Whether it's a story about the upcoming elections, BSE, country-of-origin labeling or global trade, the term “prairie populists” keeps popping up with all the predictability and persistence of pesky Canadian thistle.

The politicians the term refers to range across the U.S., but usually hail from the Great Plains and Midwest. Most, but not all, seem to be Democrats, although that wasn't always so, says William Pratt, history professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The word populist has lost much of its original meaning, Pratt says. It's used broadly today to describe outspoken politicians ranging from segregationist Gov. George Wallace to liberal Sen. George McGovern. The two Democrats ran for the presidency in 1972 (Wallace as an independent) and lost to Richard Nixon.

But in 1892, there was a Populist Party that held its presidential convention in Omaha, NE. The party adopted a platform containing language striking for its day, Pratt says. He cites these words:

“We believe the power of government — in other words, of the people — should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

Referring to justice and calling for larger government was unusual then, Pratt says. The USDA was a small agency. In fact, an 1867 photo of just 10 people captured one-third of the agency's employees.

The Populists opposed monopolies of railroads and finance, and commodity speculators. The party “sought to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people,’ with which class it originated,” the platform stated. The party never elected a president, but did seat candidates in state legislatures and in Congress.

Populism today

“Populism to me is standing up for the interests of the family farmer, business owners on main street and the rancher,” says Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND).

“It doesn't make any difference what you call it,” says Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). It depends, he says, on the question: “Do you believe the government should be a strong referee in the free-market system?”

Iowa's senior senator cites his efforts to ensure “farmers can market their hogs every day instead of half an hour per week,” reduce USDA farm payments, support of the Packers and Stockyards Act and en-forcement of anti-trust laws.

These positions fit with the usual descriptions of Grassley: independent, plainspoken, conservative and a fiscal watchdog. But he's only rarely called a prairie populist.

For Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), being a prairie populist means standing up to outside interests — packers, the Canadian Wheat Board and the World Trade Organization — that threaten the livelihood of farmers and rural communities.

But economist P.J. Hill doesn't believe populism helps ranchers and farmers.

“The rhetoric for the last 30-40 years has been, ‘We are on the side of the small producer,’ ” says Hill, an economics professor at Wheaton College in Chicago, and owner of a 100-cow operation in his native Montana.

“I think there are economic forces at work that are very powerful,” says Hill, who questions the effectiveness of populist rhetoric. “I don't think it has a very positive impact” for small farm operations, he adds.

Historical perspective

Dorgan traces the roots of prairie populism to the early 20th century, when farmers organized, developed an agenda and took control of the political process. In 1916, North Dakota's Non-Partisan League (NPL) surprised the state's dominant Republican Party and elected a governor. In 1918, the NPL reelected the governor and won control of the legislature. It passed legislation creating the Bank of North Dakota (BND), still the nation's only state bank, along with North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association and state hail insurance.

“It was never intended for the BND to compete with or replace existing banks,” the bank's Web site says. It “was created to partner with other banks and assist them in meeting the needs of the citizens of North Dakota.”

Critics assailed the NPL, claiming it contained socialists and communists, says Tom Isern, history professor at North Dakota State University. And there were some among the membership, he says. But the average hard-working Norwegian farmer just cared about getting a fair price for his grain, he adds. He wanted better rail rates and honest grading of their wheat at mills in Minneapolis.

Farmers were “shipping grain and getting a bill for more than the grain was worth,” Conrad says. “People were being manipulated.”

The NPL eventually lost power and joined the North Dakota Democratic Party in 1956. The state has been a hotbed for starting value-added ag cooperatives since the early 1980s. But these co-ops are usually run by Republican, commercial-oriented farmers for regional economic development, Isern says.

Fred Kirschenmann, North Dakota cattleman and organic farmer, says state voters favor Republican governors and presidential candidates, but elect Democrats to the U.S. House and Senate. Above all, voters are loyal to people who do a good job, says Kirschenmann, who also directs the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

“I'm a Republican, but I think Byron Dorgan is one hell of a U.S. senator,” Isern says. “He's one senator with a vision for renewal of the land.”

Isern cites Dorgan's proposal of a New Homestead Act and his push to develop a high-tech corridor in the Red River Valley.

And, North Dakota recently established a Beef Systems Center of Excellence to grow cattle feeding and profitability for the state's cow-calf operators. The plan is to develop a small slaughter/fabrication plant using “rinse-chill” technology, Kirschenmann says.

If this plant succeeds, more small plants could be built throughout North Dakota. This reflects the state's political and economic tradition and also makes economic sense, Conrad says. He admits a large facility can achieve economies of scale, but other economic principles are important, too. This includes spreading assets and reducing risk, good strategies given possible terrorist threats to the nation's food supply.

“I think concentration, when it reaches a certain level, is a negative in almost every way — economically, environmentally and in terms of risk,” Conrad says.

Pratt says populism today often comes down to rhetoric, but Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), the U.S. Senate minority leader, says banning “captive supplies,” opposing packer concentration and creating a Small Farm Administration within USDA are more than words.

“These issues are important because they're the essence of survival for agriculture as we know it in South Dakota,” Daschle says. “These fights take on real meaning when you realize that for many of our farmers and ranchers, how well we do in winning these fights will determine how well they do in surviving in the way of life they love.”

Hill loves life on the Great Plains. At one time, he had a commercial cow-calf ranch, running 500 cows on 25,000 acres in eastern Montana. He believes market differentiation — not legislation — holds more promise for ranchers.

Some ranches now sell the experience of ranching — hunting and fishing, wagon trains and working vacations. Others seek niche markets, producing grass fed and/or organic beef, Hill says.

And that's the way the business should operate, he adds. Agriculture and society are best served when “markets tell us what to do,” he adds.

Unlike his close friends, Hill stresses that his income as a college faculty member relieves him of being solely dependent on ranching.

“I went through the 1980s in Montana,'' he says, recalling the drought and grasshoppers that ravaged the region.

“I don't want to minimize those struggles,” he adds. “One of my regrets (is that) small towns across the Great Plains are struggling.”

Cross-border populism

U.S. and Canadian farmers often face common issues, but tend to fight each other, Canadian cattleman John Kolk says. That's in contrast, he adds, to how European Union (EU) farmers work with their counterparts throughout the world.

With common issues straddling international borders, it would seem possible for farmers to cooperate, at least theoretically, Kolk says.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) agrees — in theory. Conrad says farmers worldwide should work together to achieve a balance between supply and demand so they can receive a fair price. Farmers need power in the marketplace.

“I don't see it as gouging consumers,” Conrad says. “We've been fighting each other in the marketplace to try to get a fair return.

“It's very clear with the movement in the World Trade Organization (toward eliminating subsidies) that we're going to have to find new ways to give farmers a new chance,” he adds. “We've become the residual food supplier to the world and all the expense falls on our taxpayers.”

He suggests establishing “some emergency set-aside of food” for the world. And he says it's reasonable to have global coordination between conservation programs for both land and water.

In the meantime, the U.S. must ensure that the livelihood of farmers and rural communities isn't lost in global trade negotiations, Conrad says. “I'm increasingly concerned that ag will be unwittingly traded away because people don't know what they're dealing with,” he says.