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Farmers Union president reflects on decade of leadership

Turtle Lake native ready to hand over NFU reins

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, speaks at a farm event. Submitted Photo

WASHINGTON – Roger Johnson has seen significant challenges facing agriculture in his nearly 11 years as president of the National Farmers Union. Having decided not to seek re-election when his term expires next March, Johnson said it’s time for new leadership to continue the discussion on trade, climate change and other policies impacting America’s family farms.

“I feel good about the position that we’re at on the Hill. I think we’ve got a lot of credibility. I feel good about the organization as a whole. We are financially strong. We are growing members in most of the country right now,” Johnson said. “There’s very much a need for a voice that really is almost exclusively focused on what’s best for family farmers in rural America. And so, we’re well positioned to provide that voice.”

A third-generation family farmer from Turtle Lake, Johnson grew up participating in the Farmers Union’s youth programs and served as the McLean County Farmers Union president and chairman of the board of his local Farmers Union cooperative. He served as North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner and as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture before becoming president of NFU.

As his family farm transitions to a nephew, Johnson plans to retire to Colorado to be near grandchildren.

Just before he came on as NFU president in 2009, the national board closed the organization’s Denver office to consolidate operations in the main office in Washington, D.C.

“When I came out here we were sort of on a slow increase in prices and profitability that kind of peaked in ’12 and ’13. We had the big drought in 2012 that drove prices higher. There was a lot of optimism in those years,” he said. “We’ve been on a steady decline ever since then. There are lots of reasons for that, but certainly one of them is the fact that we’ve changed farm policy. We no longer have any sort of attempt at trying to reduce production during periods of oversupply, and we’re very much in that spot right now.”

Johnson said the United States has become a smaller player in the world commodities market, much smaller as the result of trade actions by the Trump administration.

“The reputation that we have around the world, I would argue, is tarnished as a result of behavior from the president. The trade wars have certainly reduced agricultural exports in a significant way and depressed prices and, at the same time, incented significant expansion in Brazil, Argentina, Eastern Europe. In fact, the Chinese have significantly invested in infrastructure in those places in order to diversify their supply. That new production that’s come on is not going to disappear overnight,” Johnson said.

“So we need to be thinking about ‘what does that mean?’ What kind of farm policy do we put in place to recognize that we are probably, for a lot of customers, going to be the supplier of last resort rather than the supplier first resort. That has implications for what our farm policy ought to look like,” he added.

He noted current spending by the government on agriculture differs from any policy of the past, and it’s creating an expectation that it will continue.

He explained the administration has poured money into the Market Facilitation Program, which compensates farmers impacted by trade practices. It is a new type of spending, not backed by public policy support, and payments are larger than the total of all the safety net programs in the farm bill, he said.

Johnson said continuing the borrowing to support spending is unsustainable long-term, despite expectations, and the way it has been handled has undercut public support for farm programs.

“We are starting to feel that when you talk to folks up on the Hill,” he said. “There’s just a lot more uncertainty right now over what farm policy is going to look like over the next several years as a result of the some of the things that this administration has done.”

He also cited the continued trend toward large, commercial farms as well as a growth in small farms that cater directly to consumers. The regret is the medium-sized farm is getting squeezed out by economic pressure to get bigger, he said.

“Our farm policies have not done as good a job as they should in terms of directing more safety net programs towards folks in the middle so they have a chance of surviving and competing against the very large commercial-sized operations,” Johnson said.

He called the administration’s “war on biofuels” another troubling matter for farmers who supply the ethanol and other biofuels markets. As it has led to less demand for ethanol, it has depressed farm prices, he said.

The Farmers Union has been one of the most aggressive voices on addressing climate change, and Johnson says that will continue.

“We think also that if farmers aren’t at the table and developing policies, we’re going to end up with policies that are going to be nonsensical and counterproductive,” he said. “We’ve long argued that there ought to be economic incentives for farmers to sequester carbon, to take it out of the atmosphere, to put it in the ground. There are lots of ways that can be done if we change the practices, but those practices have costs associated with them, and farmers need to be compensated for that.”

Despite the challenges, Johnson remains positive about agriculture in America.

“Farmers are generally viewed very favorably. They have a good reputation with consumers. Consumers want to know where their food is coming from. They want to have a more direct connection, and I think there are a lot of farmers that really want to be in that space of providing them more information,” he said. “That’s a very positive development in my judgment because to the degree that you can provide that information and do it in a way that allows consumers to directly buy things that have certain attributes that they want, that allows you to get a little more of that economic reward back to the farmer/rancher.”

Johnson also said NFU has successfully worked to find common ground with other farm organizations to collaborate with them to the benefit of rural America.

“We’ve done a number of things hand-in-hand with American Farm Bureau,” he said, citing awareness of opioid misuse in rural communities and farmer mental health as two areas of joint effort. Those efforts have led to more federal resources to address those issues, he said.

“We have differences of opinion on certain policies, and that’s fine. That’s good. That’s the way the system is designed to work. But we shouldn’t be overlooking those areas where we have a lot of common cause. There are lots of those areas as well,” Johnson said.

Looking ahead, Johnson sees trade, climate change and economic concentration remaining as issues affecting farmers. One of the reasons the pressure for farms to get bigger is so strong is the industry is becoming concentrated on the input and output side, he said. Farmers have few choices and find less price competition because of consolidations among firms that control inputs and markets.

Each of the issues facing farmers in the future will have a direct impact on the economic viability of their operations, Johnson said. Given that, it’s essential that NFU continue to advocate for the family farm, he said.

“It’s important that voice remains and that it be increasingly robust,” he said.

His advice to his successor when it comes to how to use that voice is to listen to the approximate 200,000 Farmers Union members who make up the organization’s grassroots.

“Our members are the ones that live this every day, and they are the ones that establish the policies that we that we carry out. If there’s any one piece of advice I would give it is ‘focus on listening to what members really want,'” Johnson said. “As much as we do that, I think we’re going to be around for a long time to come.”