What happened to the old Farm Bureau?

The following was first published as a Letter to the Editor in the Napa Valley Register on March 21, 2023.

Twenty minutes into the Farm Bureau’s membership Zoom session on Groundwater last week, my screen went black, and then a message appeared that the “host,” in this case, the executive director of the Farm Bureau, Ryan Klobas, did not permit me to join.

A call to the Napa County main office revealed that my membership had expired six days earlier. Despite my futile online attempts to renew our decades-old membership, I kept getting the message, “you do not have access to that page.” After consulting with Mr. Klobas, the receptionist would not renew my membership, saying she was not authorized to accept payment. I immediately emailed Mr. Klobas about this issue, but I have not heard back.

Yes, it raised concerns about being blackballed. Was this the Napa County Farm Bureau’s opportunity to get rid of me? In all honesty, I am ambivalent about being a member, although my husband and I have been for decades. I was raised on a small farm in the Midwest. My father was a member of the Farm Bureau. Everyone was.

I am opposed to many of the stances of the Farm Bureau. The American Farm Bureau Federation continues in rhetoric, at least, to support the farmer but with little regard for the impact of farming on climate and the environment, and many would say little regard for the impact of the changing climate on the farmer. The Federation has strong ties to the oil industry.  And although there was a time not that long ago in Napa County when the Farm Bureau was manned by the likes of Volker Eisele and Cio Perez, when our new supervisor Joelle Gallagher was executive director, that has all changed. Some call it a hostile takeover. A segment of the wine industry has eclipsed the so-called farmer aspect, financing the Farm Bureau PAC used to influence local elections.

Of course, what may have also influenced this cut-off is the fact Ryan Klobas and I shared a stage with Mina Kim on KQED some five years ago, an interview, I suspect, that was uncomfortable for him. I described this interview in my just-published book, Fruits of Eden: Field Notes Napa Valley 1991-2021. The Farm Bureau had poured a great deal of money into the narrow defeat of Measure C, a citizen initiative that limited the deforestation in our county. The No on Measure C campaign used misleading information or downright lies about the measure to scare voters away from protections for our watersheds. The Napa County Superior Court agreed, ordering five objectively false and misleading statements in Measure C opponents’ official ballot arguments to be removed from the ballot pamphlet and replaced with modified language. After the narrow defeat of Measure C, the County passed the Napa County Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance of 2019.

We were asked our opinion of this, me representing those organizations who supported protecting our watersheds and forests, and Ryan Klobas, the Farm Bureau’s stance, which was “educating” the voters about the negative consequences of such a measure. The truth is when a citizen initiative goes to the voters and the measure passes, it is beyond the reach of the powers that be. In a democratic government, the vote returns the power to the voters. Elected officials answer to the voters. In autocratic systems, the powers that be try to stop this power of the vote by misinformation and, sadly, in our national politics, by restricting voting access.

In the case of the Farm Bureau, I am most concerned about how power is being wielded. Yes, I do think that after decades, there should have been some grace period on the renewal of my dues. A part of me says, okay, this saves me almost $300 per year. But I will also add one of the reasons that I have wanted to remain a member is to continue to read the state Farm Bureau weekly newsletter, Ag Alerts, and understand the Farm Bureau’s stance on water rights and on the use of various Ag chemicals. The common ground of hearing what often is a very different stance from my own sometimes helps me have some empathy for the other. That is what is lost when we stop listening to those with different views and power through to get our own way.

Should I try to rejoin? If I do, what are my dues supporting? This is a question I continue to ponder. But I do know that our climate is changing beyond our wildest imaginations. We need to listen to the needs and views of each other, especially those we disagree with, and we need to abandon the way of power and profit over the needs of the environment upon which we all, including farmers, depend.

Addendum: I decided to reapply for membership. I was notified on March 24, 2023, that the Napa County Farm Bureau Board of Directors had convened and voted to decline my request to be readmitted as a member.