American Farm Bureau, Farmers Union presidents present unified front when addressing farm bill
SAN DIEGO — The American Farm Bureau and Farmers Union presidents said unity is vital to pass the next farm bill.
Members of the groups typically lean in opposite directions as American Farm Bureau members typically lean Republican while Farmers Union members typically lean Democrat. But on Aug. 7 at the International Sweetener Colloquium in San Diego, presidents Zippy Duvall and Roger Johnson of the Farm Bureau and Farmers Union, respectively, said a bipartisan effort is crucial for the farm bill.
Duvall said this should be “our time” because of the people in Washington. In his travels across the United States, Duvall said he finds many farmers believe there was a “tremdous pivot in the election” when President Donald Trump was elected, and farmers can relax and let Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union deliver the next farm bill.
But for Congress to pass a bill that helps farmers, the farming community needs to express a need for the bill.
Farmers should tell Congress the farm bill is “an investment in food security in this country,” Duvall said, rather than saying they need a safety net.
“We’ve got the right people in the right place, but if there is no one standing behind them … how hard can they stand with us?” Duvall asked.
Duvall said his daughter works for a member of the House Agriculture Committee and has told him that the office gets many calls “from environmentalists and soccer moms” and few from farmers.
“The amount of engagement of the actual grass roots of our organizations is going to make the success” of the farm bill, Duvall said.
Agreeing with Duvall, Johnson said when he was the elected agriculture commissioner in North Dakota for 11 years, he always paid attention to his letters, but his attention to an issue went up the more letters or phone calls he got.
“As an elected official if you get piles and piles of phone calls and they stack up on one side, you pay attention to that,” Johnson said. “When an action alert is sent out, pick up the phone and dial that number. Even if you don’t get a person on the other end, leave a message — that means something.”
Trump made a lot of “positive” statements about agriculture during the campaign, Johnson said, but “we have to deal with the hard right” among the Republicans and the Environmental Working Group on the left.
Most of the public does not care about providing a safety net to farmers, he said, but “they do care about knowing the farmer” and “they are never going to know the farmer in Vietnam or Brazil.”
This seemed to be an indirect reference to the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign developed by Kathleen Merrigan, the first agriculture deputy secretary in the Obama administration.
Duvall mentioned in the story of David and Goliath, David was “a sheepherder who ended up slaying a giant.
“This federal government is a giant and we think this one little voice doesn’t make a difference,” Duvall said. “There is no better time for our farmers to become a David — there are thousands of Davids out there.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue “makes people feel pretty good,” but there are no other Senate-confirmed appointees below him yet at USDA, Johnson pointed out.
On the issues, Duvall said he believes labor is the No. 1 issue that worries farmers. The farm guestworker bill that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has developed offers an opportunity to address that issue, he added.
The second most important issue is regulation, Duvall said, but Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are addressing those problems.
Johnson stressed that the Heritage Foundation wants to cut crop insurance and many other programs, including conservation technical assistance. He noted that Farm Service Agency delinquent loans and restructurings are on the rise, and that low farm income probably means Congress will be more willing to listen to the problems of farmers.
Both Johnson, who farmed in central North Dakota, and Duvall, who was a dairy farmer in Georgia, acknowledged they did not know much about sugar until they became active in public life, but said they respected the sugar producers for their tenacity in dealing with Washington.
Duvall and Johnson said they agree on most issues and have developed a friendship. They did not discuss any differences in their joint appearance.
“Where we can’t agree we will agree to disagree and move on about our business,” Duvall said.❖