Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress to pass a farm bill as he spoke to farmers at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention.
"Every single American's got stake in getting the farm bill down. Not just because we like to eat, but 180 million Americans depend on what happens in rural America for water resources. Sixteen million Americans are employed because of agriculture and food industries. As we try to rebuild our manufacturing base in this country and get back in the business of making and creating and producing things, instead of buying them from another country, 14 percent of manufacturing jobs are connected and dependent on agriculture and food. So it's a big part of the economy," Vilsack said.
He said the farm bill would also restore programs for disaster assistance, trade promotion, conservation and crop insurance.
Once passed and signed into law by the president, Vilsack said he would make sure it was implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman welcomed attendees to the convention and also made a call for Congress to work to pass the bill.
"Unfortunately, we have reached that point – 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," Stallman said.
Read his full speech below:
Farm Bureau members, distinguished supporters, honored guests….WELCOME to the American Farm Bureau Federation's 95th Annual Convention.
And welcome to San Antonio!
It is an honor to welcome you to my home state.
You have heard the slogans: Texas. It's like a whole other country.
Some people, including a few Texans, might like it if Texas WERE another country. That being said—you won't find a more patriotic people anywhere. Everything's BIGGER in Texas.
That includes hair and belt buckles. It also includes the Texas Farm Bureau, which crossed the 500,000-member milestone in 2013!
CONGRATULATIONS, TEXAS FARM BUREAU!
And last, but not least—Don't mess with Texas. This slogan actually started out as an anti-littering campaign. But it perfectly summed up our fierce independence and pride, and became an unofficial state motto.
All of these statements reflect a culture and attitude of rugged individualism. It's the cowboy spirit of standing up for what is right.
It's the grit and determination to stand tall, put it all on the line, and fight for liberty…much as the Texas revolutionaries did at the Alamo in 1836.
Like a lot of us in this state, sometimes my "inner cowboy" takes over with a little TOO much "Texan" for my own good.
Lucky for me, I have a charming Steel Magnolia from Alabama by my side—my wife Stacey Bryan.
Stacey, thank you for smoothing my rough edges, being my sidekick in life, and riding the Farm Bureau trail with me.
Texans are steeped in our history and traditions. But we also have our eyes on the future.
So what better place for Farm Bureau members from all across our country to get together under the theme of this convention … Our Heritage, Our Future.
Our nation has a rich agricultural heritage. Many farms are passed down from generation to generation. We celebrate Century Farms that have been in the same family for more than one hundred years.
Farm Bureau also has a strong and rich heritage. For 95 years, this incredible organization has brought farmers and ranchers together to accomplish collectively what they could never do alone….achieving national solutions to the problems that threaten their farms and their livelihoods.
Whether the problem is a boll weevil outbreak or a drought… Whether the solution comes from the government… OR involves keeping the government the HECK OUT of it!… Farm Bureau has always stepped up to get the job done.
It's gratifying to reflect on our heritage. But if you spend too much time looking in the rear-view mirror, you might miss your turn. So we focus on the opportunities and challenges of the present… and we keep our eyes on the road ahead.
With all the opportunities and challenges we face today, I have never been more excited about the FUTURE of Farm Bureau.
A big reason for my optimism is Farm Bureau's organizational growth. In 2013, AFBF acquired a new business—IDEAg—a group of agricultural events and publications that furthers our mission of enhancing the lives of rural Americans and building strong, prosperous agricultural communities.
AFBF now owns several farm shows including Minnesota Farmfest, Dakotafest, the Northern Illinois Farm Show … and one right here in Texas, the Amarillo Farm and Ranch Show.
I'm sure that some of you have gone to these events, and I hope you are proud that they are now part of the Farm Bureau family.
The new business also includes Feed and Grain magazine, the top publication for the nation's milling and grain handling industry, and Farm Forum, a popular custom publication from our friends at Case IH.
Obviously these events and publications are going to give us new ways to broaden Farm Bureau's reach and deepen our connections with farmers and ranchers across the agricultural spectrum.
Our IDEAg tagline is "For Agriculture, By Agriculture." And that pretty much sums up why this is such a great partnership. We are excited about the new ways in which the IDEAg business will allow us to pursue our mission.
Also, at this meeting, we are concluding the Centennial Development Project that we started two years ago to consciously and strategically consider how to embark on our next 100 years, beginning in 2019.
State Farm Bureau presidents took a thorough look at Farm Bureau and made their best recommendations for the future.
