Watne brings policy focus to agriculture
Farmers Union president advocates for family farms like his own
From the time he first joined the family farm operation near Velva, Mark Watne felt a desire to tackle the broader policy and marketing issues facing agriculture.
Recently re-elected state president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, Watne’s long history with the organization began when he decided to join the local county affiliate, eventually becoming county president.
In 1990, he was elected to the NDFU State Board of Directors and served as state treasurer. In 1996, he began working at the Farmers Union state office as a development specialist, agricultural strategist and staff executive director. Over the years, he worked with young producers and promoted value-added projects, including leading the development of the organization’s farmer-owned restaurants.
In November 2013, he was first elected NDFU state president.
“I just love the organization, and I love that we work for family farms and we are really community-oriented,” Watne said.
Watne admits the look and definition of a family farm has changed. Still, family-run operations remain the backbone of the industry, although the risk is they won’t get paid enough for their commodities to continue doing what they do, he said. If Americans want inexpensive food, the country will need a farm program, he said.
“We are going to get a farm program,” Watne said of ongoing efforts in Congress to write a new farm bill to update existing farm policy, passed in 2014.
“We are hoping it’s going to look a lot the same, with some enhancements. We want to see support levels higher. I want to see some work on farmers’ abilities to influence concentration in the marketplace,” he said, noting the increasing consolidation of farm-related services into the hands of fewer companies.
Trade issues also are back on the table in Washington under the new administration. Watne said farmers need representation at the negotiation table with agri-business on trade issues affecting their markets.
Farmers Union takes on these and other issues that members have indicated they want addressed.
“We really hear from those grassroots very, very well,” Watne said. He said he is guided by a member-approved 80-page policy book, which ensures he is working on issues that farmers care about.
“It’s a very rewarding job,” he said. “I get to speak on behalf of the farmers who elected me, and that’s quite a privilege.”
He stays busy, traveling 150,000 air miles and 25,000 vehicle miles every year to track legislation in Bismarck or Washington, D.C., and attend meetings at county, state, national levels.
In his capacity as state president, he serves as president of Farmers Union Mutual Insurance Company and Farmers Union Service Association, all headquartered in Jamestown, where he and his wife, Michelle, live. They have three grown children. Watne also was appointed to work with a world seed association that is working to create greater access to high-quality seed.
He works closely with Farmers Union’s efforts in value-added agriculture, which include not just advocacy but investment. The organization has invested in biofuels plants, soybean plants, shrimp plants, rendering plants and development of products ranging from wheat-based cat litter to protein from feathers.
“Not all these are successful,” Watne said of the ventures. But he still believes the investments are worth the effort and expense.
“We need to add value to our commodities,” he said. “We keep exploring this process because we know the commodity markets will not always be at a level that will reward that farmer.”
In promoting value-added opportunities, Farmers Union participates in six farmer-owned restaurants that now operate around the country, recently serving 45,000 customers in a week. Three restaurants operate in Washington, D.C., where one ranks as the most popular restaurant in the city, Watne said.
He attributes the popularity not just to the food sourced from participating farmers but to the fact that Americans appreciate family farms. Farmers Union sampled public opinion in Chicago and New York, finding that farmers are among the most trusted profession with more than 90 percent favorable ratings, he said.
Watne sees the work of farm organizations like the Farmers Union as being more relevant today than ever given the economics facing family farmers and the urbanization of America. Even when farm organizations aren’t speaking with one voice, they often are on the same page.
“I would say we are probably more united at this moment in time than divided. I say that because it’s not too often you find farmers who say we don’t need a support level. There’s not too many people saying we don’t need stronger crop insurance,” Watne said.
In the coming year, Farmers Union will be developing educational tools to help Americans removed from the farm understand the important role farmers and ranchers play, he said. Meanwhile, he’ll be doing his part on the family farm. Although Watne gets in the field to help when he can, his father and brother are the farm’s primary operators while he stays involved on the business end.
“They have no problem sending me bills,” Watne joked.