Just one day after President Donald Trump made a historic speech at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 99th annual convention, the organization’s 353 delegates approved a hard-fought dues increase and a vast array of new policy positions.
With slightly lower membership and reductions in other income streams, AFBF trimmed expenses by almost $1.9 million last year over 2016 and had to “button down the balance sheet,” noted AFBF President Zippy Duvall. The nation’s largest farm organization had strong investment income but still projected a deficit of about $1.5 million going into 2018. North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten made a motion to increase national dues – for the first time since 2003 -- from $4 to $5 annually, starting in 2019. But Jimmy Parnell, president of the Alabama Farmers Federation wanted to limit the dues increase to only 50 cents.
That drew a strong rebuke from Barry Bushue, a former Oregon Farm Bureau president and former AFBF VP.
“For 30 years, I’ve watched this organization grow and do great things. I would hate to think that we are going to nickel and dime ourselves for 50 cents."
Eventually, delegates overwhelmingly approved the $1 increase. Duvall said he was “ecstatic” about the new income.
“This reaffirms the support of our member states of how important it is to have a strong national Farm Bureau,” Duvall said.
Delegates worked their way through 356 pages of policy changes and recommendations on Tuesday, but, unlike some previous conventions, fights over the farm bill were few and far between. When summarizing the day, Duvall described the changes as “tweaks” rather than major policy changes.
“They gave us some flexibility in getting ready to write this farm bill,” said Duvall after the session closed. “They tweaked some areas in cotton, the Agricultural Risk Coverage, and offered some flexible thoughts around the dairy program so we can help the House and Senate Ag committees write a farm bill for the future.”
On dairy policy, delegates clearly endorsed a commodity title safety net program, with plenty of risk management options.
“They voted for something that would protect against milk price volatility or an improved income-over-feed costs margin program,” explained AFBF Economist John Newton, including giving farmers an option to select either a program that provides protection against a decline in milk prices or a decline in milk margin. But they also wanted several improvements in the Margin Protection Program. For example, delegates voted to increase Tier One coverage from 4 million to 5 million pounds for all dairy producers and increase the catastrophic margin coverage level from $4 to $5 while maintaining the ability to buy up to $8 of margin coverage.
In addition, AFBF delegates want access to an expanded Federal Crop Insurance Corporation product, “whether it's fully utilizing Livestock Gross Margin for dairy or dairy revenue protection insurance that we’ve been working on,” said Newton.
“They recognized that field crops can get crop insurance and access to ARC or PLC. They wanted dairy farmers to have that same flexibility to buy a crop insurance-style product and still fully utilize Title One.”
On immigration, Farm Bureau delegates decided against supporting a clean extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that stops the deportation of illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. That vote was coupled with a decision to add language opposing “Sanctuary counties, cities, and states,” something that disappointed California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson.
“It’s kind of the same ideas that I have with, say, the Cuban food embargoes of the '60s and '70s,” he told Agri-Pulse. “What we’ve really recognized is that those kinds of embargoes really hurt the working people. You’re not really hurting the political leaders who have these terrible policies in place. Withholding federal funds from our sanctuary cities in California, you run the chance of hurting our employees if not even our farm families.”
Asked specifically about the decision against supporting a DACA extension, Duvall said Farm Bureau is “really focusing on what deals with ag labor itself and not getting out into the other areas.” However, he said many times at the convention that farm labor was the top issue facing agriculture. Duvall went as far as to say he’s heard personally from President Trump that there will be a fix to the ag labor shortage.
“His comment to me was that we’re going to fix that problem,” Duvall told reporters. “He’s going to bring industry back into our country, and they’re going to also need workers alongside our farmers and ranchers and that we will have a program in the future where people can float back and forth and work in this country.”
There was an undercurrent of concern about the relatively high reference price for the peanut program. A Nebraska delegate moved to strike support of the current provisions for the peanut program in the 2014 farm bill. But the discussion was mostly playful before the amendment was defeated.
“I think most of you know Georgia is the number-one peanut-producing state in the nation,” noted Georgia Farm Bureau President Gerald Long. “I also want you to look at your table, and you’ve got peanuts on your table, compliments of Georgia. If you want some more, I encourage you to oppose this amendment, OK?”
For the record, Oregon Farm Bureau President Barry Bushue offered that "we can replace these with hazelnuts next year if you’d like.”
But Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst nailed the underlying concerns.
“We are kind of talking around the issue here. What is being asked for by that language is to keep the reference price exactly where it is. Conditions have changed since 2014. I don’t know what the correct price for peanuts is and I don’t think this delegate body does either. So let’s approve this amendment, strike the language and work through the process as we do for all other commodities.” But delegates ultimately struck the amendment.
Another issue sparking debate dealt with conservation compliance, related to swampbuster compliance.
One year after sending brief shockwaves throughout the farm bill coalition for supporting – and then voting against – decoupling conservation compliance from crop insurance, AFBF delegates approved similar policy that gives the organization a failsafe if enforcement mechanisms are not improved on swampbuster regulations.
Upper Midwestern states complained that swampbuster regulations on “nuisance wetlands” were not being enforced consistently, and policy was added to pursue necessary changes to correct that enforcement disparity. However, if those changes are not approved, supporters of the language argued AFBF needed policy backing out of the negotiations.
“We’re not out to drain sloughs,” North Dakota Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies told Agri-Pulse. “We need to get (conservation groups) to the table and understand that we have problems to fix.”
There were some who argued that this language could introduce fractures within the conservation and environmental communities which have become necessary to gin up farm bill support. Asked if the resolution might cause issues within that coalition, Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said “I hope not … If the nutrition community, conservation community, and the agriculture community can’t come together, we won’t have a farm bill.”
Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill agreed. "Farm bills are becoming increasingly difficult and it's one vote at a time. "I hope we are not losing an alliance with the environmental community," he said, while noting that other interest groups want to see farmers demonstrate stewardship and conservation.
Overall, Hill said that the delegate body "galvanized around crop insurance and the current title one programs with a few modifications."
Duvall made it clear to reporters after the delegate session that Farm Bureau still supports conservation compliance being tied to crop insurance, but “the enforcement in those areas is not consistent across the board. It may be different from one region to the other and we have talked to the (Agriculture) secretary about bringing consistency there and clarity about what the rules and regulations really are.”