Many of you participated in CDP sessions to answer questions such as, "If you were starting Farm Bureau today, what would it look like?"
I don't think there ARE many organizations that would go through such a broad and comprehensive review.
The outcomes of this effort include a number of recommendations adopted by the board to improve our programs, operations, and governance. Several proposed by-law amendments concerning our governance will be considered by the voting delegates on Tuesday. But to me, the MOST significant outcome of the CDP is the POSITIVE atmosphere created when leaders sit down together to THOUGHTFULLY deliberate and openly discuss our MISSION, our PRIORITIES, and our PATH forward.
If we keep our commitment to learn from the past, look forward, and never let go of the wheel, I know that Farm Bureau will have a bright FUTURE.
Another of TODAY's challenges concerns the FUTURE FACE of farming. We're all aware of the age demographic in agriculture and the challenges that we encounter when retirement decisions arrive and the next generation chooses to leave the farm.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks often about the need for more NEW and BEGINNING farmers and ranchers.
Through our rural development initiatives, Farm Bureau has stepped up to this challenge. That includes our partnership with USDA on the Start to Farm conferences and websites…and—most recently—our support of the Farmer Veteran Coalition to help create opportunities on farms for those returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nebraska's Dustin Ladenburger, a Young Farmer & Rancher alum and third generation cattle and crop producer, is involved in a big way. Dustin is helping Kevin Comer … an eight-year veteran of the Army Reserves … and his wife Jessica, fulfill their dream of becoming farmers.
Kevin is learning the ropes by working for Dustin and his family… and Kevin says there are many skills that transition well from military service to farming—things like working with machinery, and having the self-motivation to step up and do whatever needs to be done.
If you want to help a veteran become a farmer,
I encourage you to learn more by talking with your state Farm Bureau, or going to the Farmer Veteran Coalition website. Think about how you can help soldiers exiting the military put their skills and dedication to NEW use feeding America and STRENGTHENING our rural communities.
I am extremely proud of Dustin and his family, Kevin and Jessica as well as Farm Bureau's role in this effort! This is about helping our HEROES build new lives on agriculture's solid foundation! This represents the BEST of agriculture and the BEST of America!
We could use more HEROIC efforts today in Washington, D.C.
Extreme partisanship and rhetoric have created a GOTCHA atmosphere…where political courage is in short supply. In contrast…you—the nation's farmers and ranchers—Farm Bureau members—represent unity. This very gathering is about people from different regions and backgrounds coming together to develop policy that benefits all of American agriculture.
We are here in San Antonio to have a good time and learn more about agriculture. But the main reason for our annual gathering is to make national Farm Bureau policy for the coming year that allows us to move forward with a unified voice.
If you are a voting delegate for this year's annual meeting, I'd like you to stand and be recognized.
Thank you for your commitment to help guide this organization!
Farm Bureau can and should be an example for the rest of the country. 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.
Now, I know that some of you might think an unproductive Congress is not altogether a bad thing. I would agree … up to a point.
Unfortunately, we have reached that point—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.
So…what are the needs? Well…three big ones come to mind:
The farm bill … Reliable water transportation … AND agricultural labor reform.
These are all crucial issues on which Congress has started the job, but still has to finish it.
I don't know what you do on your farms when an employee doesn't get the job done … but I think I can make a pretty good guess.
Members of Congress, and even the president and his appointees, get a paycheck from Uncle Sam. But they don't work for the government.
They don't work for their political parties.
They work for YOU. YOU ARE the boss…you promote some…you fire a few…but you MUST hold ALL of them accountable.
The philosopher Thomas Carlyle once said that government is the exact symbol of its people—with BOTH their "wisdom and unwisdom."
Well, I have GREAT confidence in the wisdom of America's farmers and ranchers, who make compromises and tough choices every day to DO what is best for their own farms…what is best for the land they hope to pass down to their children and grandchildren … and what is best for American agriculture.
Your wisdom and your voice are NEEDED, and I have confidence in all of YOU. I have confidence in your ability to spur your senators and representatives to act and thank them when they DO…. and to REPLACE them if they don't!
The noted author and playwright, George Bernard Shaw, said that:
"DEMOCRACY IS A DEVICE THAT ENSURES THAT WE SHALL BE GOVERNED NO BETTER THAN WE DESERVE."
I think you get the meaning…if we don't like it, WE have to change it!
Now let me focus on the chore list. Like most everyone here, I grew up with a list of chores from my dad that he expected me to get done.
