Members of the American Farm Bureau Federation gathered virtually Thursday to assess the changes the organization would pursue in its lengthy policy book.

Among some of the most contentious topics were the addressing of price discovery in the beef cattle market and the treatment and compensation of agricultural workers. But, as is typically the case for a general farm organization, everything from dairy policy to weed resistance was on the agenda in the five hour and 40 minute virtual meeting.

Farm Bureau delegates approved new policy and called for an in-house study on the issue of price discovery in the beef cattle market. The new policy supports increasing “the share of negotiated sales in fed cattle markets with providing price transparency being the central focus.” Delegates from Iowa also pushed a recommendation to study the “regional mandatory minimum cash trade in the cattle markets and what levels would be appropriate to achieve robust price discovery.”

The price discovery conversation has been active for years, but intensified with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the spreads between the live cattle and boxed beef markets that followed. Speaking in favor of the study — which was eventually authorized by the delegates — Iowa member Ben Albright acknowledged the organization’s preference for a hands-off approach from federal regulators, but “unfortunately, government intervention may be our only solution.”

“Currently, the northern producers are carrying the burden of price discovery for the entire industry, and that is not sustainable,” he said. “We need data on this subject to address current and future legislation.”

The delegates also addressed country-of-origin labeling in the beef industry by voting down a resolution that would have removed “voluntary” from the organization’s statement on the subject. Supporters of the resolution argued it would have kept the organization on the good side of trade partners since the existing language already mentioned support for COOL that would be within the parameters of the World Trade Organization.

On the farm labor front, California and Louisiana leaders sponsored a joint resolution adding more specificity to the organization’s policy on the H-2A program, which allows for temporary ag workers to provide seasonal labor on farms and ranches. The previous policy supported a “complete overhaul” of the program; delegates approved policy that instead supported improvements to make the program “more effective, affordable and broadened to provide visa workers for both seasonal and year-round agriculture.”

California was unsuccessful in another effort with New York that would have pulled the organization’s support from federal legislation “to exempt farmworkers from current wage and hour laws.” Speaking in support of the resolution — which was ultimately defeated 273-56 — California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson pointed to the role of ag labor during the COVID-19 pandemic and said “now is not the time to be talking about cutting wages or what we’re going to do on the labor laws.”

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Johansson also pointed to the “unprecedented … mitigation funds going to our farms and ranches” in recent years through ad hoc trade or pandemic mitigation programs and said in the context of a broader immigration conversation, “this does not get us a place at the table, but may even exclude us from the table.”

Other members spoke against the resolution, however, citing concern about the competitiveness of American production if overtime or other compensation laws for farmworkers were to change.

“As soon as we start giving way on where we have stood on labor, it’s like Pandora’s box,” Arizona Farm Bureau President Stephanie Smallhouse said.

As is usually the case, the annual opening of the organization’s policy book also addressed a handful of social issues.

Delegates from Illinois were unsuccessful in an effort to pull language concerning support for legislation “that gives an unborn human being the right to life and protects the unborn by declaring life begins at conception.” Several speakers noted the issues such language could cause in building legislative coalitions, and no delegates spoke in favor of keeping the text in the policy book, but an effort to remove it failed 157-175.

Delegates from New York were also unsuccessful in deleting the organization’s definition of “family” as “persons who are related by blood, marriage between male and female or legal adoption.” There was some discussion that striking the definition in its entirety would be counterproductive given some of the family-based membership language guiding the organization, but the ability to offer amendments was limited given rules the organization agreed upon requiring any changes be submitted days in advance because of the virtual structure of the meeting. The resolution ultimately failed 100-228.

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