When my family and I moved to the state of Washington a couple of years ago and bought a house, we began searching for homeowners insurance. Our realtor recommended a company called Country Financial. We had never heard of them before, but they offered a competitively priced bundle for homeowners and auto insurance, so we signed up.
During my first meeting with our Country Financial representative, he mentioned that their insurance required us to pay $20 annually to become members of something called the “Washington Farm Bureau.” It seemed pretty random that our insurance required us to join some sort of farmers group since, y’know, we’re not farmers. At all. I mean, we rarely leave the confines of our comfortable home and barely eat fruits and vegetables. We’re almost anti-farmers, really, because our new house had a small apple tree in our back yard and I quickly cut that bastard down because cleaning up its rotting, infested apples was a pain in the ass. But the Farm Bureau was described as a group supporting family farms in Washington, so it seemed harmless enough and probably a good thing. We were rather preoccupied with completing a move across the country and settling into our new house, so we didn’t really spend any time investigating it.
Thus, we became proud, card-carrying members of the Washington Farm Bureau! I immediately started wearing overalls, driving a tractor for no reason, and demanding street cred at farmers markets. But I really didn’t think much about “The ‘Reau” (as we insiders call it…okay, fine, I’m probably the only one who has ever called it that) until I received a surprising email from them about two years later.
The 2020 Washington Farm Bureau Voters Guide
On October 16, 2020 I received an email from the Washington Farm Bureau with the subject line of “Get Out and Vote!” The content of the email was pretty boilerplate and forgettable. I was pleased they were encouraging people to vote, I guess. They ended the email with a link to the 2020 Washington Farm Bureau Voters Guide, with the purported goal of helping voters “ensure that your candidate supports our family farms and the state’s second largest industry.”
In a fit of pandemic boredom, I took a look at their voters guide. I was both alarmed and confused to see that it began with an endorsement of our impeached president, Donald Jamiroquai Trump. I was alarmed because, like many Americans, I find Trump to be one of the most corrupt, dishonest, racist, misogynistic, and incompetent people to ever hold the office. Just consider this handy Catalog of Trump’s Worst Cruelties, Collusions, Corruptions, and Crimes (with 940 items and counting!) to see why.
But I was also confused because Trump certainly did not seem to be a particularly strong agriculture candidate, and certainly not one committed to helping family farms. Trump’s petty and incoherent trade wars had caused significant harm to the agriculture industry. And for years he and his Republican sycophants in Congress had been actively trying to gut and eliminate the Affordable Care Act, a program which the U.S. Department of Agriculture says “gives more Americans the ability to pursue farming and ranching and the financial security they need to be successful.” Furthermore, Trump’s own agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, certainly seems to favor factory farms over small family farms. In October 2019 at the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, he enraged many family farmers by saying, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
A closer look at the voters guide revealed that virtually every candidate they endorsed was a right-wing Republican. They provided no rationale for any of their endorsements, of course—just a vague claim at the beginning of the guide that “their leadership will help our industry, our families and our farms stay in business.” A look at their past contributions to political candidates (via OpenSecrets) reveals that they donate almost exclusively to Republicans.
Why was the Farm Bureau endorsing Trump and other right-wing candidates, even when many of them were clearly hostile to the small, family farms the Farm Bureau claimed to be interested in helping? And why had I been duped into joining this group and giving it money when I started my insurance policy?
I wrote a brief email to the Washington Farm Bureau letting them know that I found their voters guide enlightening and disappointing and that I would be leaving their fine group and seeking insurance elsewhere.
A Charming Response from the Farm Bureau CEO
Less than two hours after sending my message to the Washington Farm Bureau, I received an email reply from John Stuhlmiller, their CEO. Apparently he enjoys spending his Friday evenings writing to disgruntled policyholders who think they’ve been swindled. He didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose him. Anyhoo, he really put his farmer charm into overdrive to try to assuage my concerns and keep me from dropping their insurance. He used a brilliant three-pronged approach in his email that I like to call the DCD Strategem: be Defensive, Condescending, and Deceitful.
