SAN ANTONIO — The way Bob Stallman sees it, the issues facing the American Farm Bureau Federation are like items on the chore list his dad used to assign. The expectation is that they will get done. Period.
The Farm Bureau is taking the same line on its three big chores: Passage of a new Farm Bill, reliable water transportation and immigration reform that provides a steady agricultural labor force.
Stallman, a Texas rice and cattle producer who’s been federation president for 14 years, opened the organization’s 95th annual convention Sunday with a clear call for Congress to take action on all three.
The 6,000 Farm Bureau members attending the convention from across the country are a good example of working together for the common good, Stallman said. Despite geographic differences, farming methods and crops, they’re able to convene once a year and adopt common policies that guide the organization.
“We know how to bridge differences, but that’s not what we see today in our nation of color-coded states, or in the least productive Congress in history,” he said.
Stallman said he’s optimistic Congress will pass a Farm Bill in January, but the argument has exposed serious problems.
“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,” Stallman said.
The public doesn’t realize the risks farmers take on, or that the costs of feed, seed, fertilizer and equipment “add up to nearly as much as what a crop will bring in,” he said. In farming, “downturns follow boom times as surely as night follows day,” Stallman said, and farmers need the certainty of a five-year Farm Bill.
He said Congress also is close to passing a Water Resources Development Bill to upgrade locks and dams, crucial to moving commodities.
The third chore, as he labeled it, has remained undone for 30 years, Stallman said. Congress has known that labor shortages are harming farmers; in California, 80 percent of raisin and berry growers and 71 percent of tree fruit growers can’t find enough labor. Crops rot as a result, he said.
“When you have that many farmers unable to get the workers they need, you have a crisis in farm country,” Stallman 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.”
He said the Senate passed a version of an immigration and ag labor that contains principles backed by the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, of which he’s a member, but the House has not yet taken action.
“We need to tell Congress to get this job done now,” Stallman said emphasizing the last five words.
On other issues, Stallman said farmers and ranchers are concerned about privacy. As farmers use precision farming techniques to produce fertilizer, chemical and planting data, they worry who will have access to the information, he said. Will the companies sell it, he asked, or use it to set prices?
Stallman said the federal Environmental Protection Agency betrayed farmers in 2013 by releasing personal information to environmental groups in response to a court filing. He said the EPA now is trying to extend its regulatory reach under the Clean Water Act by forcing producers to obtain federal permits for activity on “nearly every water body in the country.”
Then there’s the heated issue of genetically modified crops. Stallman said the he expects more ballot measures to force labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients or to ban GMO crop cultivation. The Farm Bureau believes biotechnology will be necessary to feed a growing world population.
In a news conference after his speech, Stallman rejected a suggestion that the Farm Bureau might be on the wrong side of the GMO argument and that labeling would allow consumers to choose.
“What we oppose are mandatory labeling schemes that aren’t related to nutrition,” he said.
Groups opposed to genetic engineering don’t want a solution, Stallman said.
Asked again about the Farm Bill, and whether dairy “supply management” should be included, Stallman deferred.
“Whatever will come out, find favor and get the Farm Bill passed is something we’ll support,” he said.