Let's talk about the 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 understand how the costs of production—feed, seed, fertilizer, equipment and other inputs—add up to nearly as much as what a crop will bring in.
They don't realize how much risk farmers take on, whether from the markets or Mother Nature, or how farmers face competitive pressures from countries that have far more generous subsidy programs than we have in the U.S.
And they don't seem to realize that in the farm economy, downturns follow boom times as surely as night follows day!
It is vital that Congress finish the current farm bill as soon as possible this month. America's farmers and ranchers need the certainty that comes from five-year farm law. They need solutions and tools to manage the risks that threaten their livelihoods and the nation's food supply.
The second chore….Congress is, finally, on the verge of passing a Water Resources Development bill to make long-overdue upgrades to our waterways transportation system.
The majority of our locks and dams that make rivers navigable were built in the 1930s—back when a gallon of gas cost 10 cents and America was climbing its way out of the Great Depression.
Just as your grandfather's tractor probably would not meet your farming needs today, the locks and dams built almost 80 years ago are not adequate for the amount of farm products that we need to ship today.
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.
For our third chore….farmers and ranchers also need effective, long-term solutions to agricultural labor shortages.
From a Colorado potato grower to a Pennsylvania fruit farmer, and from a South Carolina peach farmer to a Tennessee tobacco grower, farmers all across our country are telling us that they are facing a crisis.
And then there is California…here is one telling statistic from the top fruit and vegetable producing state. A survey by the California Farm Bureau found that SEVENTY-ONE percent of tree fruit growers and nearly EIGHTY percent of raisin and berry growers were unable to find enough employees to prune trees and vines or pick crops.
When you have that many farmers unable to get the workers they need, you have a CRISIS in farm country. 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.
We have the situation where…even in the UNLIKELY event that farmers and ranchers CAN find Americans who are willing to take farm jobs…those workers often don't bother to SHOW BACK UP after a day or two on the farm.
We have the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program that artificially raises wages above the market rate, and often does not bring workers to the farm until after the need for them has passed—after the crops have already started to rot.
AND, we have Farm Bureau members telling us they are losing millions of dollars in income from crops that they cannot harvest because of the SHORTAGE of farm workers. Some have called it quits, because it does not make sense to plant crops that won't get picked.
Congress knows about these problems. They HAVE KNOWN for over 30 years. Farmers and ranchers have been waiting….waiting for Congress to take action and work for solutions…. waiting for them to put the nation's needs above politics.
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.
Almost every one of you sitting here this morning plants a crop or raises an animal….and then has to sell that crop or animal to make a living. Even if you, personally, don't need a lot of ag labor, just imagine how it would feel to see your crop rot in the field….how it would feel to have a year's worth of work thrown away without any income…because you could not find any help….while Congress dithers and delays….Just Imagine!
We need to tell Congress to GET…THIS…JOB…DONE …NOW!!
Whether it's the farm bill, the Waterways bill or ag labor reform—Farm Bureau is further ahead on its issues than most any other group in Washington these days. In this time of congressional gridlock, few organizations have seen their key priorities passed by even one house of Congress, much less two. The progress we've made speaks to our grassroots strength, our strategic focus and our credibility as the nation's Voice of Agriculture.
So I am proud of our accomplishments on these issues thus far. And I know that we will be unrelenting in our efforts to finish the job.
For good or bad… not everything is up to Congress! We have a full slate of other issues on the legal and regulatory fronts.
Privacy is an issue that has grown in relevance and concern for many farmers and ranchers.
More and more, we willingly give up access to our personal information. We post photos of our vacations on Facebook. We…well some of us…tweet what we ate for breakfast. Some of us brag about what our grandkids have done lately!
We VOLUNTEER this information. We have a choice of what to share and with whom to share it.
As farmers and ranchers, we often choose to exchange our information for access to products and services. More farmers are using precision farming techniques to apply fertilizer and chemicals only where needed, or to more accurately control seed spacing and depth. These technologies have helped farmers to be more efficient and conserve resources.
However, 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 the technology.
We have questions!
Is the information secure?
Will companies use it to take advantage of market conditions to set prices?
Should farmers be compensated for their information? Do they understand the ramifications of turning their information over to outside parties?
And just who else might be able to access this information in the future?
Modern technologies clearly have great benefits for farmers, but these questions are ones that we need to explore. I am sure that our delegates will have some interesting debate about this subject in a couple of days!
