Lincoln Journal Star: Saving the hog farmer — And our ability to feed ourselves!

Lincoln Journal Star

January 31,2016

Cindy Lange-Kubick: Saving the hog farmer


John Hansen is wearing his state Capitol clothes.

His houndstooth sport coat and his white shirt and striped tie and dressy black shoes.

He has a trio of pins lined up on his lapel. The Nebraska Farmers Union emblem. A wind turbine in miniature. A tiny enamel cow clad in an American flag.

The head of the Nebraska Farmers Union has been leaving behind his jeans and boots and polos lately while he walks these marble halls, knocking on doors and sitting in on hearings.

Listening and pleading his case for the future of Nebraska hog farmers. Fighting Smithfield Farms Inc. and LB176, a bill that would allow international pork processors to own Nebraska animals and thus control the supply chain from piglet to pork chop.

A bill he sees as a disaster for small hog producers, for small towns, for the environment.

“It’s absolutely about the future,” says the white-haired Hansen. “Once you go that way, you don’t come back."

The 64-year-old is sitting in the statehouse cafeteria, a solid man, his hands folded like a Methodist minister counseling a wayward parishioner.

He’s talking about his upbringing, his family’s roots six generations deep in the soil of central Nebraska.

He’s talking about his interest in all of this — in farmers and the making of laws and their effect on those farmers.

He’s talking about tagging along to local schools while his father, a Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor, talked about stewardship.

He recites the line his father used: Help make Mr. Raindrop walk — not run — down the hill.

He talks about the price-fixing lawsuit against Safeway his family was a part of in 1968 — the grocery store chain marking up pork chops and bacon far beyond what it had paid.

The coalition of Nebraska and South Dakota farmers won.

“Dad said, ‘The rules of the game need to be fair,’ and that stuck with me.”

The next year, Hansen came to Lincoln for college and found himself skipping class to sit in on legislative hearings, on bills to protect family farms.

He was befriended by Jules Burbach, a rural senator who invited him to dinner at The Cornhusker — Hansen bought his own burger — and left him with this advice: Kid, if you’re going to be in the ag business, you have to understand public policy.

Hansen left Lincoln in 1972 without his degree when his grandparents offered to sell the family farm on contract.

He married and started a family. He raised cattle. He sold seed corn and fertilizer and crop insurance so they could pay down their loans faster.

“We survived the farm crisis of the ‘70s,” he says. “We barely survived the ‘80s.”

When a bill came up in the Legislature that affected farmers, they filled a bus and came to Lincoln.

He came to work for the Nebraska Farmers Union in 1990, long known as the little independent organization with populist roots in the ag advocacy arena in Nebraska.

He likes being the little guy. He likes fighting for the little guy.

He sees family farmers as the little guys. The Davids in this fight.

LB176. That’s Goliath, he says. The bill first came up last year, sponsored by Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, after a similar bill failed the session before. Proponents say it will help hog farmers, give them a guaranteed market.

Hansen sees something else. He sees what happened to the chicken industry, taken over by Tyson with its giant confinement facilities, the resulting environmental degradation and what happens to the little guys who don’t play nice with the big boss.

He says: “Processors own all the birds; it means one side has the power.”

He says: “Farmers can’t compete against a packer.”

He says: “It’s all about markets, making them accessible, transparent, competitive and fair.”

He says: “Who do you want to grow your food and who do you want to buy your food from?”

Hansen has allies. The Center for Rural Affairs, the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, the Sierra Club, Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, Nebraska AFL-CIO, Nebraska Grange, Women Involved in Farm Economics, Jane Kleeb and Bold Nebraska.

He has both rural and urban senators on his side.

Al Davis of Hyannis is among them. He’s worked with Hansen on a variety of issues that affect farmers, most of the time from the same side of the barb wire.

"I admire him," Davis said. "He’s very smart, he’s very articulate, he’s hardworking. He’s effective."

Last week, Hansen mailed letters to all of Nebraska’s lawmakers, calling out the 20 senators who received campaign contributions from Smithfield earlier this month, and the $1,000 it gave the bill’s sponsor last year.

He suggested the senators return the money or disclose the contributions or refrain from voting.

“We’re running traps now, trying to find out why some of the folks who were with us changed their minds," he says Tuesday.

A final vote will come soon.

The statehouse cafeteria empties and closes.

Hansen’s hands are still folded on the table. He’s still quietly, but persistently, preaching.

LB176 ultimately means fewer hog farmers, he says. Remaining farmers will be workers instead of owners.

And the packers will be coming for the cattle farmers next, he says. He doesn’t want to see that happen.

“We do things differently here,” he says. “More farmers are better for the environment, better for the social fabric, better for Main Street.”

Hansen has had a busy day.

He sat in on an Ag Committee hearing. He met with members of the Farm Crisis Response Council, formed in 1984 when Willie Nelson was singing the farmers’ fight song.

“They figured they’d be around for a few years until the crisis ended,” Hansen says.

The Nebraska group averaged 337 calls a month for help last year.

“They’ve been struggling for a long time to keep family farmers on the land.”

That’s what the Farmers Union does, too, he says. He’s proud of that.

He walks out of the cafeteria with his briefcase.

He’s known this place since he was studying philosophy and ag economics in college.

He lobbied the farmers’ cause while his kids grew up and when they started raising their own, until his brown hair turned white.

It’s like a small town here, he says.

His tie is straight and his pins gleam down the lapel of his jacket. He holds out his hand for a shake.

“I have some doors to knock on.”