Noting the current Congress is “the least productive Congress in history,” American Farm Bureau Federation’s president called on Congress to complete its chore list, including the farm bill, water infrastructure legislation and immigration reform.
Opening the group’s annual convention, Bob Stallman told his membership, “Congress is falling down on the job of addressing the nation’s needs, including your needs as producers of our nation’s bounty.” He went on to suggest farmers should spur lawmakers into action or replace them.
On the farm bill, Stallman pointed out the legislation now has been in the works for three years against the backdrop of relatively high commodity prices. That has clouded the issue over input costs and risks. Also, there is little understanding that downturns follow the boom times, he said.
“It is vital that Congress finish the current farm bill as soon as possible this month,” Stallman told members. “American’s farmers and ranchers need the certainty that comes from a five-year farm law. They need solutions and tools to manage the risks that threaten their livelihoods and the nation’s food supply.”
Congressional negotiators are trying to work out a dispute over dairy programs. That has become the latest knot to tie up the bill.
At a press conference, Stallman said Farm Bureau would consider almost any resolution acceptable that would get the bill done. The dairy controversy revolves around a voluntary program that would encourage farmers to manage their herd sizes if prices decline. Farm Bureau policy overall opposes supply management provisions. Still, Stallman noted the program in question would be voluntary.
“Is that supply management or is that a voluntary program that you sign up for?” he asked. “That’s semantics and that’s what’s going on right now, I think, in the dairy industry.”
The second chore for Congress is to complete work on the Water Resources Development Act reauthorization, which Stallman said was needed “to make long-overdue upgrades to our waterways transportation system.” He cited that a majority of locks and dams can trace their construction back to the 1930s and are not adequate to meet today’s shipping needs. The good news, he added, is that WRDA is also in conference talks and could be wrapped up this month.
A more complicated debate remains on immigration where the Senate has passed a comprehensive bill, but the House has slowly moved a handful of piecemeal bills out of committee. Stallman said the country’s agricultural worker needs are bordering on becoming a crisis. He noted a survey from the California Farm Bureau found 71% of fruit producers and nearly 80% of raisin and berry growers are unable to find enough workers.
Farm Bureau members are reporting they are losing income and crops that cannot be harvested because of the shortage of farm workers.
“When you have that many farmers unable to get the workers they need, you have a crisis in farm country,” he said. “And you have a crisis for Americans who want their food grown in the United States — and want it to meet their definition of affordable to boot.”
Stallman took a lead role in helping create the guest worker provisions for agriculture in the Senate bill, as well as language that would legalize current undocumented farm workers. Talking to reporters afterward, he said, “The problem is if we don’t have the labor to produce what we produce then it’s going to be produced somewhere else.”
Stallman also talked about Farm Bureau’s litigation against EPA to keep personal information from being released through Freedom of Information Act requests. He also reiterated the group’s opposition to EPA’s push to extend regulatory authority over waterways. He indicated Farm Bureau may be willing to challenge such a regulatory change in court.
“This rule would establish federal regulatory control over virtually all farm and ranch land,” Stallman said. “The result will be that many more farmers and ranchers will have to get costly federal permits to do anything on their land.”
Stallman, who is starting his 14th year as president of Farm Bureau, said of his tenure, “I have always said, and nothing has changed, that I will depart this organization as president when I quit having fun or they kick me out, whichever happens first. So far they haven’t kicked me out and so far I am still having fun.”