Farm Bureau has even DEEPER concerns when the federal GOVERNMENT turns farmers' private information over to activist groups—groups that can use the information to target farmers and their families … because the activists don't like WHAT a farmer grows or HOW he or she grows it.
Last year, environmental groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request with EPA … seeking information on farms and ranches. The agency—illegally, we believe—handed over hundreds of farmers' and ranchers' 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.
EPA's action is a betrayal. When it comes to your privacy, Farm Bureau HAS YOUR BACK!
This year, we again faced serious challenges to farmers' ability to use modern technology to increase crop yields and food quality.
In Washington state, a ballot initiative to require unnecessary labeling of foods that contain ingredients produced through biotechnology was defeated by the thinnest of margins.
The California Prop 37 referendum in 2012 attempted to require the same labeling, but was also defeated.
However, the forces that supported these initiatives are already regrouping for 2016.
In other states, such as Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Vermont and Hawaii, ballot initiatives and legislative proposals have taken aim at the labeling issue … and some have even banned the use of biotechnology outright.
Instead of focusing on how to feed more and more people with existing land and water, and INSTEAD of allowing us to use food staples to address nutritional deficiencies in less-developed countries, some are intent on standing in the way.
All of this angst is over crop varieties that have undergone more reviews than many pharmaceuticals….for foods that are no different from their conventional counterparts….and for foods that we have been consuming in large quantities for decades with no health problems...NONE!
Apparently, we are so well-fed in this country that we don't HAVE to worry about food security. But maybe we SHOULD worry about the 9 BILLION people on this planet who WILL NEED to be fed by 2050!
This year, we expect to have a big fight against another attempt by EPA to expand its regulatory reach under the Clean Water Act.
The agency late last year put the wheels in motion to propose extending federal regulatory authority to nearly every water body in the country, whether it is navigable or not. Heck… under this rule, EPA would regulate SO-CALLED "waters" that AREN'T EVEN WET most of the time. We're talking dry ditches.
This rule would establish federal regulatory control over virtually all farm and ranch land. The result will be that many more farmers and ranchers will have to get costly federal permits to do ANYTHING on their land. Some of them won't be ABLE to get the permits they need, and others will have the EPA dictating the farming practices they're allowed to use.
Now I'm sure the folks at EPA are experts in a lot of things, but they are NOT experts on how to run your farms and ranches!
We have also been working through the COURTS to fight EPA's attempts to broaden its regulatory reach. We were disappointed by a loss in our case against the EPA's Chesapeake Bay pollution limit rules, which give federal bureaucrats the power to shut down farms, halt development, and cripple municipalities in the name of improving water quality.
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.
At this convention last year, I talked about West Virginia poultry producer Lois Alt. Lois has bravely stared down the government's heavy-handed attempt to bully her into applying for environmental permits she does not need, or else face steep fines. AFBF and West Virginia Farm Bureau joined her in suing EPA, and soon afterward the agency back-pedaled and withdrew its order against Lois.
But neither Lois nor Farm Bureau was willing to let EPA walk away from the fight, because EPA was still out there putting the same screws to other farmers. Lois' determination paid off last October, when a federal district court issued a strong ruling in her favor.
Let's take a look at Lois' story. (VIDEO)
Now that EPA has filed an appeal, Lois is still standing up for other farmers and ranchers like her, who are responsible and care about the environment, but who object to needless regulation, bureaucracy, and bullying.
Lois and her husband Tony are here with us this morning. Let's show them how much we appreciate what they are doing for other farmers and ranchers.
Whether it's a regulatory, legal or legislative issue, just think how much Farm Bureau could achieve if everyone were like Lois Alt—looking beyond our own individual interests, taking a long-term view, and taking a stand for America's farmers and ranchers.
Each of YOU in this room has that same power to be part of the Voice of Agriculture—the power to take action … write and call your members of Congress … and be an advocate for agriculture.
As long as all of our voices come together, Farm Bureau can and will maintain our heritage of working for solutions to the challenges we face well into the future.
We have so many reasons to be Farm Bureau Proud. I see many of them as I look out at this audience. The PEOPLE of Farm Bureau—you, the grassroots leaders and members—are our greatest strength.
Thanks for doing everything you do for agriculture, for Farm Bureau and for America.
I am honored to serve as your president and I thank each and every one of you for being a Farm Bureau member. You uphold a sentiment best embodied by three simple words – Farm…Bureau…Proud.
God Bless you.
God Bless Farm Bureau.
And… God Bless America.