Mineolan Mark Chamblee, who serves as vice president of Texas Farm Bureau, is in his fifth year of serving on the grassroots organization’s board. A member since 1982 with family roots in farming, he believes membership is important not just to famers, but everyone.
The bureau vice president realizes there may be an identity crisis for the organization with people who don’t farm or are not members. Yes, insurance is one of the benefits of which people who join can take advantage; the insurance company and agents work independent of the Farm Bureau organization side which is run by a county board of directors and county president and is membership driven. He sees it clearly.
“It just like, why would someone not spend the $45 to be a member,” he said. That amount is an annual amount for families in his district. Farm Bureau is a “grassroots driven, independent membership organization” comprised of over a half million member families in Texas, and growing. There are Farm Bureaus in every state and they are under the big umbrella of the American Farm Bureau in Washington, D.C. with offices close to the capitol but the Texas bureau operates as its own entity. As far as the national organization, “We don’t always agree with them in Texas, and we don’t have to. It’s just like our members don’t always agree with parts of our policy.”
“If you want to speak your voice, as a member of that half million member families, you’re one of them. That is one of the most unique things of this organization,” he said as he softly pounds his fist on the desk in emphasis. “Your voice is as important as all the rest of the half million families.”
Those who don’t agree have the opportunity to change policy. Each county bureau has county conventions annually, usually in the fall to which members are invited. At those, any member can submit a resolution to the policy book. Chamblee said every legislator has a copy of the policy book which many carry in their briefcases when they go to the House or Senate floor. “Every word in that policy… that’s put in there by the members.” Resolutions are considered by the Resolution Committee, composed of members from each county. As vice president, Chamblee is looking forward to his responsibility of chairing the committee to which he has submitted many resolutions. If approved, the resolutions are considered at the state convention. Every member “if they want to speak, has a chance at the microphone… If there’s 20 people lined up, and that’s happened, though not lately, they can come up and speak on it. We sit there until every one of them have had their say.”
The state has 13 districts and Chamblee is the state director for district five which includes 19 northeast Texas counties. The bureau limits terms to six years so Chamblee is nearing the end of his time of service. In this role he testifies in Washington, D.C. as many as three or four times a year on farm-related issues.
He says people ask why join the organization. “Farm and ranch families and others join because they agree with Farm Bureau policy or they are concerned about our domestic food and fiber production,” but, its mission should be important to everybody. “So if you eat, if you wear clothes, if you are concerned about having enough food and the things that farmers produce in our country, then you should be concerned about being a member of Texas Farm Bureau.” People who are concerned about food safety and even national security should be members too.
He said, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the country is getting very close to, if not almost at, the level where half of our food is being imported from foreign countries. There are reasons that is not a good thing. “If we start depending on foreign countries for our food supply, we have lost our bargaining power with Third World countries,” he points out. “We use that as a bargaining tool with them to get some of the things they have that we want.”
So trade and matters like the National American Free Trade Agreement are some of the important topics to not only our country, but to the Farm Bureau, he said and, “the Farm Bill, which affects every human being in this country. That’s a national issue.” Chamblee said the country is losing farmers and farmland while at the same time a population increase means there are more mouths to feed. “But if we make it so hard on farmers and people say `well, I’m not worried about those farmers because I can go to the grocery store get what I need,’” his voice softened some as he asks, “well, where does it come from dear?”
As far as food safety, Chamblee notes the USDA regulates the types of pesticides and fertilizers they use in this country. “We have a lot of regulation. I’m not opposed to regulation. You have to have it to keep honest people honest.” But imported foods imported aren’t subject to those same regulations. While the USDA examines imported food, “How the heck are you going to know by looking at that beautiful apple that it came from a foreign country?”
The bureau realizes the need for regulations “to some degree,” but government regulations that hurt commerce and peoples’ ability to make a profit as a businessperson are “overbearing. So we’re opposed to oppressive government” and are watchful of the use of tax dollars. Also, he said, farmers are stewards of the land. “If we don’t take care of it, we don’t have the availability of that land and water to produce what the American people need as far as farm and food products.”
Labor is another big topic the bureau watches. “Farmers are always hurting for labor for production and processing of food and fiber products, that’s why temporary labor, immigrant labor, is important” not only to farmers but to many organizations. “So the availability of labor, a legal workforce is important to us.” Chamblee said, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture, one in seven jobs in the state exists because of agriculture production.
Education of children and the public about farming is also important to the bureau. “You can’t imagine how many kids think that chocolate milk comes from a brown cow,” he said animatedly. “Okay, so what if it’s black and white, what have we got?”
They offer Ag in the Classroom, which helps teachers and administrators and they support livestock and junior livestock shows. They have Planet Agriculture, a large exhibit that travels to events such as the state and regional fairs and the Mobile Learning Barn put on by volunteers and paid field staff. The barn was hosted in Mineola a few years ago at the Mineola Historical Museum when his wife Sharon, who is over the Mineola museum, held a historical agriculture day. These are primarily targeted for third through sixth graders.
A youth development conference and numerous scholarships are among the way the bureau reaches out to member children. Technology is important and he says the younger people in the field are embracing it. “And God bless the young farmers that we do have, they’re in tune with this,” he said.
The bureau also rates elected representatives’ on votes concerning topics important to them which is shared with their members and is used to determine if they will lend financial support at reelection time.
With his focus on farming issues, it’s notable that Chamblee’s original path in life wasn’t set for farming. He had started college in pre-med. “But I’ve been in farming all my life. I come from agriculture roots on both sides. I didn’t know as much though until I got into Farm Bureau and stated learning about it. And it becomes a passion.”