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During the first half of Robert Carlson’s tenure as president of North Dakota Farmers Union, farmers in North Dakota saw steady disaster payments. It wasn’t an easy time for agriculture.

“I felt it,” said Carlson, who was president from 1997-2011. “When I started farming in 1978, I borrowed money at an 18.5 percent interest rate. I could identify with people up against it.”

Carlson’s list of honors and accomplishments is impressive, and he added one more on March 5.

Carlson was inducted into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame at the Winter Show in Valley City for his many contributions to agriculture.

NDFU President Mark Watne thanked Carlson for his work, which also included being vice president from 1986-97 under previous president Alan Bergman.

“Robert was an effective leader of NDFU,” Watne said. “He achieved many of the goals of our organization’s work including enhancing the income of family farmers and ranchers. During his time as president, he took our organizational priorities to the World Farmers Organisation where he worked to enhance agriculture worldwide.”

A farmer from the Glenburn area, Carlson is a veteran of the Vietnam War and holds degrees from Minot State University and the University of North Dakota.

DISASTER AND RALLY

Carlson said his most satisfying work was helping farmers and ranchers receive disaster payments during difficult times.

The winter of 1997-98 saw 110,000 combined cows and calves killed in North Dakota due to harsh weather and flooding. The next summer, a drought hit.

“Prices were terrible as well,” Carlson recalled. “We got a group of farmers together and we went to Washington, D.C., and spent a week there. We told them we needed some disaster help for farmers in North Dakota.”

Despite the overwhelming opinion that disaster payments would never happen by many in D.C., Carlson led the push and won. North Dakota’s congressional delegation of Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, and Rep. Earl Pomeroy worked hard to make it happen, he said.

The disaster led to the creation of the Livestock Indemnity Program, which still exists today.

“That’s what makes me most proud – we got disaster aid when it was appropriate,” Carlson said. “It’s the best thing we did during my presidency.”

Though the weather improved, prices did not. In 2000, Carlson spearheaded the Rally for Rural America to draw attention to the economic crisis in farm communities. It was the largest gathering of farmers ever reported in the nation’s capital with more than 4,000 in attendance. 

“We sent seven busloads of farmers to that rally,” Carlson said. “Every time we stopped for coffee, I would switch buses and deliver my message. It was one of the toughest things we did at North Dakota Farmers Union, but it was what was most valuable to farmers.”

CARBON CREDIT

During his presidency, the concept of global warming started to catch fire and a number of carbon-cutting initiatives were proposed.

“We talked about establishing a marketplace for that carbon,” Carlson said. “Those who capture it should be paid for what they’re doing, and those emitting it should be the ones paying for it. It seemed like a good economic solution.”

Carlson’s idea – the Carbon Credit Program – put $7.4 million in the hands of farmers through a variety of practices including no-till, planting grass and rotational grazing by livestock. Carlson noted his idea was an off-shoot of a similar proposal by the Iowa Farm Bureau.

“It looked like a win for farmers,” he said. “It had Republican and Democratic support. I thought it would sell politically really well.”

The program didn’t catch on nationally and was eventually scrapped, but it meant much-needed extra income for North Dakota farmers during its time.

“It was a really noble experiment that should have worked,” Carlson said. “You learn more from what you do that fails than what succeeds.”

RESTAURANTS

North Dakota Farmers Union owns seven successful restaurants, most of which are in the Washington, D.C., area. They educate 50,000 consumers each week on family farm agriculture.

The very first one, formerly called Agraria and now Farmers Fishers Bakers, started with the idea of getting farmers’ products directly to the consumer so they could reap a greater share of the profits and cut out middlemen.

NDFU helped farmers with an equity drive to raise capital, and a research firm told them the best area for a restaurant would be Washington, D.C., as the city is “recession-proof.”

“Government runs in good and bad times – it’s a good place to have a business,” Carlson said.

The equity drive fell short and NDFU chose to get in on the investment to make it happen, Carlson said. The first year of Agraria was not easy, he added.

“It was close to a disaster,” he said. “We were losing money every month. Eventually, we had to change management, so we looked for a company and came across the consultants running it today (Farmers Restaurant Group). Instead of white table cloths, we’d do a family restaurant that was less expensive and a more lively-type of atmosphere, and it worked.”

WFO

Carlson stepped down from NDFU in 2011 after his election as president of the World Farmers Organisation, a post he held for four years until his retirement.

Carlson was considered a natural fit for the job, as he was part of the original discussion of making farmers’ voices relevant again on the international stage. The International Federation of Ag Producers (IFAP) had gone bankrupt, leaving a void.

“At the time, there was a lot of attention on hunger in the world and the environment, and farmers weren’t at the table to speak for themselves,” he said. “We knew we needed to get farmers back on the international stage.”

Carlson was nominated as the newly created WFO’s first president. After he accepted the position, he embarked on a journey that included fundraising and many of the other painstaking processes that go with building an organization. The WFO, based in Rome, is made up of farm organizations from nearly 50 countries and has a voice at the United Nations.

Among his victories were drafting a unified statement on trade – which he was told would be impossible because of the many countries involved – and the emphasis he placed on scientific production methods for farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia.

“I’m glad we have the WFO to this day,” Carlson said. “It’s removed from most farmers’ thinking. The big seed and chemical companies are represented globally at ag meetings around the world, and the environmental groups also have a strong presence. We needed a voice for the farmer.”

Carlson said his time at WFO also made him thankful for the system of production agriculture in the U.S.

“A lot of times we’re discontented, but we have a tremendous system for supporting agriculture in this country,” he said. “We have a system for credit and loans, we have farm organizations, cooperatives, good roads and docks and bridges – most of the world doesn’t have that. Rain comes in other countries and the road washes out and their crop spoils. It’s worlds away from what we experience and take for granted every day.”

FOR OTHERS

One of the avenues Carlson felt would mean greater profits for farmers was specialized crops. Carlson tried to work with Canada on a wheat pool that would allow farmers to set their own prices for specialized crops, and it even had the support of Governor Ed Schafer, who flew to Winnipeg with Carlson to meet about it. However, the idea fell through.

From that, however, Carlson helped start the Dakota Pride Cooperative, which helps farmers find specialized grain contracts that bring in more income than they would otherwise. Previous president Alan Bergman also played a big role, serving as the first chairman of the board.

“There was still a demand for specialized ag products,” he said. “We did a project with the state mill and elevator to provide whole white wheat flour using white spring wheat, and that was somewhat successful. I still think there is an opportunity to do more in specialty markets.”

Though the calm, well-spoken Carlson may not speak of it, his tireless efforts involved on-the-ground rebuilding in Mississippi for producers impacted by Hurricane Katrina and delivery of North Dakota wheat to starving widows and children in Afghanistan.

Carlson has left his imprint on North Dakota agriculture and beyond, and he points to the risks he took as a major factor in his success.

“Farmers always have to take risks,” he said. “If we (NDFU) have resources and don’t take risks to help farmers, then we’re not doing our job.”

– Chris Aarhus, NDFU