have continuing appropriation authority, Karleen says, they can do that. If they do that, and the Senate committee’s recommendation stands, there will be less than $20 million available in the next biennium, not the $50 million we were promised.

State agencies in the past have always been pretty gun-shy about spending next biennium’s money before next biennium starts. Kind of like a payday loan. It might be legal, but it sure sets a bad example for the rest of society.

Y’know what I think? I think all this money floating around the state as a result of the boom has made our government sleazy. And, by extension, has made North Dakota and its citizens appear a little sleazy too. I don’t like it.

But back to the Farmers Union. I wish them well. If I had one piece of advice, based on a lot of years of political campaigns, it would be to enlist someone like former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson to step in and run the campaign. Carlson flew in the face of the group’s leadership in the last election, but he is loyal, and he has credibility with the other organizations needed to join them in this campaign.  Something the Farmers Union desperately needs right now.

 

4 thoughts on “The Farmers Union, Politics, Pigs and Pork

  1. Robert Carlson posted this response to yesterday’s blog post on his Facebook page this morning. Today’s post, above, mostly a rerun of yesterday’s post, corrects a mistake he pointed out.

    “Bad Blog” by Robert Carlson. March 28, 2015:
    “Blog” has to be one of the ugliest words in the English language. We’d be better off without it, and the misinformation in the latest “Prairie Blog,” doesn’t help improve the dismal image of the “blog.”
    Under the headline of the ND Farmers Union announcement to refer the corporation farming law just adopted and signed by the Governor, the blog author vents his frustration over the defeat of Measure 5 in last November’s election. Well, it lost big-time, overwhelmingly, humiliatingly. It provides a lesson in how not to draft and run an initiated measure. I voted for it because as poorly drafted as it was, it was the only choice to put some needed money into recreation and conservation. I got over its defeat quickly. We all should, but the Prairie Blog keeps ripping the bandage off the wound. Worse, the “blog” is full of deliberate misinformation, which I am obligated to correct because I’m mentioned in the final paragraph.
    First, NDFU President Mark Watne did not mention Measure 5 at all, not one word, in his address at the rally on Friday. The blog deliberately lies about that to inflame the reader. That is despicable and dishonest. It would almost seem that the author wrote the blog before attending the rally.
    In addition, Mark Watne is attacked rather personally by someone who has no right to judge him and probably has never even spoken to him I have known Mark for 30 years. He is a good President and a good farmer.
    The author also pretends to know the ND Farmers Union and obviously does not, because he presumes the President runs it like a dictatorship. It isn’t run by the President’s whims; it is run democratically by the members who set the policy. In my lifetime of attending NDFU meetings, I have never seen the blog author at a single one.
    Liberals in this state often regard the NDFU as the repository of progressivism on the prairies and as the heir of the old Non-Partisan League. Well, it is the heir of those times, but people change. When Charles Talbott, the first President of NDFU, addressed the members in 1927, he said that his goal was to see the day when every farm kid had a pair of shoes to wear to school. Those dirt-poor farmers have come a long way toward prosperity thanks to NDFU and Democratic members of Congress. But, the liberals who romanticize the past farmer rebellions are upset when the NDFU of today does not meet their personal expectations in every way. As the old saying goes, “the world is run by those who show up.” If you want to complain about Farmers Union, you better be involved.
    For the present, let’s get past resentment and work to refer and defeat this latest threat to ownership of our state’s land resources. This campaign is a chance to awaken progressivism; let us seize it by uniting behind President Watne and NDFU’s leadership.
    Finally, here is an amusing definition of a blog from the Urban Dictionary: “A meandering, blatantly uninteresting online diary that gives the author the illusion that people are interested in their life and pathetic opinions.”

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  2. I too find Robert’s last paragraph amusing. But wrong. I don’t give a rat’s ass if anyone cares about what I have to say. I am old, I am retired, I write because it is what I do, I say whatever I feel like saying because I don’t answer to anyone, my facts are usually accurate, and I don’t care if anyone is interested or reads it. Because when I am done, I always feel better, kind of like when I leave the bathroom, and at my age, that is what’s really important.

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  3. I believe Mr. Watne alluded to just that in his opening remarks yesterday, and confirmed that to Jim at the rally, which we both attended because of our long-term advocacy for and friendship with the Farmers Union and its leaders. But whether he did it yesterday or not, Mr. Wtne was outspoken with that very statement on Joel Heitkamp’s show a couple of weeks ago.

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  4. Jim mentions Measure 5 as an example of why voters should take he time to separate fact from fiction; most of the time we don’t and then suffer the consequences. This is likely to happen again surrounding the Coporate Farm bill pitting one group of farmers against another. Lets hope both groups read the facts and understand where the supportive money is coming from.

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