RIDE TO D.C.
In late 1988 amid the ongoing crisis of high interest rates, farm foreclosures and rapidly decreasing land values, North Dakota Ag Commissioner-elect Sarah Vogel was worried about the short time frame from her election to taking office.
With an average of 20 farm foreclosures per county, farmers had 45 days to file for Chapter 11, which is a restructuring of debt.
Rather than wait, Vogel acted, negotiating to immediately install Roger Johnson to lead the statewide Agricultural Mediation Service.
“We were in a phenomenal crisis,” Vogel recalled. “We needed Roger to step in and run that program. People’s lives depended on it.”
Johnson took over, and it set the stage for a long, productive career of advocating for farmers and ranchers everywhere.
National Farmers Union reelected Johnson as its president at the national convention in March in Bellevue, Wash. He is in his 11th year at the helm after serving as North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner for 12 years.
Johnson grew up on the family farm homesteaded by his grandparents near Turtle Lake, where the family continues to farm today. They grew mostly spring wheat and raised cattle, along with some barley, flax, oats and sweet clover.
He remembers his childhood as “typical” for a farm kid with no shortage of chores.
“Getting up in the morning and milking cows before the school bus came,” Johnson remembered. “After school, come back and milk cows again. In the summer months, it was picking rock and hauling hay bales. In the summer months, my brothers and I were pretty much the bale-hauling labor for a lot of farmers in the area. We’d haul 40-to-50 thousand square bales in a summer. That’s how we made spending money.”
Johnson said he was introduced to Farmers Union when he was very young. Eventually, he went to camp, became a camp counselor and then a camp director.
“My folks would go to Farmers Union meetings, and we’d run outside and play in the schoolyard,” he said. “We did day schools, and I went to summer camp. I did the whole youth program — most of my siblings did as well.”
He went to North Dakota State University, graduating with a degree in ag economics. He came back to take over the farm and was elected McLean County Farmers Union president as well as chairman of the board for Farmers Union Oil of Turtle Lake in the early 1980s.
As his responsibilities grew, so did Johnson’s desire to help farmers.
Johnson became a part-time farm credit counselor during the collapse of the farm economy in the 1980s.
“I went out and met with farmers having financial difficulties,” he said. “I helped them with their lenders to see if we could figure out a way to keep them on the farm and resolve whatever problem there was.”
Johnson said his time as a credit counselor shaped his future, as he learned to appreciate individuals, the struggles they faced and the dedication they had. Johnson called them important social connections.
“It was a really impactful part of my life,” he said. “That work really honed my ability and desire to understand financially where the farm was at — to think more like a business person and more objectively.”
Vogel was elected Commissioner of Agriculture in 1989, while Johnson was already working as a credit counselor for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture. She said she had seen him work while she was assistant attorney general.
“He listened, and he was quick — he put things into effect,” Vogel said. “He impressed me.”
Johnson started running the ag mediation service before Vogel took office — per her request — and started working on paperwork and counseling for 1,400 farmers in crisis.
“When we helped all those farmers in 1989, that might have been my most significant achievement in eight years (as ag commissioner),” she said. “Roger hired people, trained them and ran it. And he worked hard. If farmers would have missed that 45-day window, many of them would have been lost. That was a heroic effort.”
When Vogel decided not to run for reelection, Johnson was elected in 1996 and stayed in that post until 2009, winning reelection three times. He credited the Farmers Union family for his successful bid.
“There is no question in my mind that had it not been for those connections I made through Farmers Union with friends around the state, that I never would have been elected,” he said. “Both Democrats and Republicans — they ended up being supporters I relied on to do campaigns around the state.”
When Johnson took office, the Marketplace of Ideas was already in full effect. A brainchild of Vogel and Sen. Kent Conrad, the annual event was an entrepreneurial and economic development showcase and forum for farmers with ideas on creating extra income. It ran for more than 20 years, with Johnson serving as a co-sponsor during his tenure as ag commissioner.
“In the ‘90s, a lot of effort was put into value-added agriculture,” Johnson said. “It was as much about trying to build optimism in agriculture as anything. We had all of this despair coming out of the ‘80s. If we could just add value to what we were producing, we could increase the likelihood that farmers were successful. It’s something I’m really proud of.”
Johnson, who was a Democratic-Nonpartisan League candidate, was no stranger to narrow election victories during his time as ag commissioner. He beat Republican Dina Butcher in 1996 with 129,423 votes to 129,140 — one of the closest votes in state history. He won reelection in 2000, 2004 and 2006.
