WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2016 - A conversation with Bob Stallman reflects the time he’s spent at the helm of the nation’s largest agricultural organization. It’s not really about Bob Stallman. It’s about agriculture. It’s about the issues. And it’s all about the American Farm Bureau Federation.
On Saturday, in Orlando, Florida, AFBF will open the final convention of Stallman’s 16-year, eight-term tenure. He’s hoping to avoid more of the pomp and circumstance that he’s being feted with, including a ceremony at USDA’s Washington headquarters where USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack will proclaim Wednesday as “Bob Stallman Appreciation Day.”
Stallman, a rice and cattle producer from Columbus, Texas, has never been one for personal accolades, choosing instead to deflect credit onto the organization he’s served since January 2000. In a conversation with Agri-Pulse in December, questions posed about his personal accomplishments were typically either dismissed or redirected toward AFBF achievements. However, Stallman is about the only one in Washington agricultural circles that doesn’t have high praise for his tenure.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said Stallman’s time at AFBF represented “true leadership” empowering AFBF to “successfully (lead) the charge in representing a large variety of farming interests.” AFBF Communications Director Mace Thornton said he’ll miss Stallman’s powerful podium presence, adding that his ability to choose his words was among the best Thornton has ever seen. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack added to the chorus, saying Stallman has led AFBF “with a steady hand and a champion’s heart.”
“Bob is the kind of leader who makes people in the business proud of what they do,” Vilsack said in a statement to Agri-Pulse. “He has inspired countless agricultural leaders, past and present, including myself. I am honored to call him a strong partner and a good friend.”
Stallman, however, sees things differently.
“It’s not about the person sitting here,” Stallman said from his sprawling office at AFBF’s Washington headquarters, “it’s about the organization. Everything I’ve done, I’ve always viewed it that way.”
“I have absolutely no illusions that once I step down from this position, that Bob Stallman going up to the Hill by himself is going to have (the same) influence compared to Bob Stallman previously as president of AFBF, and that’s just a fact,” he added. “My role has been to encourage a working environment that got us to that point both between our leaders and also here in the office with our staff, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Under Stallman’s leadership, AFBF lobbied on three farm bills, countless federal regulations, and an occasional trade agreement for good measure. Away from the organization’s policy efforts, he oversaw the move of AFBF’s headquarters from suburban Chicago to Washington, as well as expenditures like the purchase of the IDEAg Group, which now puts on five farm shows annually across the country and expanded AFBF’s own convention trade show.
In the last several years, the organization crafted the “Ditch the Rule” narrative that would become synonymous with the fight against EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule. Stallman said one of his few regrets is not seeing the rule killed, by Congress or the courts, before he leaves office. He says he would also liked to have seen closure of some kind on the immigration issue, and approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rather than passing on those issues to his successor.
That Ditch the Rule campaign, which Stallman called one of AFBF’s “most effective efforts,” was a credit to Stallman’s constant push to find a path forward that was right for his membership, Dale Moore, the federation’s executive director of public policy, told Agri-Pulse.
“His leadership on those kinds of issues changed the tenor,” Moore said, noting that Stallman always found it best to find creative ways to address the policy goal at hand. “We focus on the issues, we stay away from focusing on the personalities. One of the quickest ways to get in trouble with Bob Stallman is to make an issue about a personality … because the policy is what needs to be focused on.”
As a sign of Stallman’s influence in Washington, Moore pointed to an October event just days after the Obama administration announced completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement strongly backed by AFBF and many others in agriculture. President Barack Obama held a roundtable discussion at USDA headquarters with agriculture and business leaders, including dignitaries like Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Stallman was seated next to the president. That placement – which Moore, a former USDA employee, assured Stallman was no accident – was symbolic on many levels, both of the administration’s desire to have agriculture throw its collective weight behind the agreement, but also of Stallman as a representative of American agriculture.
As his final convention nears, Stallman said he’s never been a very emotional person, so he doesn’t expect the convention events to get sappy or overly sentimental. He pointed out that the organization hosted a retirement event for him at its “Taste of the States” reception in Washington, and “that’s enough.” Down to the end of his tenure, Stallman will be insistent that the focus be not on him, but on the organization.
“I already decided – in fact I already demanded, to be honest – that this convention is about the election of the new guy -- it’s not about Bob Stallman,” he said. “I’m satisfied that this place is better now than when I came, and I hope that the next guy makes it even better.”
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