By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
SANTA FE, N.M. (DTN) -- The National Farmers Union will try to increase its membership and fight for the preservation of country-of-origin labeling for red meat, the Renewable Fuel Standard and fair trade agreements in 2014, NFU President Roger Johnson said during the group's annual convention, which ended here Tuesday.
In his address to members on Saturday evening, Johnson said that the group had achieved its most important goals in the farm bill debate -- a commodity program that includes target prices and no congressional action to change the country-of-origin labeling program for red meat.
"We proved that there is no match for the grassroots power of family farmers and ranchers," said Johnson. "The strength of our organization is in our membership -- it always has been, and it always will be."
Johnson noted that 14 states had gained membership in 2013, but that NFU's membership, which has been between 250,000 and 300,000 farmers, still went down 1% during the year. One key to membership growth, Johnson said, is to increase the number of people who buy insurance through Farmers Union.
During the policy development sessions, the delegates also voted to make membership growth the organization's No. 1 priority for 2014.
The delegates also voted to encourage the state chapters to convince members to contribute $1 per person to the national political action committee, which makes campaign donations. Some delegates objected to the pressure to make PAC donations, but other noted that the resolution only said that the states would be "encouraged" to increase PAC donations.
Members contributed almost $12,000 to the PAC during the convention, but one delegate called the amount "paltry" for a national organization.
Johnson said, "We don't have enough money to buy the decision, but occasionally we need to get in those doors" and the campaign donations "give us a seat at the table."
The delegates also passed a special order to promote the United Nations designation of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. The special order recognizes "the importance of raising the profile of family farming by focusing the world's attention on its significant role in alleviating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment and achieving sustainable development in rural areas."
But the discussion on family farming also led to a debate over the definition of family farming that reflected changes in the age of members and a broader membership.
NFU was founded by farmers and ranchers in the Plains and Mountain states in the early 1900s, but now has membership in California, New England and Hawaii. Its older members raise commodities and livestock, but many of the younger members grow fruits and vegetables and market them directly to consumers.
Some members wanted the definition to state that family members had to supply "a majority" of the labor on the farm, but that led to a discussion of exactly what constitutes labor. A Texas delegate noted that he no longer does the physical labor that he performed when he was younger but he considers his management role to be central to the farm's operation.
The delegates settled on the definition of a family farm as one in which family members provide the "base labor" for the farm and defined base labor as "labor that provides significant support for a farm, business etc., including material day-to-day operational support."
Johnson told the membership that the battles over country-of-origin labeling will continue at the World Trade Organization and in the courts.
"Although we have achieved a victory in the farm bill, the COOL fight is not over," said Johnson. "COOL is on the right side of history, but our opponents will keep looking for a back-door win in Congress and we must remain vigilant."
He also said that the oil industry's aggressive lobbying campaign against the Renewable Fuel Standard was responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to reduce RFS targets for quantities of biofuels.
Johnson said NFU will continue to monitor trade agreements that the group thinks would be of questionable value for family farmers.
Even though Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged the convention on Monday to "trust" the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the delegates passed without discussion a special order that the animal disease research center on Plum Island, N.Y., should not be moved to Kansas. NFU also is concerned that APHIS rulemaking on importing beef from Brazil may weaken protection against foot and mouth disease.
A special order expressing dissatisfaction with USDA's attempts to make changes in the beef checkoff program proved controversial. Delegates from Oklahoma noted that Vilsack has put a lot of effort into analyzing the situation, but delegates from other states said the Beef Industry Checkoff Group set up to deal with the situation appears to be a failure.
Delegates also expressed extreme anger with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's role in running the checkoff because NCBA opposed country-of-origin labeling. The vote on the beef checkoff special order, which states that NFU may "seek its own resolutions to these problems," was 83 in favor to 23 opposed.
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