Retiring Farmers Union president: Family farms still viable

  • FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2016, file Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. As Johnson prepares to step down after 11 years leading the group, he's well aware of the many challenges facing its members: A painful trade war, issues of climate change and the march of farm consolidation. But Johnson, a North Dakota native, says smaller operators can still find a way to carve out a living.

    FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2016, file Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. As Johnson prepares to step down after 11 years leading the group, he's well aware of the many challenges facing its members: A painful trade war, issues of climate change and the march of farm consolidation. But Johnson, a North Dakota native, says smaller operators can still find a way to carve out a living. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 12/15/2019 11:22 AM

BISMARCK, N.D. -- As Roger Johnson prepares to step down after 11 years leading the National Farmers Union group, he's well aware of the many challenges facing its members: a painful trade war, the effects of climate change and the march of farm consolidation. But Johnson, a North Dakota native, believes smaller operators can still find a way to carve out a living.

Here's a look at Johnson's thoughts on agriculture and the future of farming:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

FROM THE FAMILY FARM TO WASHINGTON

Johnson, 66, has led the Washington, D.C- based farm group since 2009. He announced last week he is stepping down when his current term ends next year.

For more than a dozen years before heading the group, Johnson, a Democrat, was North Dakota's agriculture commissioner, where election campaigns in the conservative state mostly centered around who was more of a farmer than his or her opponent.

Johnson usually won handily. He is a third-generation family farmer from Turtle Lake who raised cattle and wheat, oats, barley, flax and sunflowers before selling the farm about four years ago to a nephew.

TRADE AND TARIFFS

Federal moves in the last couple of years on tariffs between the U.S. and China have been 'údisastrous'Ě and have created turmoil in rural America, Johnson said.

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'úIn my view, this administration has literally destroyed our reputation around the world, and I say that with a great deal of consideration,'Ě Johnson said.

"I think China is a lost market for agriculture - there's just too much damage done there," he said.

'úWhen we put these tariffs in place it shut down soybeans overnight,'Ě Johnson said. 'úSoybean farmers took a huge bloodbath and elevators in North Dakota refused to buy soybeans at any price.'Ě

China, America's top agriculture trading partner, increasingly has turned to South America and Europe for farm commodities, he said.

'úWe're in a new era of being a smaller player in the world market,'Ě Johnson said. 'úThere is no question about that.'Ě

CLIMATE CHANGE

Johnson said his group has helped farmers adapt to climate change by advocating less tillage and the planting of more deep-rooted cover crops to hold carbon dioxide in the soil to prevent it from reaching the atmosphere, worsening global warming.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

'úWe just believe in science,'Ě said Johnson of climate change.

'úAgriculture is the best and most immediately available tool to sequester carbon, and agriculture has to play a big part in that,'Ě he said.

GLOOM AND DOOM?

Johnson sees promise with a growing number of people who are returning to farming's roots with smaller family-run operations aimed at consumers 'úwho want to know where their food is coming from.'Ě

'úThere is hope in the long term'Ě in a profession Johnson said is ennobled by those doing 'úGod's work.'Ě

'úThe population around the world is growing and people have to eat so there will be continued opportunities,'Ě he said.

Johnson said his group's membership has grown by at least 10% in several states in the past year, especially among small producers focused on direct marketing.

Johnson said recent comments made by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue suggesting that small dairy farms may need to get bigger to survive were 'úuncalled for.'Ě Johnson said they sent the wrong message to rural America.

'úThis get-big-or-get-out mentality in agriculture is really about closing small towns'Ě that depend on family farms, Johnson said.

FARMERS UNION

Farmers Union, established in 1902, leans Democratic and toward smaller farms, though Johnson maintains it's 'ústrictly partisan."

With about 200,000 members, it's also tiny compared with the right-leaning American Farm Bureau Federation, which has about 6 million members and ties to big agribusiness and related industries.

Dale Moore, executive vice president of the latter group, said the Trump administration 'úis more in line with our policies.'Ě But he said the two farm groups have worked in a 'úcollaborative, cooperative way,'Ě especially under Johnson's leadership.

Said Johnson: 'úIn terms of political influence, you can't do farm bills that are necessary without everyone being heard,'Ě he said.

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