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American Farm Bureau Federation holds steady

At its annual convention, the American Farm Bureau holds on to its values while adapting to change.
Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Published on January 14, 2015 10:40AM

A show of hands during the general session of AFBF’s annual meeting in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy of AFBF

A show of hands during the general session of AFBF’s annual meeting in San Diego, Calif.

Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman (left) introduces Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during the AFBF General Session.

Courtesy of AFBF

Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman (left) introduces Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during the AFBF General Session.

Rancher, scientist and mom Stefanie Smallhouse of Arizona says producers should talk about shared values when engaging food safety alarmists.

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press

Rancher, scientist and mom Stefanie Smallhouse of Arizona says producers should talk about shared values when engaging food safety alarmists.

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SAN DIEGO — The topic was “big data” and who owns the seed, input and yield information collected by modern farm equipment. The speaker, Jason Tatge from Kansas, was telling farmers gathered for the American Farm Bureau Federation’s national convention about his “plug and play” device that will keep data safe.

And Jerry Reeves, a 74-year-old corn and soy farmer from Ohio, was shaking his head when it came time to ask questions.

“I’m all for technology, I always have been, but it’s getting over my head,” he said with a smile. “I can’t even drive my equipment any more, because it drives itself.”

And that, as much as anything, might sum up the Farm Bureau’s 96th annual convention. Producers are hanging in there and they know what they want, but sometimes find themselves swept along by the actions and beliefs of others.

Consumers trust

Case in point: One of the best attended workshops of the convention was “When Consumers and Science Collide,” in which speaker Charlie Arnot said farmers must engage consumers alarmed by GMOs or the use of antibiotics on livestock. Arnot said providing trusted sources to speak on complicated food safety issues is crucial. He said many consumers develop heir beliefs by surfing the Internet, and half-joked that agriculture’s ideal counter-messenger is a scientist who’s also a mom and a farmer.

He could have been describing Stefani Smallhouse, a former BLM wildlife biolgist and a mom who raises cattle and forage crops with her husband in southeast Arizona.

But Smallhouse said she has as much trouble communicating with the other side as anyone else. She said an acquaintance told her recently, “I don’t eat bread anymore because it’s been re-engineered.”

Smallhouse was so stunned by the scientific disconnect that she didn’t know what to say, but empathized as a mom.

“There’s so many issues you can’t sort them out,” Smallhouse said. “You go to the grocery store and you’re supposed to worry about gluten, GMOs, organic?

“I think many of us tell our story,” she said. “But how do I compete with the Internet?”

She agreed with Arnot’s advice that angry responses to uninformed claims don’t work.

“Show your values first, then show your expertise,” she said. “We are too quick to be offended.”

Resistance to change emerged during the convention’s policy book adoption process, a day-long affair in which Farm Bureau sets its positions on economic, environmental, political and social issues for the year to come.

Farm, non-farm issues

Some of the topics covered by policy have nothing to do with farming. One section declares Farm Bureau is opposed to the insertion of Muslim Sharia law in U.S. courts, while another insists the “Star Spangled Banner,” in English, must remain our national anthem.

This year, Farm Bureau’s Resolutions Committee recommended deleting the “Family and Moral Responsibility” policy, which among other things defines a family as people who are related due to marriage “between male and female.”

Delegates from Arkansas, Indiana and Georgia rose in opposition. “I want this back in our book,” an Indiana delegate said. The vote wasn’t even close; the policy was retained.

At a news conference afterward, Stallman was asked if such policies didn’t unnecessarily close off Farm Bureau from segments of American society, such as same-sex couples, who might otherwise support agriculture.

Stallman said the Resolutions Committee recommended deletion because it questioned whether the policy directly related to the organization’s mission, which is to improve economic opportunity for farmers and to improve the quality of rural life.

“The delegates made it very clear on the floor that they didn’t want to delete it,” Stallman said. “Our delegates felt very strongly about having that in our policy book, and they put it back in.”

A reporter asked if that was wise.

“The delegates decide whether it’s wise or not,” Stallman replied.

Stallman, a Texas rice and cattle producer, characterized the policy work as “an affirmation of our current policies, with some tweaking.”

He said major issues haven’t gone away, but decisions in many cases lie with entities other than Farm Bureau.

The Waters of the U.S. proposed rule and water quality rules will remain “front and center,” and farmers and ranchers have made their objections clear to the EPA and Corps of Engineers. Farm Bureau supports Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), but a legislative solution by Congress is required, Stallman said. Immigration reform and concerns over who controls farm data are continuing issues, he said.

Stallman said Farm Bureau benefits from the public’s “inherent fondness” for farmers and ranchers. “We do a pretty good job of getting our way, if you will,” he said.

Momemets light, grim

Comedian Jay Leno, former longtime host of “The Tonight Show,” was Monday’s keynote speaker. He drew his share of laughs from the crowd, but some of his material appeared to misfire. At least two of his jokes were ones he told in an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” show last year. At the convention, an extended bit on obesity and American eating habits fell flat.

“Listening to Jay Leno crack junk food jokes in front of an audience of commodity farmers is kinda awkward,” one attendee said on Twitter.

Another featured speaker, former Navy SEAL trainer Rorke Denver, tried to relate to the audience in starker terms. Denver said he’d spent time connecting the dots between “farmers and warriors” and had come to a conclusion.

“When people are hungry they go to war, they start killing each other,” he said. “If you do your job, I don’t have to do my job.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s appearances at the convention weren’t so grim. At one point, Stallman called Vilsack on stage, said he was “loyal to the outfit,” and presented him with a “U.S. AG” branding iron. “I know one thing as a fact,” Stallman said. “Secretary Vilsack rides for the brand of U.S. agriculture.”

The men enjoy a good working relationship, and Vilsack appeared genuinely touched by the gesture.

“This means a lot to me, because of the people in this room, and the people you represent who are out on the farms, ranches and orchards today, doing the hard work of preparing the food that we so casually enjoy,” he said. “You are the best at what you do.”

At a news conference Monday, Vilsack said he wants to attract new people to farming and increase the diversity of operators. He said one-third of the nation’s farmland is owned by people who aren’t principal operators. With owners aging and selling, “there’s a potential for more and more land ownership to get into the hands of people who are not working the land.”

He said tax incentives might allow for land transitions to beginning farmers.

On other issues, Vilsack said hopes for to collaborate with Congress to repair the “broken” immigration system, “bring people out of the shadows” and stabilize the agricultural workforce.

Approval of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement is important to farmers and ranchers, Vilsack said.

“If we don’t get the TPP, you ought to be concerned abut China’s effort to develop an Asian trade agreement that will not be concerned about labor standards or environmental impacts, and that will be solely about buying and selling,” Vilsack said.


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