Mr. Stuhlmiller’s email was sprinkled with trite celebrations of the glorious freedoms of Amurica that he appears to have copied from the back of his “Libertarian Sugar Pops” cereal box. He included gems like “the greatness of our society turns on our freedom to think, express, worship, and live as we like” and “the very fact we can express such views freely is a marvel.” I don’t necessarily disagree with these sentiments, of course, but it was clear that he was simply trying to defend the abhorrent views expressed by Trump and others the Farm Bureau endorsed. It is not uncommon to try to defend prejudiced and hateful views by celebrating how great it is that we have the freedom to express such awful things. “Nothing to see here, people! Just a bigot giving us a beautiful example of freedom of speech. What a marvel!” Later in the email, he even echoed Trump’s comment about there being “very fine people on both sides” with this gem:
I encourage you to leave the frenzy of the election cycle in the public square and embrace the fact we hold different views. Not superior or inferior, just different.—John Stuhlmiller, CEO of Washington Farm Bureau
He doesn’t seem to understand that freedom of speech does not mean that all ideas are equal or worthy of respect. The views of racists, bigots, and misogynists are inferior. They are the views of weak, ignorant, small-minded, and hateful people. They are also views that are promoted by many in power in order to manipulate others. They are not ideas and views that are to be embraced and treated as equal (“just a little different, y’all!”) in a democratic, civilized society. Why? Because such views are fundamentally incompatible with democracy and justice.
So yes, Mr. Stuhlmiller, you are absolutely free to embrace such hateful views or support political candidates who embody them. Likewise, I am free to then call you a bigot or idiot or extremist and stop doing business with you. I am also free to write a snarky blog post mocking your pitiful email and exposing the lie of the supposed “grassroots” mission of your organization. Please, Mr. Stuhlmiller, suckle deeply at the teat of my marvelous freedom utter and rejoice in the glory of Amurica!
One of the more amusing aspects of Mr. Stuhlmiller’s email was his struggle to hide his contempt for me and my audacity to object to his organization’s endorsement of a failed and corrupt president. He opened his email by thanking me for expressing my opinion and then claiming, “sadly, you truly missed the boat on this one.” Later he wrote, “I truly hope you can look beyond your short-sighted perspective” and finished with a strong “I hope you will rethink your rushed opinions.” That last one was accompanied by a wish that I would “consider staying with one of the most trusted insurance companies in America.” LOL! Did he learn that condescension was an effective method of persuasion at farmer school or something? Ironically enough, I dropped my policies with “one of the most trusted insurance companies in America” the very next day because, y’know…I didn’t trust them anymore.
Given his affinity for Trump, it is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Stuhlmiller couldn’t even finish the first paragraph in his email to me without lying:
…even though we did not offer any of the opinions you mentioned.—John Stuhlmiller, CEO of Washington Farm Bureau
This was a lie, of course, because the only opinions I mentioned in my email were the endorsements contained in the voting guide they had just sent to me. So either he doesn’t read the voters guide his organization produces or he has adopted Trump’s tendency to just ooze bullshit every time he speaks. I bet all that bullshit makes great fertilizer for the farms! So…good job, I guess?
His email signature also included this tagline: “Ensuring that our family farms continue to feed the world.” It could be argued that even that tagline is a lie. Read on to see why.
What the Hell is the Farm Bureau, Anyway?
As I started researching the Washington Farm Bureau, I learned that it was part of something called the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which has affiliates in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. If you ask them, they’ll tell you that they are “farm and ranch families working together to build a sustainable future of safe and abundant food.” If you ask someone who isn’t full of shit, they’ll tell you this:
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is a right-wing lobbying front for big agribusiness and agribusiness-related industries that works to defeat labor and environmental initiatives, including climate change legislation.—SourceWatch (a wiki managed by the Center for Media and Democracy)
A key part of that description is that AFBF is a “lobbying front.” It is helpful to understand exactly what they mean by this:
A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned.—SourceWatch
In the case of AFBF, it is pretty clear that they are actually representing the interests of “big ag” (big agribusiness) while pretending to represent the interests of “farm and ranch families.” They’ve been perpetrating this ruse for many decades now.
