Down on the Farm

Fairness Campaign assails Kentucky Farm Bureau for right-wing political stance

Aug 25, 2010 at 5:00 am

The first car Hampton “Hoppy” Henton ever drove was a Chevrolet Biscayne.

“It was an ugly thing,” recalls the 62-year-old Woodford County farmer, “but it ran.”

The Hentons insured the Biscayne with Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance, the commonwealth’s largest property and casualty insurance provider, because, as Henton puts it, “The Farm Bureau is just something you’re born into. My father was a member, and I’m a former director at the state and county levels.”

But the self-described “yellow dog Democrat,” whose 200-year-old family farm pre-dates the commonwealth, finds himself regularly chafing against the Farm Bureau’s conservative political stances, which he claims distract from the bureau’s true agenda, which increasingly favors big agribusiness over family farms like his own.

“They’ve got policies against gay marriage and against the right of farmers to unionize,” he says. “You tell me what the hell does any of that have to do with agriculture?”

His critique echoes that of Louisville’s Fairness Campaign and several other social justice organizations, which launched an awareness campaign against the Kentucky Farm Bureau last week via an open letter to the bureau’s president, Mark Haney.

Specifically, Fairness took issue with some of the views contained in the 2009 Kentucky Farm Bureau Policies booklet, which is given to all insurance policy holders. According to the booklet, the Farm Bureau advocates capital punishment, “efforts and laws to strengthen the sanctity of families,” and recognizes marriage only as “the legal union of a man and a woman.” Additionally, other policies admonish the teaching of “alternative lifestyles” in public schools, any increase in the minimum wage, and reflect a general opposition to collective bargaining and unionization.

“These are policies that have nothing to do with insurance,” says Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign. “We want people who might hold a policy with the bureau to be aware of what their money is funding. To have a private insurance company advocating for these issues in this state is ludicrous.”

To better make sense of it, understand that Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance — which claims 470,934 members — is one company in an umbrella organization known as the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation. The federation is a nonprofit political lobbying group with offices in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties and a strong presence in Frankfort and D.C.

According to Todd Eklof, a reverend at Clifton Universalist Church and former Farm Bureau employee who was fired in 2007 for protesting their stance on gay marriage, members who hold insurance with the Farm Bureau pay an annual due to the federation, often unknowingly.

“That was the No. 1 complaint I’d get,” says Eklof, who recently settled a wrongful termination lawsuit out of court. “They’d say, ‘I pay enough insurance, I don’t understand why I have to pay this, too.’ Apparently, they had no idea they were supporting the federation.”

In addition to Farm Bureau Insurance and the federation, the umbrella encompasses a mutual insurance firm and a nonprofit educational foundation.

“Basically, we are one company,” says Dan Smaldone, director of communications for the federation. “We are Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation, but we’re a multifaceted, member-based organization. While we’re widely known for one of our most popular member benefits — insurance — we also serve as the voice of Kentucky agriculture. This leads us into the arena of public policy.”

When asked about the relationship between agriculture and the death penalty, Smaldone explains that members vote on policy issues at an annual meeting.

The Farm Bureau’s familiarity with “the arena of public policy” merits closer examination, as Smaldone confirms the federation lobbies members of the state legislature by foisting upon them copies of their policy booklet, a kind of barometer for the mood of agrarian voters.

“It’s not unusual for an organization like that to send out a policy statement,” says state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-35. “But (the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation) definitely tries hard to make its presence known in our state government.”

Wayne points out that Kentucky House Agriculture and Resources Committee Chairman Tom McKee, D-78, is a former president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation — “he’s essentially a Farm Bureau clone,” says Wayne — and that Frankfort’s domination by rural representatives and senators basically ensures Farm Bureau policy will be carried out.

But the federation doesn’t stop with pamphlets: Its 30 statewide directors have positions within various state government departments. The Farm Bureau’s board also boasts a dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture.

Collectively, the board of directors has donated thousands of dollars to Republican candidates, namely Sen. Mitch McConnell, who routinely votes against the Farm Bureau’s progressive counterpart, the National Farmer’s Union.

“They have Farm Bureau representatives from every county,” Wayne continues, “so they are really entrenched in the rural culture of Kentucky, even though the Farm Bureau often acts against the interest of farmers.”

Founded in the early 20th century by the New York Chamber of Commerce and bankrolled by the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, the American Farm Bureau Federation was conceived to counter the populist agrarian movements of the time and to institute large-scale corporate control over America’s farmlands.

Longtime Farm Bureau customer Henton believes the federation uses divisive social issues to distract farmers from an unfavorable economic bottom line, and that the result has been a decrease in smaller-scale family farms and the rise of corporate farms.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the number of farms scaled at 2,000 acres or more grew in Kentucky by 37 percent from 1978-2007, whereas the percentage of farms with under 10 acres has shrunk by 39 percent.

“They don’t seem to have a whole lot of affection for family farm operations, and that’s a shame,” Henton says. “Because it’s a remarkably good organization when it wants to be; it just doesn’t want to be.”