When a friend or neighbor asks you to join a farm organization, it is fair to ask, “What’s in it for me?” While it is difficult to put an economic metric on the question, most farm groups offer a substantial dollars-and-cents payback.

“Farmers typically work much more than the eight hours most people work,” said Mark O’Neill, strategic communications director for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. “They are busy. They need someone to look out for their interests.”

“As a farmer, your job is to tend your farm, whether it is livestock or organics,” said Chandler Goule, senior vice president of programs for the National Farmers Union (NFU). “We serve as your surrogate to congress and USDA.”

Key to most grassroots farm groups is the notion that association personnel implement rules and policies voted on by the farmer members. And most farm groups have days when groups of them approach legislators – either U.S. representatives and senators in Washington, D.C. or state lawmakers in the capital.

Farm Bureau’s Washington effort was the first week in March. Pennsylvania farmers visited Harrisburg on March 31 to talk to state lawmakers. Lobbying is a common theme.

“You are represented 365 days a year to Congress, to USDA and on trade agreements,” Goule said.

State or regional groups, called divisions, handle issues locally. For example, the New England Farmers Union ratifies policy for the six New England states.

Look at the issue of decaying highway infrastructure. When a milk truck must drive five miles out of its way every time it makes a pickup, it costs farmers money, noted Jeff Williams, policy director at the New York Farm Bureau (NYFB). NYFB is working to get the state to allocate more money to road and bridge repairs, so farmers do not need to take tractors on roundabout routes due to weight limits. A slow moving tractor becomes a safety hazard both to cars and to the tractor operator who burns diesel to avoid posted bridges.

“We want to make sure there is sufficient infrastructure money in the final budget,” Williams said.

Farmer dues will go to support that initiative. However, there are more direct paybacks, too.

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Cash Benefits

Almost every farm organization offers insurance. Before you say, “So what, a quick Google search will get me 50 insurance companies,” consider that farming is a unique business. Self-insurance, workers comp., crop failure or an indemnity for a silo collapsing all are specific to farming.

There are other benefits. Membership in the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, for example, will get you a nickel per gallon off your propane gas purchases from AmeriGas. It will get you discount tickets to the movies at Regal Cinemas. Perhaps more practical, if you need to paint the barn or farm home, membership will get you between 25 and 40 percent off paint from Sherwin Williams stores. Back inside the home office, they offer discounts on Dell Computers.

Depending on the model, membership gets you $300 to $500 off a new Case-IH tractor to drive around the fields and $500 off a GM car to drive to church on Sunday. You will get a $300 discount on all full size Polaris Utility, Sport Vehicles and GEM Electric Vehicles and $200 off ATVs.

When it is time to get away from it all, Farm Bureau offers members a discount on hotel charges at places ranging from Comfort and Clarion motels to Wyndham’s luxury hotels.

“Member discounts are important to members since they save farmers money,” O’Neill said.

However, it doesn’t top the list of important factors.

Having a legislative voice is a key selling point for many farm groups. The return is usually in “soft dollars” – either regulatory headaches avoided or programs promoted.

“You are able to represent yourself and your industry and get valuable information from the state and national level on issues that specifically impact farmers,” O’Neill noted.

In Albany, for example, New York Farm Bureau is supporting a refundable investment tax credit to incentivize farm investment. They also have people in Albany pushing for basing a farm’s LLC fees on net income rather than gross income. They want to see a bonus depreciation program for farms in New York that would parallel the Federal government’s program and accelerate depreciation on farm investments. Farm Bureau is working to move the management of the state’s agriculture assessment program from the Department of Taxation and Finance to the Ag Department.

Vertical markets get special attention. Horse farmers have called for reform of the state’s Inherent Risk law for equine operations.

“We want to lessen the costs of insurance and get kids back on horses,” said NYFB President Dean Norton.

And wineries are looking for some relief from the wholesale tax reporting requirements.

“We are working to increase availability of local food, too,” Norton said. That ranges from homes to institutions like school cafeterias. Dues paid to New York Farm Bureau support those initiatives.

NFU prides itself in going beyond simply commodity focuses and looking beyond it into food safety and other issues.

The national union is not strictly farming but also takes stands on rural health, postal issues, broadband and other rural life issues, Goule said. Their membership is strictly family farmers. Should a member-farmer sell the family operation to Cargill, but stay on as the farm manager, they would no longer be eligible for NFU membership.

Collective bargaining for commodity marketing is another benefit to being part of a farm organization. So is collective buying. Farm Bureau members save money on purchases from the in-house Safemark ranging from tires to baler twine.

The benefits of being part of a large group apply equally well to selling and buying as they do to political bargaining.

“The individual farmer becomes part of a larger group,” O’Neill said. “We, as staff, are constantly looking out for issues that could be troubling or opportunities – like grant programs – that would benefit farmers.”

Curt Harler is a freelance writer from Strongsville, Ohio, and a frequent contributor.

Cover Photo by shotbydave/istockphoto.com