“One of the themes that ran through all the years as ag commissioner had to do with this constant debate in North Dakota between family farms and corporate farming,” Johnson said. “Every campaign I ran, it was an issue. I’m convinced it was why I was elected in every election. That corporate farming theme kept coming into this value-added ag discussion. That helped me focus on the people in farming as opposed to what it was that we were producing. That’s what government ought to be doing — focusing on people and how policies impact them, as opposed to sheer economics. You have to balance those two.”
In his first few years in the position, Johnson recalled dealing with some extraordinary circumstances including advocating for flood disaster payments and drought disaster payments in the same year.
“It was a really nasty winter — over a 100 thousand head of cattle died,” Johnson said. “We had a raging drought in the west, but major flooding in the eastern part of the state.”
In 2009, Johnson ran for president of National Farmers Union while still holding an elected position. He said then-NDFU President Robert Carlson asked him to consider running for the post.
“I pretty much dismissed it,” Johnson said. “Then I started getting other calls from Farmers Union folks in the state and around the country. I had three days to make a decision.”
Johnson said his tremendous respect for Farmers Union moved the idea from “you got to be nuts” to actual consideration. With his three children off to college, Johnson said it made sense the more he thought about it, and it would allow him to work for agriculture on a bigger stage.
“I was attracted to (the ag commissioner) job because I loved farming, not because of the political environment,” Johnson said. “I never would have been commissioner if not for my involvement in Farmers Union. In a lot of ways, it was almost more logical to do this than run for ag commissioner again.”
Upon being elected in 2009 and moving to Washington, D.C., Johnson said it took him a little while to get used to the partisanship.
“In 12 years as ag commissioner — elected as a Democrat — in almost every one of those years, the Republicans were in charge of the House and the Senate, and the governors were all Republicans,” he said. “I worked with a Republican legislature in North Dakota in a pretty bipartisan, respectful fashion. It wasn’t so overt.
“Out here, it seems like every year is worse and worse. The ability to get along politically is really difficult. It was noticeable the first month I was out here. Yes, government is set up to have some friction, to have countervailing forces as an inherent part of our machinery. But throughout most of history, it’s been based on respect and the clash of ideas, not personalities. Unfortunately, it’s too much of the latter now.”
As president of National Farmers Union, Johnson, 66, makes sure the organization executes a list of priorities set by the board of directors. The four key priorities for 2019 are farm economy, trade, ag consolidation and concentration, and climate change.
Johnson said farm income is often the top priority, but that it can be hard to move the needle if farmers don’t have some incentive to limit production.
“We have got to have some sort of public policy that provides incentives for farmers to produce less during periods of burdensome supplies and below the cost of production,” he said. “We’ll continue to see rapid consolidation in the industry until we have few enough farmers that they’ll begin to behave like other businesses and shut down production. I don’t think that’s the kind of agriculture we want in this country.”
Johnson said NFU continually works on trade, which is arguably the most talked about agricultural issue in the news with the ongoing trade war with China. Johnson believes it’ll take a long time to get back what’s been lost.
“We’ve lost a lot of friends on the world stage,” he said. “The decades of work done by farmers building markets have suffered a major setback. The world trading system is in disarray. It’s not just a USA phenomenon, it’s worldwide. The WTO is not working as well as folks imagined it would.”
Getting less coverage in the news is ag concentration, which has seen four companies control 85 percent of beef processing, 74 percent of pork processing and 54 percent of poultry processing. Three companies control almost 70 percent of the agricultural chemical markets and two-thirds of the seed market.
“This is sort of slowing innovation in the economy,” Johnson said. “Huge corporations are dominating sectors. Farmers are paying more than we should have to because of non-competitive markets.”
Climate change is also a problem NFU is working on, and it might be the most significant in the long run. Incentivizing carbon capture is key to farmers playing a pivotal role, Johnson said.
“No matter how many people wish this would go away, it’s not going to,” he said. “We have to hone in more as policymakers and figure out how to decarbonize this economy over the next several decades. There will be opportunities for farmers to add economic value to what they do by following these practices that are good for society and good for earth.”
When he’s not advocating for farmers, Johnson’s spending time with his wife of 41 years, Anita, or his four grandchildren. Johnson, who enjoys biking, has long participated in cycling events to raise money for multiple sclerosis. While he was ag commissioner, he did rides in North Dakota and Minnesota every year. Now, he does them in Maryland and Colorado.
Having spent his entire life advocating for agriculture, Johnson said his success starts and ends with the success of family farms.
“One of the attitudes I brought with me when I became ag commissioner is that you needed to be an advocate for family farmers, and that’s really part of my growing up with Farmers Union,” Johnson said. “It’s about the people more than just the money. I was always proud to carry that with me.”
— Stories and photos by Chris Aarhus, NDFU