"Unfortunately, we have reached the point where Congress is falling down on the job of addressing the nation's needs – including your needs as the producers of our nation's bounty," Bob Stallman told farmers and ranchers gathered in San Antonio for the opening session of the 95th annual convention. Stallman is serving his seventh term as president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
He cited three crucial issues Congress has started on, but failed to finish -- the farm bill, reliable water transportation and agricultural labor reform.
"Members of Congress, the president and his appointees don't work for the government, they work for you. You promote some, fire a few, but you must hold all of them accountable. Your wisdom and voice are needed.
"Extreme partisanship and rhetoric have created a Gotcha atmosphere where political courage in in short supply. In contrast, you the nation's farmers and ranchers represent unity. This very gathering in about people from different regions and backgrounds coming together to develop policy that benefits all of American agriculture."
Stallman ticked off a list of what farmers and ranchers urgently need. "First, we are close to the finish line on the farm bill. The debate of the last three years, against a backdrop of relatively high commodity prices, has shown that much of the public has no idea what it takes to profitably farm and ranch. They don't that the understand costs of production add up to nearly as much as what a crop will bring in.
"They don't realize how much risk farmers take on. And they don't seem to realize that in the farm economy, downturns follow boom times as surely as night follows day."
Stallman declared it is vital that Congress finish the current farm bill by the end of January.
Long-overdue upgrades to the waterway transportation system is also critical, he continued. "The majority of our locks and dams that make rivers navigable were built in the 1930s. The good news is that both the House and Senate have passed the waterways bill, and we hope that Congress will approve the final bill this month."
Long term solutions to ag labor shortages is the third chore, according to Stallman. "Farmers across our country are telling us they are facing a crisis. A survey by the California Farm Bureau found that 71% of the tree fruit growers and nearly 80% of raisin and berry growers were unable to find enough employees to prune trees and vines or pick crops."
He noted the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program that artificially raises wages above the market rate, often does not bring workers to the farm until after the need for them as passed.
"Congress knows about these problems. They have known for 30 years. Farmers and ranchers are waiting for Congress to take action and work for solutions."
Stallman admitted there is some good news. "Even in this time of political division, we are closer than ever to solving this problem. The Senate has passed an immigration and agricultural labor reform bill that contains principles outlined by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which Farm Bureau is a part.
"We need to tell Congress to get this job done now!"
Congress doesn't control everything
"Fortunately not everything is up to Congress," said Stallman. "We have a full slate of other issues on the legal and regulatory front. Privacy is an issue that has grown in relevance and concern for many farmers and ranchers. More and more farmers are rightly concerned about who owns or controls all of the information they are sending back to the companies that provide them the precision farming technology they use."
He said there are many questions such as is the information secure, should farmers be compensated for their information, will companies use it take advantage of market conditions to set prices and who else might be able access this information in the future?
EPA action a betrayal
Stallman also took the Environmental Protection Agency to task. Farm Bureau has even deeper concerns when the federal government turns farmers' private information over to activist groups. He cited a Freedom of Information Act request to the EPA last year from environmental groups.
"The agency – illegally, we believe, handed over hundreds of farmer's and rancher's names, addresses, GPS coordinates and contact information. When we learned that EPA was about to release even more farmers' information, AFBF sued to prevent its release and stop the use of government records as a clearinghouse for disseminating farmers' personal information. We stopped EPA temporarily and continue to seek a court ruling to make it permanent."
Stallman said AFBF expects to have a big fight this year against another attempt by EPA to expand its regulatory reach under the Clean Water Act.
"The agency last year put the wheels in motion to propose extending federal regulatory authority to check nearly every water body in the country, whether it is navigable or not. This rule would establish federal regulatory control over virtually all farm and ranch land."
The AFBF president said the organization was disappointed by the loss in their case against the EPA'S Chesapeake Bay pollution limit controls. "AFBF and Pennsylvania Farm Bureau have appealed that ruling. Once again, we are saddled up for the long ride in our fight for rational regulations that allow farmers to continue feeding America."
The convention continues on Monday with workshops and a speech by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. On Tuesday, delegates spend the entire day debating policy and finalizing resolutions.