As Roger Johnson prepares to step down after 11 years leading the National Farmers Union group, he’s well aware of the many challenges facing its members: a painful trade war, the effects of climate change and the march of farm consolidation. But Johnson, a North Dakota native, believes smaller operators can still find a way to carve out a living.
Here’s a look at Johnson’s thoughts on agriculture and the future of farming:
From the family farm to Washington
Johnson, 66, has led the Washington, D.C- based farm group since 2009. He announced last week he is stepping down when his current term ends next year.
For more than a dozen years before heading the group, Johnson, a Democrat, was North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner, where election campaigns in the conservative state mostly centered around who was more of a farmer than his or her opponent.
Johnson usually won handily. He is a third-generation family farmer from Turtle Lake who raised cattle and wheat, oats, barley, flax and sunflowers before selling the farm about four years ago to a nephew.
Trade and tariffs
Federal moves in the last couple of years on tariffs between the U.S. and China have been “disastrous” and have created turmoil in rural America, Johnson said.
“In my view, this administration has literally destroyed our reputation around the world, and I say that with a great deal of consideration,” Johnson said.
“I think China is a lost market for agriculture — there’s just too much damage done there,” he said.
“When we put these tariffs in place it shut down soybeans overnight,” Johnson said. “Soybean farmers took a huge bloodbath and elevators in North Dakota refused to buy soybeans at any price.”
China, America’s top agriculture trading partner, increasingly has turned to South America and Europe for farm commodities, he said.
“We’re in a new era of being a smaller player in the world market,” Johnson said. “There is no question about that.”
Johnson said his group has helped farmers adapt to climate change by advocating less tillage and the planting of more deep-rooted cover crops to hold carbon dioxide in the soil to prevent it from reaching the atmosphere, worsening global warming.
“We just believe in science,” said Johnson of climate change.
“Agriculture is the best and most immediately available tool to sequester carbon, and agriculture has to play a big part in that,” he said.
Gloom and doom?
Johnson sees promise with a growing number of people who are returning to farming’s roots with smaller family-run operations aimed at consumers “who want to know where their food is coming from.”
“There is hope in the long term” in a profession Johnson said is ennobled by those doing “God’s work.”
“The population around the world is growing and people have to eat so there will be continued opportunities,” he said.
Johnson said his group’s membership has grown by at least 10% in several states in the past year, especially among small producers focused on direct marketing.
Johnson said recent comments made by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue suggesting that small dairy farms may need to get bigger to survive were “uncalled for.” Johnson said they sent the wrong message to rural America.
“This get-big-or-get-out mentality in agriculture is really about closing small towns” that depend on family farms, Johnson said.
Farmers Union, established in 1902, leans Democratic and toward smaller farms, though Johnson maintains it’s “strictly partisan.”
With about 200,000 members, it’s also tiny compared with the right-leaning American Farm Bureau Federation, which has about 6 million members and ties to big agribusiness and related industries.
Dale Moore, executive vice president of the latter group, said the Trump administration “is more in line with our policies.” But he said the two farm groups have worked in a “collaborative, cooperative way,” especially under Johnson’s leadership.
Said Johnson: “In terms of political influence, you can’t do farm bills that are necessary without everyone being heard,” he said.