When Alan Bergman took the reins of the North Dakota Farmers Union, the farm community was in dire straits.
The worst farm-credit crisis since the Great Depression hit Rural America hard, taking more than a decade to recover from and forcing thousands of farmers out of business. With prices in a devastating spiral, the outlook was bleak.
“I was at numerous meetings, talking about these issues,” said Bergman, a former North Dakota Farmers Union president. “At a number of them, the farm wife would get up and talk about their personal situations and break down at the microphone. That happened a lot. I dealt with it personally. You saw a lot of it.”
Bergman steered NDFU and its 36,000 member families through difficult times including the worst drought in 50 years, advocating for farmers and ranchers everywhere. For his service and accomplishments, he was inducted into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame during a ceremony March 11 at the North Dakota Winter Show in Valley City.
Bergman deflected any credit, not unusual for the soft-spoken, rational former president, who took over in 1986 and was at the helm for 10 years.
“That was a very prestigious award to receive — I’m just one person from a large organization,” said Bergman, who still resides in Jud. “I led it for a period of time and did my best.”
He was inducted alongside Dr. James Tilton, who spent nearly 40 years as an Animal and Range Science professor at North Dakota State. Only two have been inducted each of the past seven years.
“I was taken aback by it,” Bergman said. “I had lots of congratulatory notes from people throughout North Dakota. It’s a nice and prestigious award to receive.”
NDFU President Mark Watne nominated Bergman for the award, calling him “very deserving.”
“I want to congratulate Alan Bergman for being inducted,” Watne said. “He’s a primary example of a leader who really supported family farmers across the state especially during the tough times of the 80s when there was a lot of crisis in agriculture. Alan was fully committed and a great, great supporter of family farm agriculture.”
Bergman may have spent many hours advocating to decision-makers, but he also ran an organization that flourished.
“With a large membership with our cooperatives, we had a strong member base,” Bergman said. “I thought I could contribute because I knew business. All of these things had to be held together. We had a strong financial base, and that takes a huge amount of time and effort. Yeah, you have an advocacy role, but you’re also running the business and trying to keep everything going.”
Bergman was one of four individuals who co-founded Dakota Pride Cooperative, a marketing co-op for specialty grains, oilseeds, and soybeans, and was instrumental in exploring the farmer-rancher interest in forming cooperative feedlots and producer-owned slaughter plants. He forged coalitions with other groups, including Canadian farm organizations and cooperatives and, in 1994, was appointed by the Clinton Administration to the U.S.-Canada Joint Grains Commission, which reviewed the grain industry and marketing within each nation.
In 1997, he was appointed to USDA’s task force on research facilities, to devise a 10-year strategic plan to assure the existence of adequate research facilities for agriculture and U.S. producers. He represented North Dakota producers on the world stage as well, when in 2004, he served as chairman of the Group on Grains and Oilseeds of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers. He was also elected to the post of vice president at National Farmers Union in 2000. His honors include NDSU’s Agriculturist Award, a Soil Conservation Achievement Award and the National Farmers Union Meritorious Service Award to Agriculture and to World Agriculture.
Bergman is committed to cooperative education for youth. He established scholarships for the North Dakota Farmers Union youth program and continues to be a strong advocate for young producers and co-op members.
“Helping (our members) is not just about a farm program,” Bergman said. “The organization is much broader than that. (NDFU’s) involvement in education was always strong. Without educational programs, farmers and members would not understand why they should have these positions. We’re able to teach youth the importance of cooperatives and working together — being a good citizen and staying involved.”
Outside of agriculture, he served in the North Dakota National Guard for 22 years, retiring as command sergeant major of the 141st Engineers Battalion. He’s also in the North Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame for his lifelong contribution to the game.
Bergman said his wife, Pauline, and his four children played a key role in his ability to lead NDFU.
“When I was elected president to Farmers Union, I had young kids. They were in their early teens,” Bergman said. “I never moved off the farm — the farm didn’t stop operating. They stayed here at the farm and did a lot of work on their own. My daughters learned how to combine and run grain trucks, and of course my wife stayed home. I did cut back, but continued to do it year in and year out. Some years were more challenging than others.”
–– Chris Aarhus, NDFU