The Farm Bureau's Big Business

Mike Wallace Reports

The Farm Bureau, the non-profit, tax-exempt organization which calls itself the "voice of agriculture," is a rural institution known to family farmers across the U.S. But many farmers will learn on 60 Minutes this Sunday that in recent years, while tens of thousands of farmers are sinking in debt, the association they support with their annual dues has been building a for-profit business empire worth billions. And, it is investing millions of dollars in some of the same giant agribusiness corporations the Farm Bureau's members say are driving them out of business.

The report by Mike Wallace will be broadcast Sunday, April 9 on 60 Minutes.

The Farm Bureau has many for-profit interests outside of traditional farming. Its Iowa chapter alone owns and operates a $3.5 billion insurance and financial services company that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. That company, FBL Financial Group, gave thousands of stock options to its directors, including the presidents of 14 state Farm Bureaus.

Wallace questioned Ed Wiederstein, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau and chairman of FBL Financial, about the "couple of hundred thousand bucks from stock options that you cashed in" in 1998, a year of severe economic hardship for Iowa farmers. "Yeah, that's right, and that no doubt helped me out," says Wiederstein. "I've got four kids in school, and that's part of it. I mean, that's just the way it is."

The Farm Bureau says its investments make it possible for it to fund education programs and to provide farmers with things they need, such as insurance.

But some family farmers say that the Farm Bureau's investments have placed them in the pocket of corporate America. "All [the Farm Bureau's] decisions are made for corporate America because they own part of it," Iowa farmer Linus Solberg tells Wallace.

The farmers point to the Farm Bureau's efforts to defeat national legislation that would have imposed an 18-month moratorium on corporate agribusiness mergers. Through its various holdings, the Iowa Farm Bureau's FBL Financial Group has invested millions in Conagra, a diversified food giant that has frequently engaged in mergers. Another Farm Bureau company in Mississippi owns more than 18,000 shares in Premium Standard Farms, an enormous corporate hog processor that family farmers say is squeezing them out of business.

Not all the Farm Bureau's investments are agriculture-related, however. The Iowa Farm Bureau and two of its affiliated companies sank at least $1 million into AccessAir, a start-up airline in Des Moines that recently filed for bankruptcy. "They're using farmer's money to invest outside agriculture while farmers are struggling," says Gary Bierschenk, an Iowa farmer who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the Iowa Farm Bureau. "That just burns me up."

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, which habattled the Farm Bureau on environmental issues, tells Wallace that the Farm Bureau's activities should concern many Americans besides farmers. Fortune magazine routinely ranks the Farm Bureau among the most potent lobbyists in Washington.

And, Cook points out, its agenda goes far beyond farming. "If you're concerned about civil rights, they oppose the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They want to repeal it, cornerstone of civil rights law," Cook says. "If you think that the minimum wage is low, they oppose raising it. If you think that we shouldn't be drilling off-shore for oil, they want to drill off-shore for oil."

Even some Farm Bureau leaders are surprised to learn of the association's non-farming agenda. When confronted with his own organization's call for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, Iowa Farm Bureau President Wiederstein told Wallace he was "shocked."

What makes the Farm Bureau such a Beltway powerhouse (George W. Bush addressed its annual convention this past January) is the size of its membership nearly five million. That makes it the nation's largest farm organization.

But many, if not most, of the Farm Bureau's members are not farmers at all and live in urban areas far from rural America. Sallyann Garner, a bank vice president in Chicago, tells Wallace she was surprised to learn she was a Farm Bureau member just because she bought insurance from a Farm Bureau company. When asked by Wallace if she was aware that the organization she belongs to opposes, among other things, the Equal Rights Amendment, the Voting Rights Act, gun control and an increase in the minimum wage, Garner tells Wallace, "I did not know that."