Q & A Roger Johnson

Roger Johnson is stepping down this month after 11 years as president of the National Farmers Union. Johnson, 67, is a native of Turtle Lake, North Dakota. A graduate of North Dakota State University with a degree in agricultural economics, he farmed and worked for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture before being elected agricultural commissioner for the state, a position he held for 12 years.

In 2009, Johnson was elected president of the National Farmers Union.

IFT: Tell us a little more about your background in North Dakota.

JOHNSON: I grew up on the farm that my grandfather homesteaded in west central North Dakota, between Bismarck and Minot. It was a diversified farm of about 1,000 acres, which was normal for that area. We had small grains, things like wheat and barley and canola. We also had a small cow-calf operation.

After college I married, and my wife and I bought the farm from my folks. Then, in the early 1980s I went to work part-time for the state agriculture department as a farm credit counselor. It was really an instructional job for me.

In the late ’80s Sarah Vogel was elected agricultural commissioner and she asked me to run the program. We set up certified ag mediation programs.

In the mid-1990s, Sarah decided not to run for re-election. I had always been involved in the North Dakota Farmers Union and some of the members convinced me to run for the office.

Then, in 2009 Tom Buis, who was head of the National Farmers Union, left to take a job with Growth Energy, which was just forming. I really only had about three days to decide whether I wanted to go to the NFU. Somehow the timing just seemed to work.

IFT: The Farmers Union has always been strong in the Dakotas and some of the Plains states. Why is that the case?

JOHNSON: That’s true. I think it goes back to the 1940s, when the Farmers Union started an insurance company. The organization was also always a strong supporter of the cooperative movement, and that was a factor. Farmers got involved in the Farmers Union through their insurance company or their cooperative.

The insurance company eventually was sold, but the Farmers Union still gets paid for the use of its name. And the cooperatives also became independent. CENEX started out as a Farmers Union cooperative. But those efforts created a base that still exists. North Dakota is still one of the few states where the Farmers Union is bigger than the Farm Bureau.

IFT: What really stands out for you about your experience with the Farmers Union?

JOHNSON: It was always family. I grew up with the Farmers Union. I knew what it stood for and what we advocated for and what we represented.

As far as my time as president, I guess several basic things stand out. One is the decisions that I and the board had to make. When I came on, the NFU had just closed its main office in Denver and was making its Washington, D.C., office its main headquarters. We had to hire staff and do a lot of organizational work. I feel good about what we did.

Second would be our public policy. What we stand for is decided exclusively by our membership. We have something like 200 pages of policy, and our process for developing that is very methodical. But what is important here is that the Farmers Union has always been clear about our basic priorities. We are dealing with the economic struggles farmers face today. We are concerned about competition and consolidation in the marketplace. That’s really in our organizational DNA. We want businesses to be successful, but we think that is done best in a competitive environment.

We also support trade, but our members have always been a little skeptical on that front. Some of our members were drawn to some of the rhetoric of then-candidate Donald Trump on trade, but we have taken the administration to task for the way things have been handled in the last three years regarding trade negotiations. China needs to change, but browbeating them seems like a really bad plan. I really think we’ve lost a lot of credibility in this country over the way the administration has handled trade.

Climate change is probably the fourth core issue for our organization. Support for biofuels is a part of that. We’ve got to get the policy and incentives right on climate change.

IFT: Farms have been getting bigger and the number of farmers getting smaller for a long time. And our politics right now seems to feature a real rural-urban split. Any thoughts on those issues?

JOHNSON: We’re going to continue to see the bifurcation of agriculture, with bigger operations getting bigger but smaller ones still filling the gaps. I think public policy has helped push us in that direction.

At the Farmers Union, we’re different than a lot of other agricultural groups in that we’re not tied to one commodity and we’ve always had an interest in small family farms and rural communities. We’re not going to change that. I think it gives us a different perspective.

As for the rural-urban split, that is an increasingly vexing problem. This administration has had, in some ways, a fixation on agriculture but not necessarily on rural residents and communities. For example, we have the Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments that have gone to farmers to offset the fact that the administration knew its trade policy was going to screw agriculture for years. More money has gone to farmers through the MFP the last two years than crop insurance and other farm programs all put together.

But we spend five years putting together a farm bill. We build coalitions. We have open debates. With the MFP we are spending enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars, and the plan was put together behind closed doors with no legislative input.

Farmers and farm-state legislators aren’t going to complain because they know the money is needed, but we have created a stew of political discontent that swirls around the MFP from both the left and the right, and that’s a recipe for disaster for the next farm bill.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.