In a speech that could be characterized as "restating the facts" American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman opened the 2012 Annual Convention at the Hawaii Convention Center. The organization has been dealing with a range of challenges over the past year, and he talked through them to delegates.
Key to his talk is continued frustration with the partisan divide in Congress. During his remarks, Stallman notes what he sees as a growing sense of frustration with movements aimed at dividing more than unifying.
Stallman, playing off a popular protest, he notes that Farm Bureau started as a movement in 1919 and that a movement can't sustain itself on emotion. "But, our movement is a bit different from some others you read about today," Stallman says. "Farm Bureau membesr are occupying the farm fields, the pastures, the livestock barns…the orchards and the vineyards. We are occupying the combine, and, yes, even the saddle. Ours is an occupation of production."
He added that what farmers do "makes everything else in or great nation possible - including the pitching of tents and the shouting of protest slogans."
Down to business
The hottest topic at hand is the 2012 Farm Bill, and the U.S. budget deficit will impact that process. "We know that our nation's tight budget constraints will likely dictate how much of a role the government will play in provding a safety net for farmers and ranchers," Stallman says. " We know that the business of farming has always been risky. It always will be. But, we firmly believe farmers possess the skills to navigate the typical ups and downs of our business cycles."
As farm bill negotiations near, several proposals have been floated for program crops with payments that kick in and out of a narrow band of support for some crops and set up higher target prices for others. "As an alternative, we forwarded to Congress a plan to establish a 'Systemic Risk Reduction Program,'" he says. "Agricultural programs are intended to help farmers deal with big challenges they cannot handle alone, as opposed to providing guarantees against small reductions in annual revenue."
He explains the program is unique in that it will "protect America's farmers from losses that truly endanger the very core of their farms, like catastrophic revenue losses. While at the same time, it recognizes today's new budget realities. It is also unique in that it can be applied toa broader range of commodities, like fruits and vegetables."
He made one request to delegates: "Have an open and spirited debate, but put this organization on solid Farm Bill footing. Give us clear direction!"
Delegates are asked to "do what makes the most sense for the whole of American agriculture. Give our farm and ranch families the support they need most in light of the fiscal condition of our nation. And once all is said and done, let's agree to get behind our policy and ride for the brand."
This call to arms is important because regional differences in the Farm Bureau system have been a sticking point in the past. With a more divide Congress, Stallman's call for a unified message offers insight to potential frustrations that could occur ahead.
Dust, child labor changes, Chesapeake Bay, you can't sit down to a meeting, or a coffee shop, with farmers and not hear about the rush to regulation facing this industry. Stallman notes that the Small Business Administration says one of every three dollars earned by Americans goes to pay for or comply with federal laws and regulations. He told attendees that those costs aren't shared evenly, often falling on the backs of small businesses "like our family owned farms and ranches."
He points to a U.S. House measured - HR 1633 - aimed at preventing regulators from managing farm dust. That measure is still awaiting attention in the Senate.
What he calls the "pollution diet" that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pushing for the Chesapeake Bay could move to every watershed in the country, he says. Hence, the organization filed a lawsuit in a Federal District Court in Pennsylvania to stop it. "We all want a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay. In fact, farmers in that watershed are taking real, on-the-ground actions every day to improve water quality. That stewardship will continue regardless of what happens with this lawsuit."
He notes that he is confident the courts will send the law back to EPA.
The move by the Department of Labor to tighten child labor laws is a significant controversy for agriculture, and Stallman notes that the changes could limit the availability of not only labor for farmers but valuable experience for youth.
The Free Trade Agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama were listed as highlights for the year, with more work to be done. He notes that once fully implemented the deals could mean a $2.5 billion boost to U.S. ag exports.
Stallman credited the combined voices of members for getting those trade deals moved ahead.
In closing his speech, Stallman picked a geo-relevant quote from King Kamehameha who, in his final message to the Hawaiian people said: "Prevail and continue my just deeds, they are not yet finished."
"As applied to Farm Bureau, those words recall for us the farmers and ranchers who came before….and challenge us to continue this movement for a second 100 years of excellence."