The myth that AFBF represents the interests of farmers is longstanding, though it has long been debunked. In Samuel “Sandy” Berger’s 1971 book, Dollar Harvest: The Story of the Farm Bureau, he argued that the AFBF is “quietly and systematically amassing one of the largest business networks in America, while turning its back on the deepening crisis of the farmers whom it supposedly represents.”—Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
The Nation published a very interesting article about the AFBF in 2012 that illustrates how the real agenda of the Farm Bureau has little to do with serving “farm and ranch families.”
From California to New York, the Farm Bureau leads the charge for industrial-scale food production. It opposes the labeling of genetically engineered food, animal welfare reform and environmental regulation. In Washington, its well-funded team of lobbyists and lawyers seeks to undermine the federal Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, opposing pesticide restrictions and increased scrutiny of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution…—The Nation
Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization, even puts the blame for the destruction of rural America and many family-owned farms squarely on the shoulders of the Farm Bureau:
Over the last decade, as market concentration has become an overwhelming force in American agriculture, hundreds if not thousands of family-owned farms have been forced out of business. The Farm Bureau supports, through investments and political clout, this concentration of the agricultural industry and, indirectly, the destruction of rural America.—Amber Waves of Grain: How the Farm Bureau is Reaping Profits at the Expense of America’s Family Farmers, Taxpayers and the Environment
Insurance and Inflated Membership Numbers
You may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of the more than 6 million “member families” of the American Farm Bureau Federation are, like my family, not farmers. That’s because the Farm Bureau is also “a multi-billion dollar network of for-profit insurance companies” and the third-largest insurance group in the United States. And most of their insurance policyholders are required, like my family was, to become members of their state’s chapter of the Farm Bureau.
This artificial inflation of their membership numbers (their supposed “grassroots” base) probably helps buy them extra credibility when lobbying Congress or speaking to the media, but it’s mostly a lie. They don’t represent 6 million farmers or farm families. They represent 6 million insurance policyholders, a small portion of which are farmers. There are only about 2 million farms in operation in the U.S., and not all of them are members of the Farm Bureau. That translates into 1/3 or less of their “member families” being farmers. They should probably change their name to something like “The Shady Corporate Agribusiness Insurance Bureau.”
In Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, Country Financial is the insurance arm of the Farm Bureau. Other states have different insurance companies associated with the Farm Bureau, with the most common being FBL Financial Group, Nationwide, and Farm Family. You can find a complete list here. I wonder how many of these insurance companies inform their customers that the Farm Bureau functions primarily as a lobbying group for big agricultural corporations and advances a right-wing agenda that has crushed many family-owned farms? Ours certainly didn’t. The lack of transparency by these insurance companies and the Farm Bureau is ethically questionable at best and fraudulent at worst.
Learn More About the Farm Bureau
If you’d like to learn more about the Farm Bureau, I strongly recommend the following:
I’m pretty pissed that we were hoodwinked into supporting the hidden right-wing agenda of the Farm Bureau for two years. Fortunately, their voters guide shined a light on what they really are and we were able to drop Country Financial like a hot, pesticide-coated potato grown on a corporate farm that pollutes with abandon and puts forty-two family farms out of business. Now we’re paying hundreds of dollars less for insurance and no longer feel like we are supporting an organization that only a supervillain could love.
In summary, be careful who you get your insurance from. Unless you support the destruction of our environment, avoiding or denying the problem of climate change, livestock abuse, factory farms overtaking family farms, stripping health insurance from independent farmers (and millions of other Americans), prioritizing corporate profits over people, and the blatant racism, sexism, and corruption of the Trump administration, then I strongly advise you to avoid the Farm Bureau and their associated insurance agencies.