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Farm Bureau's Clout remains formidable.

ALTHOUGH THERE'S BEEN A STEADY decline in the number of farms in the state, there's been no decline in the influence of what is probably the stare's most powerful lobby, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation.

The Farm Bureau has a solid legacy of political influence in a state heavily dependent on the agriculture dollar -- nearly $5.9 billion in cash farm receipts in 2001. Agriculture is the state's single largest industry; making up more than 25 percent of the state's economy -- probably half if forestry is included.

The Arkansas Farm Bureau, the eighth largest in the country with more than 222,000 "member families," has built its political power from the ground up through bureaus in each county. Membership alone makes it a formidable lobbying group. Those member families translate into nearly one-third of the state's population, and it gives the organization the attentive ears of lawmakers.

State Sen. Tim Wooldridge, D-Paragould, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Economic and Industrial Development Committee, said he has attended many local meetings in which farmers have discussed issues and sent their views to the state organization to be put to a vote.

A majority vote at the state organization's annual meeting decides the policies and positions to take to the Legislature. And there, the Farm Bureau has a remarkable record of success.

"The Farm Bureau represents an ideal of rural Arkansas life," Wooldridge said. "It speaks for those principles."

"Legislators still recognize that agriculture is the backbone of the Arkansas economy," he said.

The Farm Bureau has promoted itself as the voice of agriculture, but the not-for-profit organization is a lot more than just a political lobby. It's nonprofit assets total $15.6 million and posted $8.5 million in revenue last year. It also has multimillion dollar for-profit business divisions.

The Farm Bureau offers life, health, auto and homeowners insurance through Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Co., Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co. and Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. of Arkansas Inc.

The combined companies wrote nearly $310 million in property and casualty insurance premiums last year -- second only to State Farm Insurance Cos. with $363 million in premiums.

Only members can buy Farm Bureau insurance, which helps explain why its power and membership has not waned despite fewer people on the farm. The number of farms in the stare has fallen to 48,000; in 1960 there were more than 103,000.

Also available through the Farm Bureau is crop insurance, including hail coverage, multiple peril crop insurance and crop revenue coverage through American Farm Bureau Insurance Services Inc. A couple of years ago, the Farm Bureau, through its affiliation with the American Farm Bureau, opened its Farm Bureau Bank based in Sparks, Nev., but with its operations center in San Antonio.

Connected to the Soil

A sizable portion of Arkansans remain closely connected to the rich soil. Many still have relatives or friends who farm, although that number too is declining. But most lawmakers know full well that the state as a whole is deeply affected by anything that affects farmers.

The Farm Bureau feels that its political lobbying mission is to look out for the interest of its members, dealing with issues and policies on a nonpartisan basis.

"The bottom line of farmers is our highest priority," said Stanley L. Hill, associate director of governmental affairs for the Farm Bureau.

Hill, who has been with the Farm Bureau for more than eight years, said he senses an eroding perception of the value of agriculture, both in the state and in the nation.

"We're one and two generations away from the farm now, and the Farm Bureau, since last year, is involved in promoting the contributions of agriculture to the state through its Arkansas Foundation for Agriculture," Hill said.

With term limits, Hill has found his job more demanding as the new faces at the Capitol have to learn about the issues affecting agriculture.

Hill admits the Farm Bureau "tends to be on the conservative side of most issues," but most of the issues in which it gets involved have a direct impact on the income of farmers and ranchers.

Among the laws the Farm Bureau boasts of having successfully guided through the Legislature are property tax protection; sales tax exemptions for machinery, seed, feed, fertilizer and pesticides; tax refunds for farm fuel; reduction of state taxes - all issues affecting the bottom line. The Farm Bureau sees itself as a protector of private property rights.

"The Farm Bureau keeps its ear close to the ground," said state Sen. Claud Cash, D-Jonesboro, a farm equipment dealer. "I respect their judgment. It's pretty well on target, and I'm in agreement with them most of the time."

State Sen. Steve Bryles, D-Blytheville, who runs a wholesale cotton brokerage, agrees that the Farm Bureau remains an effective influence in the Legislature.

"The Farm Bureau does a good job of getting to the Legislature its stand on issues," said state Rep. George French, D-Monticello. "Overall, I think they're just as effective as ever. Most legislators are willing to listen and hear their point.

