AFBF Kicks Off The Farm Meeting Season

SARA WYANT

WASHINGTON, D.C.
   It’s January and instead of warming by the fire, it’s a good time to attend one of the annual farm and ranch meetings being held this time of year – usually in warm places. That’s what I will be doing, starting in January with the American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in Phoenix and ending with the National Farmers Union meeting in San Diego in March. 
   Each of these meetings provides a good grounding in the people and the issues that are important to farmers and more broadly, those living and working in rural America.
   For example, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) wants the Trump administration and the 115th Congress to make reform of the federal rulemaking process a top priority. Among other things, their 351 voting delegates would like the process to adhere to the use of sound science, allow more transparency by agencies and departments and prohibit agency misuse of social media to lobby the public in support of agency proposals, according to a resolution advanced by Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst.
   That last item was aimed at the EPA and its 2014 outreach campaign in support of the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. Farm Bureau’s grass roots campaign in opposition to the WOTUS rule was “Ditch the Rule” and in 2014, EPA responded with a campaign called “Ditch the Myth.”
   The voting body, representing over 5 million farmers and rancher members, covered a lot of territory during their approximately six-hour policy-making session, including transportation, conservation, immigration, nutrition and farm policy. The most contentious debate came after North Dakota Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies successfully amended current AFBF policy to oppose requiring growers to meet conservation compliance rules as a requirement for crop insurance premium subsidies. “When you dance with the devil, the devil always leads,” emphasized Lies, who argued that working with environmental interests would lead to even more requirements in the future. 
   But later in the day, delegates voted 255 to 85 to remove that change and return to their previous policy. Minnesota President Kevin Paap said the linkage between crop insurance premium subsidies and conservation compliance is a realistic expectation in exchange for public support of agriculture. 
   “We have to talk in agriculture about continual improvement. We have to talk about what we can do better. Conservation is certainly one of those,” he said. 
   AFBF President Zippy Duvall said he was pleased with the end result. “I think there was some confusion about the original amendment,” he explained. ‘But we wanted to keep our partnership” with the conservation community. In other delegate actions:
   Beyond fresh: In response to complaints about the high cost of some fresh fruits and vegetables, California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger led an effort to incorporate all types and forms of domestically grown fruits and vegetables in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, giving priority to fresh and locally grown when available. 
   Right to repair: Delegates voted to amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to require ag equipment manufacturers to allow equipment owners and independent repair facilities to have access to the same ag equipment diagnostic repair information made available to the manufacturer’s dealers and authorized repair facilities.
   Pruitt endorsement: Calling Trump’s nominee for EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt a “breath of fresh air,” Oklahoma delegates urged and won the body’s support for his nomination. “As state AG, he successfully challenged regulatory overreach such as the waters of the U.S. and other climate-related issues,” their resolution noted. A reference to EPA as a “rogue federal agency” was deleted from the resolution before final passage.
   Farm bill: While AFBF has taken a very early lead on developing farm bill background materials, the farm policy subcommittee asked for more in-depth analysis on four issues before they make policy recommendations. These include: Generic acres, Conservation Reserve Program, Agricultural Risk Coverage (county) and dairy.
   ‘Golden age’ is over.  During a convention breakout session on the economic outlook, John Newton, Farm Bureau’s director of market intelligence, said recognition of changes in the economic conditions should lead to a different way of thinking among U.S. farmers and ranchers. “The golden age of ag income is over,” Newton said, “so we need to think about marketing decisions, finding those new customers, and recognize that price is very sensitive to supply shocks.” 
   Some of Newton’s colleagues expanded on some of the potential “side hustles” (with “hustle” being used to mean a side business) that producers could consider to bolster their traditional revenue streams. Maybe forming a community-supported agriculture (CSA) service or starting an agri-tourism enterprise would add a little to the bottom line, but the traditional forms of agricultural income don’t appear headed for record highs in 2017. 
   Pat Westhoff, director of University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, gave Farm Bureau members a crop sector outlook that pointed toward solid production and disappointing prices.
   “We’ve got low prices across the board,” Westhoff said. “If there were a crop that had really good returns, people would be growing it, right? Things tend to move together, and that’s what we’re seeing right now, unfortunately.”
   Westhoff offered projections of more than 90 million acres of corn yielding just under 14 billion bushels of production. If realized, that production would be under projections for the 2016 crop, which have been topping 15 billion bushels. Westhoff also expects a soybean harvest of about 3.9 billion bushels, a drop from the estimated 4.3 billion in 2016. He said that drop in production – spurred by a decline in yield projections – could lead to some price recovery.
   Expansion is likely to continue in the protein sector, said JBS agriculture economist Karl Skold. His early-morning address at the convention jolted some attendees awake as he explained that expected expansion of the size of the nation’s cattle and hog herds wouldn’t do much to dispel price concerns in the industries. 
   Skold said specifically that in pork, production should be up about 3 percent, partially on the heels of increased slaughter capacity. However, he pointed out that Americans have held steady with per capita consumption of about 50 pounds of pork annually, so trade will have to absorb the extra product. 
   Beef will also be in a precarious place when it comes to trade in 2017 as the biggest buyer of U.S. product – Japan – trends toward taking in less of the meat. Some will point to a cushier trade relationship between Japan and Australia as a driving factor in that shift, but no matter the cause, the U.S. will have to find a new home for some of its exported beef. Skold said South Korea is showing promise as a growing market, but a collection of nations he deemed “all other” is also showing signs of growth. 
   The beef industry is being challenged to open new markets, and to “get people to eat one pound more, a half-pound more every year,” Skold said. Part of the challenge, he said, is to get these “other” countries, countries “that you may have never even heard of,” to start eating beef, as the big markets that the industry has been dependent upon are not expanding and their populations aren’t growing very fast. ∆
   Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Associate Editor Spencer Chase contributed to this report.
   SARA WYANT: Editor of Agri-Pulse, a weekly e-newsletter covering farm and rural policy. To contact her, go to: http://www.agri-pulse.com/

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