President, National Farmers Union
Tom Buis became National Farmers Union’s 13th president during the organization’s 104th anniversary convention in 2006. Buis has been with the organization since March 1998, previously serving as vice president of government relations. In this capacity, he oversaw the NFU Washington, D.C., government relations office, which advocates the interests of family farmers in Congress and the administration.
Prior to joining NFU, Buis served for nearly five years as senior agriculture policy advisor to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. In addition, Buis worked for U.S. Rep. Jim Jontz, D-Ind., for nearly five years as legislative assistant and legislative director. He was also special assistant for agriculture to U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind.
Before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1987, Buis was a full-time grain and livestock farmer in Putnam and Morgan Counties in West Central Indiana, with brothers Mike and Jeff, who continue to operate the family farm.
Additionally, Buis serves as a member of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP) executive committee. The international organization represents more than 600 million farm families.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) is the second-oldest general farm organization in the U.S., having been founded in 1902. In many ways, NFU and the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture were founded upon similar principles — fostering the plentiful production of food and fiber and ensuring a sound farm economy. Our organization represents 250,000 family farmers. We believe farming is more than just a way to make a living, it is also a livelihood. We view our role as helping those families receive a decent profit for all their hard work. We were founded by 10 wise people, a combination of farmers and businessmen who were trying to add value to their commodities so they could command a better price in the marketplace.
We have state organizations in 27 states from New England to California with the bulk of our membership in the Midwest and Plains States. We are often mistaken these days for a trade union but we are not a union in that sense of the word. Throughout our history, advocacy and building cooperatives in rural America have been important NFU roles. We view our mission as a triangle. The base of the triangle is education and the two sides are legislation and cooperation. We have founded hundreds of cooperative including the largest cooperative in the U.S. today — CHS which stands for Cenex Harvest States.
In Washington we are recognized as the group that represents family farmers. We don’t represent agribusiness. We were strong advocates of the first federal farm policy back in the New Deal era and we’re strong advocates of current farm policy. We helped develop the laws that have improved life in rural America — from the Rural Electrification Act to the Tennessee Valley Authority to the Renewable Fuels Standard that has been a driving force behind producing ethanol from crops.
As I travel around the country, I have never seen farmers as excited about their opportunities as they are today. A big part of that optimism is renewable fuels. The feed stocks for these fuels can be produced on the farm. In addition to feeding this country, we are now fueling the country. When I was farming in Indiana in the 1970’s there was great interest in renewable fuels but at the time they were neither economically efficient nor energy-efficient. At that time, production facilities resembled backyard stills on steroids and the product then called gasohol caused problems in engines such as clogging fuel filters. When conventionally produced gasoline became less expensive, the country “fell asleep” on renewable fuels until recently.
In 2005 Congress passed and the president signed the Energy Act which for the first time mandated use of renewable fuels. That sent a signal to everyone out there that this would be a large market and investors brought their resources to bear on it. It also resulted in improvements in the technology and increased research. In the past five years, there have been 125 ethanol plants built in the U.S. There are probably that many more in some stage of development.
The new plants are environmentally friendly, using one quarter of the water the old plants needed to produce a gallon of ethanol. They are also energy-efficient. Most of the ethanol’s critics who say the process is not energy-efficient when all the inputs are accounted for are talking about the old technology, not the new plants. They also neglect to take into account the hundreds of billions of dollars our country has spent on two wars to protect Middle East oil supplies.
While corn-based ethanol is the predominant product today, it is not the future. It will be around for a long time but ethanol produced from plants containing high levels of cellulose holds the most promise. In the future, feed stocks high in cellulose such as switchgrass, corn stover (stalks) and wood chips, when processed will produce more ethanol and will greatly broaden the base of materials from which we produce it.
The ethanol boom has reinvigorated many rural communities. For decades these communities have struggled as people and businesses left. When a $50- to $100-million ethanol plant is built in a rural community, however, spin-off businesses develop and people invest in the community. Employment and the tax bases expand and people who were on public assistance go off the rolls. What’s more, many of these plants are farmer-owned through cooperatives. Forty percent of the ethanol produced today comes from farmer-owned plants.
Farmers and rural communities are also benefiting from a movement that has largely been under the radar of the media and policymakers. It’s called the Buy Fresh Buy Local movement. Anyone who has tasted a tomato shipped from across the country and a locally grown one knows what I’m talking about. They are two different products. This trend started in affluent communities where people were willing to pay more for locally grown agricultural products. Today, it is expanding across the country as farmers sell their locally grown products to school systems, hospitals, other public institutions and restaurants. In many cases, the farmers bypass the middle man and sell direct. This is reversing the trend of our traditional food distribution system. Consumers have awakened to the benefits of this trend and we’ll hear a lot more about Buy Fresh Buy Local in the future.
The biggest challenge farmers and ranchers face is the trade agreement. Less than 10 percent of products our farmers produce are traded internationally. The agricultural products that are traded are the “tail that wags the dog” from a trade policy standpoint. The rules adopted by the World Trade Organization dictate in many ways the way we farm and what kind of policy safety net farmers are going to have. As a result, we have watched a $26 billion farm trade surplus in 1996 shrink to $5 billion in 2006. The only reason it hasn’t disappeared altogether is because the dollar weakened. Each year, we bring into this country all kinds of farm products that compete with our farmers, including billions pounds of beef, seafood, fruits and vegetables. I’m not saying it isn’t okay to trade internationally. What I am saying is that our trade agreements haven’t leveled the playing field. We permit other countries to ship into this country products that, under our standards, would get our farmers thrown in jail if we treated labor and the environment as our competitors do. Anyone familiar with the lack of health and safety oversight for Chinese products shipped into this country knows what I’m talking about.
Sometimes I wonder, “What would Ben Franklin think about our country giving away the greatest tool that has enabled our country to feed itself?” At the current rate of food imports outpacing food exports, we will be in that situation 30 years from now. NFU’s position on trade is clear: Trade is fine as long as we consider all the factors in trade.
Farmers face numerous obstacles in addition to competing with foreign producers on a playing field that isn’t level. The uncertainties of weather and the high capital requirements of farming today are two of them. The average return on investment for farmers in this country is 2.5 percent. That’s why farmers need the safety net that is included in the Farm Bill currently moving through Congress. In closing, I’d like to recall the quote from president Dwight D. Eisenhower when he referred to those in Washington who formulate farm policy. A farmer himself, Eisenhower said “Farming is pretty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles away.”
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.