Keith Dittrich was 17 when he was a farmer activist in the making. Over 30 years later, he chairs the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA), or as it’s safe to say, “the other corn growers’ association.” Dittrich, who farms in Tilden, NE, says the nearly 25-year-old ACGA is still entrenched with its philosophy of getting farm policy handled at the grassroots level.

Historic “tractorcades” that rolled into Washington, D.C., got Dittrich’s attention early. He was there among 1970s American Agriculture Movement protesters arguing that U.S. farm policy artificially held down crop prices, favoring large grain companies and ag conglomerates.

Although a different type of activism, the movement helped spawn ACGA. Dittrich joined in 1991, four years after its formation, as an alternative to the still-dominant National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).

Claiming to be one of the first to promote renewable fuels, ACGA’s last major stance occurred earlier this summer. Executive Director Pam Horwitz asked Americans to “stay the course in the march toward energy independence.” She urged support of ethanol and the 45¢/gal. federal Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC).

The tax credit expired on Dec. 31, 2011. Dittrich says, “allowing the anti-ethanol crowd to sucker legislators into agreeing to eliminate VEETC is just bad policy.”

He and ACGA also support wind and solar energy. Its sister organization, the American Corn Growers Foundation (ACGF), promotes renewables.

“We were the first to promote the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in its infancy through literally a handful of South Dakota farmers,” Dittrich says. “USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program was initially envisioned by an ACGA board member. Today ACGA supporters are project parents in The Wetlands Initiative in Illinois to improve the Mississippi River pollution problem.”

ACGA annual dues are $50. Horwitz says overall membership numbers are unclear, “but we have members in 15,000 zip codes in 35 states.”

Dittrich stresses the need for more members and involvement in ag politics. “Even though row-crop farming is profitable now, only eternal vigilance of policies will keep it profitable,” he says.

His brother and farming partner John is an ACGA player and co-chaired development of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, which encourages protection of U.S. manufacturing base from “offshoring,” Dittrich says.

Early on ACGA and NCGA had sour words. But “both organizations have evolved,” he says. “Even though they might not have liked our existence, we have made them a better organization. We’re on the same page on many issues like renewables, but miles apart on farm programs.”

Farm bill concerns: Dittrich recently was asked to write an editorial for The New York Times. He stated farm policy changes were needed, but that farm programs shouldn’t be eliminated, adding that upcoming farm-bill debate “offers a real opportunity to change the overcomplicated, outdated and convoluted farm program that we have today.

“This program is a culmination of years of meddling by agribusinesses whose interests were not that of farmers, consumers and the environment,” Dittrich says.

He calls for “a simple Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) loan rate or support price at cost-of-production levels to encourage production in the face of shortfalls.” Reserve programs are also needed to ensure adequate supply in years when climate cuts production. “Billions could be saved and red tape would be eliminated,” he says.

ACGA supports educating children about where food comes from and encourages growers to give more back to communities and developing countries.

“There’s a bit of renaissance in agriculture,” Dittrich says. It’s time for us to give back and recognize the needs of rural communities through community activism.

“We don’t favor one political party. We just favor a farm program that encourages fair market prices, renewable energy and conservation,” he says.