ND ag commissioner seeks Farmers Union presidency | TSLN.com

ND ag commissioner seeks Farmers Union presidency

Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) – North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson announced Tuesday that he is a candidate for the presidency of the National Farmers Union.

NFU President Tom Buis is resigning March 16 to become chief executive officer of Growth Energy, a pro-ethanol lobbying group. The NFU national convention begins Sunday in Arlington, Va. Candidates for president are scheduled to speak Sunday evening, and the election will be held Tuesday.

Johnson has been the elected Democratic North Dakota agriculture commissioner for 12 years and is in the middle of a four-year term. But in an interview Tuesday, he noted, “Farmers Union has always been my home. I grew up in that organization. I can’t honestly think of a single major issue in my 12 years as ag commissioner in which I have disagreed with Farmers Union.”

He also served as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in 2008 when the farm bill was under consideration.

Outgoing NFU President Buis said he is not endorsing a candidate, but said that Johnson “did a great job at NASDA. It was the first time I saw [the agriculture commissioners] involved in a farm bill. He is really talented, really professional and understands rural America. And he has a long history and roots in Farmers Union.”

The NFU is considered the most Democratic-leaning of the farm groups and more powerful since President Barack Obama took office. The NFU was founded in 1902 and has favored a bigger role for government than the American Farm Bureau Federation has, but the group has moved to the center in recent years, lobbying more for farm payments than for government intervention in agricultural decision-making. It was, however, a key group in advocating country-of-origin labeling for red meat and other agricultural products.

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North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson said in an interview Tuesday that he approached Johnson about seeking the post. Carlson said Johnson already has the support of the North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin and Arkansas state chapters. Carlson added that Johnson’s term as president of the national agriculture commissioners’ group made him a strong candidate to head the Farmers Union.

Carlson noted that Farmers Union chapters have expanded beyond their Midwestern and Southwestern base to include Alaska, the New England states and shrimpers in the Gulf states. Carlson said that if Johnson could get the 50-state agriculture commissioners to agree on policy, he can lead the Farmers Union.

At least one other candidate, Pennsylvania Farmers Union President Larry Breech, is running, said Carlson, but Johnson’s chances of election are good.

Johnson had been rumored to be a candidate for a political appointment at USDA in the Obama administration, but said Tuesday he did not apply for a job. Johnson said he preferred to “feel freer” than he could if he were working in the bureaucracy. As evidence of that, Johnson said Tuesday that he disagrees with the Obama administration’s proposal to eliminate direct payments for farmers with more than $500,000 in gross sales. Adjusted gross income would be a better way to measure a farmer’s income and eligibility for subsidies, he said.

Growing up on a farm near Turtle Lake, N.D. — the farm he still operates — Johnson said his biggest crop is wheat, but he also grows oilseeds and rents out pasture land.

Johnson said in a news release that he would be perfectly happy to remain in his current position, but the presidency of NFU “affords me an opportunity to continue serving American agriculture on a national basis.”

He noted that Farmers Union had taken a lead role in the development of policy contained in the new farm bill and is a leader in the development and production of farm-based renewable energy and in conservation through carbon sequestration. He also noted that he had worked with Farmers Union on several farm bill elements — the permanent disaster program, interstate shipment of state-inspected meat products, country-of-origin labeling and safety-net provisions.

“This is a critical time for American agriculture,” Johnson said. “Our country’s current and severe economic problems affect all sectors of the economy, including, and perhaps especially, farming and ranching. Yet, I believe that we will not only weather the crisis; we will emerge stronger than ever.”

If Johnson is elected and resigns as agriculture commissioner, it will be up to North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican, to appoint a successor. Johnson has recommended that Hoeven appoint his deputy, Jeff Weispfenning.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jerry.hagstrom@dtn.com.

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