WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2017 – The leader of the biggest U.S. farmer group says American agriculture is experiencing something of a Charles Dickens moment, benefiting from what he called the “the best times” while simultaneously dealing with the “worst” of times.
American Farm Bureau Federation Zippy Duvall told a dinner audience at USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum Thursday evening that the new Trump administration and the 115th Congress were contributing to the best of times with their appetite for regulatory and tax reform.
Duvall said that many farmers had reached the “breaking point” in terms of generating income to cover the cost of production, and every new regulation that is imposed increases the cost of production. Farmers and ranchers, he said, simply cannot bear that burden in today’s ag economy, he said.
Topping the list of burdensome regulations that President Trump has vowed to get rid of is EPA’s Waters of the U.S. Rule, which defines which of the country’s waters can be regulated under the Clean Water Act.
“That rule will require farmers to get permits on millions of acres that previously were exempt,” said Duvall, a broiler, cattle and hay farmer from Greensboro, Georgia.
The promise of tax reform by Trump and GOP congressional leaders is also helping farmers stay optimistic during these times of low commodity prices and falling farm income, said Duvall.
Lowering the business tax rate will go a long way toward helping the U.S. economy, said Duvall, who also called for elimination of the estate tax, which many critics label the Death Tax. “We need a tax code that encourages agriculture to grow and thrive,” he said, not one that penalizes farmers and discourages the younger generation from continuing to work the land.
Another bright sign for agriculture, Duvall said, is Trump’s choice as Agriculture Secretary, former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, a man whom Duvall said he’s known for years and considers a personal friend. Duvall said Perdue would be only the fourth U.S. Agriculture Secretary to have actually farmed in his adult life.
“You couldn’t ask for a finer gentleman or a stronger champion for our farmers and ranchers,” Duvall said. “I believe he could be one of the all-time great Secretaries of Agriculture. And we need him confirmed so he can get to work."
Duvall said, however, he also needed to talk about the “elephant in the room,” noting that the new president also represents a “worst of times” situation, specifically around the issues of immigration and trade.
Some of the actions called for by President Trump could harm agriculture, which needs a reliable labor force to harvest crops, Duvall said. AFBF estimates that the U.S. could lose $60 billion in ag production if access to all currently undocumented workers is denied.
“Farm Bureau supports protecting our borders,” he said, but added that enforcement alone is not the answer. There also needs to be a way to allow the undocumented workers who harvest America’s crops to get some kind of adjustment in their status to allow them to continue their work.
“We need a serious debate on immigration reform,” he said.
Duvall said the Farm Bureau is also concerned that the U.S. is pulling back on international trade, which accounts for about a quarter of farm income. Trump has already withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been a boon to U.S. agriculture.
U.S. farmers and ranchers appreciate Mexican consumers and their purchases of U.S. agricultural commodities, he said.
Duvall pointed out that Trump, during his campaign, called in to an AFBF board meeting and told members that he recognized the importance of trade to agriculture and that he wanted to expand markets for U.S. farmers and ranchers. And Duvall said AFBF is hoping to work with the president and his team to make sure he carries out those commitments.
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Duvall also noted that negotiations are just getting under way for the next five-year farm bill, pointing out that in the current farm bill, agriculture gave up $23 billion in cuts.
“We feel like the agriculture community has already taken their share of cuts,” he said.
Duvall closed his speech with a challenge to the audience and to everyone involved in agriculture to increase their engagement with America’s policymakers.
Emphasizing that rural America had played a pivotal role in Trump’s election, he said: “We have to make sure our voice continues to be heard on the Hill and in the White House.”
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