On Sunday morning (Jan. 13), Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) president, took to the podium at the opening of the AFBF annual meeting carrying a long list of farm country issues — both tribulations and triumphs — to highlight.

2012 was not an easy ride for too many farmers who watched a vast swath of farmland burn up in drought, Congress dither over a new farm bill, and saw the unintended consequences of several states passing legislation aimed to deal with migrant labor problems. While pointing to better days ahead, Stallman addressed it all.

“Our issues are often complex and sometimes misunderstood by those outside Farm Bureau. For farmers and ranchers, they are not political issues. They are not ‘red’ or ‘blue’ issues. They are issues of survival! Farm Bureau must remain vigilant, always on guard, for policies or regulations that threaten us with real and substantial impacts on our ability to farm.”

Farm bill

While ruing the inability of Congress to, “take much concrete action during an election year” on a new farm bill, Stallman said, “after the election, it was time to stop campaigning and start governing.”

The extension of the 2008 farm bill “is not perfect but at least it gives us certainty for 2013. Now, we need the new Congress to show the leadership needed to pass long-term farm policy and enact the kind of reforms that the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee have approved.”

Congress’ intransigence must end, said Stallman. “We must let them know our nation can no longer afford political drama, manufactured crises and self-serving jackass stubbornness. We have grown tired of that ‘reality show.’

“Our economy has been taken to the precipice. And even after the ‘fiscal cliff’ debate earlier this month, we remain on a collision course with the true reality of our nation’s debt…

Big problems to solve

“We have some big problems to solve, and we can’t begin to solve them until we at least agree to talk with each other and agree that those problems even exist.”

Estate taxes

Stallman also pointed to a positive outcome for farming families with the permanent reform of estate taxes and capital gains taxes during the recent lame duck session. “Long before the rest of the country started talking about a fiscal cliff, farm and ranch families were looking at going over a tax cliff. They were facing an estate tax threshold of just $1 million and an estate tax rate of as much as 55 percent beginning Jan 1.”

While many might believe a $1 million cut-off is plenty generous, Stallman said Iowa State University found that in 2012 the average value of farmland in Iowa was estimated at nearly $8,300 per acre.

“With an estate tax threshold of $1 million, can you calculate how many acres of Iowa farmland it would take for the estate tax to kick in? It’s not 1,000 acres. Not even 500 acres. It’s only 120 acres.

“Think about the number of acres you farm and having to come up with as much as 55 percent of the value of your land above that threshold.

“The estate tax has been a threat to our heritage of families passing farms from one generation to the next. And even though it is permanently reduced, it has not gone away. It will still threaten some farms and ranches. But putting permanently lower rates and a higher exemption in place is a big victory — one that Farm Bureau members have worked hard to achieve.”

Drought

The punishing drought also warranted mention. “Lest anyone wonder why we need a farm bill, we should remember the drought of 2012. … Farmers and ranchers know better than anyone that we can’t control Mother Nature. All we can do is prepare ourselves as best we can. An important part of that preparation is having a farm safety net and good risk management programs.”

More than half of the country was in a severe drought last summer, said Stallman. “Crops withered, hay supplies disappeared, feed costs soared and wildfires blazed. Thankfully, our crop insurance program worked as intended and we live to fight another day.”

However, the effects linger. “Transportation on the Mississippi River and other inland waterways is threatened by severely low water levels. We have called for action to deepen the shipping channels so that barge traffic can get through. The Army Corps of Engineers listened and began that effort in December.”

Labor issues

Farm labor is also a chief concern for AFBF and Stallman played up a farm worker proposal being pushed by a coalition of agriculture groups.

“For too long, we have dealt with the shortcomings of a broken farm labor system. The results have been labor shortages, lost crops and bureaucratic nightmares. … This year, we will offer a reasonable, practical and common-sense farm labor option that works for growers and workers alike…

Proposal will be stable

“This new proposal will be stable, like (the H-2A visa program), but that is probably where the similarities end.”

Last November, Kristi Boswell, AFBFdirector of congressional relations, told Farm Press that the organization “has worked over the past year to find a solution that works for all of agriculture. (We’ve looked for) something that works for a small grower in California and a dairy farmer in upstate New York.

“As components of that, we must address the long-term and a transitionary, short-term period. Part of the long-term is a new agricultural worker program that mimics the domestic workforce allowing growers to offer contracts and hire at-will. It also is a more market-based and flexible program in regard to labor standards and distinguishing factors from the H-2A program.

 “It is not an H-2A reform but remedies the failings of H-2A. We feel it will be a better alternative to the H-2A program.”

In the short-term, said Boswell, “we recognize there is a large percentage of our workforce that is here falsely documented. We must have a transition period and a workforce that can pass an E-Verify test while implementing the agricultural worker program.”

The AFBF has proposed work authorization for “a limited population of key workers that have agricultural experience and will continue to work in agriculture to remain in status on what we call an ‘ag card.’”

Boswell envisions the card would be biometric and carried to prove work authorization. “This would not be an H-2A reform but a new program. It would remedy the failings of H-2A and provide more flexibility than the H-2A program provides.”

Another hot labor issue was stirred up in 2012 when the Department of Labor proposed new rules that would have prevented many youths from working in agriculture. The alarm in rural America was immediate.

“After proposing changes that would have prevented many young people from working in agriculture, the Labor Department withdrew its proposal and said it would work with us on educating farm families about the importance of farm safety,” said Stallman. However, “that doesn’t mean we can rest easy and assume that the parental exemptions in the child labor rules will always be protected.

“We need to make sure that our heritage of family farming is protected, with parents teaching their kids the ropes and instilling in them respect for the land, for animals, for agriculture and for the deep satisfaction that only comes from hard work. I think that’s something our country could use a little more of these days, don’t you?”

dbennett@farmpress.com