"We try to do as much as we can to help farmers, but I've never felt undo pressure from the Farm Bureau. If a legislator expresses an opinion, they will back off. They are an excellent resource and effective lobby.

State Rep. Jay Bradford, D-Pine Bluff, said he generally agrees with the Farm Bureau, which he said deserves credit for informing legislators on agricultural issues.

"Regarding our farmers as to their future, I cannot think of a more critical time they find themselves in since the 1980s, and they definitely need our support more than ever on the state and national level," said state Rep. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle.

"Legislators that represent agricultural areas know the concerns of the farmers, and they look our for the interests of farmers," he said. "The Farm Bureau is very effective" in explaining its positions to lawmakers.

Not Without Critics

The Farm Bureau has been criticized for some of its policy stances and even from within the agricultural community for a perceived bias toward large corporate farms over the small family farm.

"That's a misconception," Hill said. "There's a place for all sizes in the Farm Bureau. It's a mixing pot for all to come together. Our needs are similar."

Controversy also came out of the annual delegate assembly last November, when Farm Bureau members adopted resolutions:

* Opposing any restriction of local school boards' control of school policies, regulations and personnel;

* Opposing the diversion of state taxes from one part of the state to school districts in other areas - a resolution specifically aimed at the Little Rock schools.

* Opposing a state-run lottery to fund education; and

* Favoring resolving the Lake View school case, in which the state's educational system was declared unconstitutional, by changing the constitutional requirements on education.

While the delegates were being true to their mission of protecting their members' bottom line, those positions have led critics to suggest that the Farm Bureau is against any education reforms.

"That's not true," Hill said. "We're very pro-education. It's our position that if more state revenue is needed, the sales tax is the best vehicle to obtain it, not property or income taxes.

The Farm Bureau also has been criticized for being against nearly all environmental regulations and not doing anything to help fight rural poverty. But the state organization says it merely reflects the interests and opinions of its local members.

All issues and policies are developed by the 76 autonomous county Farm Bureaus (including two in Logan County). Farm Bureau members serve on county boards and committees and are encouraged to meet with legislators and candidates to keep up with government activities.

Once county Farm Bureaus set policies, voting delegates are selected to the state Farm Bureau annual meetings. The delegates then vote on which. policies submitted by the county Farm Bureaus, and in some cases by commodity committees, will guide the Arkansas Farm Bureau. Farmers and ranchers serve as the officers and directors of the state Farm Bureau.

Hill said Farm Bureau members already are working on issues likely to come up in the next session. Already there's talk of revoking some sales tax exemptions as a way to make up for the state's budget shortfall. "We feel strongly that ours are justified," Hill said.

Another hot issue is a law passed during the last session that changed Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code and now requires all lien holders to file a financial statement to be considered secure. The Farm Bureau is working to get provisions in the article affecting agriculture liens changed back to the way it was, Hill said.

The Farm Bureau also is opposed to any move to create a state Agriculture Department. Although Arkansas is one of the few states in the nation without a separate Agriculture Department, Hill said, "the current agencies are doing well, and Arkansas is exceeding other states in its agriculture successes."

Hill said the Farm Bureau also is watching several ballot initiatives.

One, which has been defeated repeatedly, would remove the sales tax on groceries. The' Farm Bureau is opposed to the removal, Hill said, because the $150 million-$160 million loss in revenue would have to be made up elsewhere.

Another is an animal cruelty measure, which Hill said- would "elevate animal rights to the same level or exceeding human rights," although supporters say the proposal specifically protects generally accepted commercial livestock techniques. The Farm Bureau says current laws are adequate.

On the national level, the Farm Bureau is working to put a permanent end to estate taxes - the so-called "death tax." Current law gradually phases out the estate tax by 2010 but will revert back in 2011.

"It continues to threaten family farms and calls for extensive estate planning by farmers," Hill said.

Hill praised Arkansas' U.S. Senators, Democrat Blanche Lincoln and Republican Tim Hutchinson, who voted against the Senate-passed farm bill that drastically cut the amount of subsidies to farmers.

"What most people don't understand," Hill said, "is that they're really consumer subsidies that enable Americans to have the lowest cost of food in the world along with the highest quality and ample supply."
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Title Annotation:Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation
Comment:Farm Bureau's Clout remains formidable.(Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation)
Author:Henry, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 25, 2002
Words:1705
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