Decoding farm groups’ Thanksgiving messaging
Cartons of eggs are seen for sale in a Sprouts Farmers Market on Aug. 15, 2022 in Houston, Texas. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images.
Like mashed potatoes are a vehicle for gravy, Thanksgiving is a channel for farm groups’ political messaging.
The week before Thanksgiving each year, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union — two of the biggest lobbying groups in agriculture — release numbers that are quickly regurgitated by reporters looking for easy holiday-related content.
The Farm Bureau, a right-leaning group that outspends the more liberal Farmers Union on the national level by a scale of 10 to 1, conducts a yearly survey on the cost of Thanksgiving dinner. This year, consumers’ costs decreased by around 4.5%, to an average price of $64.05.
“A Thanksgiving meal is still 25% higher than it was in 2019, which highlights the impact high supply costs and inflation have had on food prices since before the pandemic,” the press release states.
The Farmer’s Union, for its part, highlights how much of Americans’ food spending makes its way back to farmers. This year, the farmers’ share of Americans’ food dollars held steady from 2022, at 6 cents on the dollar.
“Multiple waves of mergers and acquisitions during the last several decades have resulted in agriculture and food supply chains that are uncompetitive and fragile, but also underpay farmers,” the Farmers’ Union press release states.
Taken together, the competing Thanksgiving messages say something more interesting about the troubling state of American agriculture and the competing ideas for how to fix it.
Both groups have Minnesota chapters that are active in state politics; the Farmers’ Union is more influential in DFL-controlled Minnesota politics than its national counterpart is in Congress. Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen is a former Farmers’ Union lobbyist.
The groups’ policy priorities often overlap, and many policies they agree on passed in the state Legislature this year: voluntary, paid conservation programs; expanded broadband internet access; and funding for beginning farmers, biofuels and small meat and milk processors.
On the national level, both groups are lobbying on the farm bill, which authorizes nutrition and agriculture programs every five years. It expired at the end of September, and though lawmakers have been at work on the bill all year, progress has stalled largely due to the chaotic atmosphere gripping Congress.
Thanksgiving (much like the Minnesota State Fair) is an opportunity to grab the public’s attention on food and agriculture policy.
Both groups see high food prices — more present than ever around the holidays — as an agricultural policy issue. The Farm Bureau thinks the solution is to further subsidize farmers, while the Farmers’ Union wants to cut out the middleman.
The Farm Bureau’s Thanksgiving messaging focuses on the need for a “stronger safety net” for farmers, i.e., more government money.
“Although our focus is sharing time with family and friends this Thanksgiving, our thoughts also turn to encouraging Congress to double down on a commitment to passing a new farm bill with a modernized safety net to support those who raise the crops and livestock that supply Thanksgiving dinner and every dinner,” Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall said in the press release.
Most of America’s cash crops are covered by federal programs that — in short — guarantee farmers a certain price for their crops, and pay out the difference when the market price falls below the reference point. Among other measures, the Farm Bureau wants to increase the reference prices for all covered crops, therefore increasing government payouts.
The Farmers’ Union focuses a large portion of its resources on antitrust, inside and outside of agriculture. Its focus on the farmers’ share of food dollars highlights the increasing consolidation in the agriculture industry, putting large corporations in the crosshairs.
“Over the last 70 plus years, farmers have consistently seen their share of every grocery dollar spent shrink,” Minnesota Farmers Union vice president Anne Schwagerl said in a press release. “It’s critical that we continue to raise awareness of how corporate consolidation throughout the food value chain squeezes family farmers out of a fair wage for their labor.”
Farm incomes reached historic levels in 2022 and are expected to regress in 2023, though they will still be high compared to pre-pandemic averages.
The majority of the 2022 income — 89% — was brought in by the top 8% of farms.
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