KFB County Presidents Trip gives members a voice
By Kylene Scott
Boots and cowboy hats are an unusual sight on Capitol Hill. But for members of the Kansas Farm Bureau County Presidents Trip, it was business as usual regardless of what they were wearing.
The county presidents attended numerous sessions with embassies, the Senate and House Ag Committees, an irrigation meeting, a federal budget overview, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and met with many of the Kansas representatives and senators. American Farm Bureau Federation briefed the group on specifics and helped them with their talking points. Later, members met with their own district representatives and discussed their most important issues with them.
AFBF President Bob Stallman said that the county presidents’ visitations are crucial to work going on in the nation’s capitol.
“This process is important. Members coming in from different states is the single most effective thing that we have going for us at the American Farm Bureau,” Stallman said. “It is what makes us and I appreciate it. So glad to see people that there are really good people.”
Transportation and water
Andrew Walmsley from AFBF gave a brief update on transportation issues going on, and the transportation bill was one of the few pieces of legislation that did pass in the last Congress. Walmsley said the bill included several exemptions related to farm vehicles. Those changes went into effect Oct. 1, 2012, and the final rule came out in early March 2013. However, work is not complete on the legislation and the department of transportation is trying to change things up.
“Hopefully we can work that out, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Kansas Farm Bureau and grassroots members like yourself,” Walmsley said.
Another hot topic right now is the water resources development act.
“The importance of our inland waterway systems along with our ports are huge for that,” Walmsley said. “Over 60 percent of our grain for exports travel those waterways and they’re extremely efficient.”
The amount of traffic on inland water ways—often carrying grain—is astonishing, he said, but important.
“It’s a very effective, efficient, cost-effective, environmentally friendly, fuel savings—all those good things that come along with it,” Walmsley said. “Needless to say if we lost inland waterways transportation systems, we want to have the trucks or rail cars to meet the demand that would be there.”
AFBF is concerned about two issues when it comes to waterways, Walmsley said.
“One of them has been the waterways and the inland waterways trust fund. The other is our ports, being able to stay competitive and the harbor maintenance trust fund,” Walmsley said. “These two trust funds help fund these two projects to keep our locks and dams up-to-date, functioning, those types of things.”
Terry Holdren, KFB general counsel, reiterated what Walmsley said, and noted that with the waterway projects, they are extremely expensive—a lot of work and not a lot of money.
“Those projects are incredibly expensive as you can imagine and the level of funding we have been able to acquire is just pretty minimal to spread that out over the breadth of work that needs to be done,” Holdren said.
Don Parrish, also with AFBF, said Walmsley alluded to the water projects having a lot of activity and very little money.
“What we’re seeing at least in the area of agriculture and water quality, whether it be defining the geographic footprint of EPA’s regulatory region or whether were talking about things like nutrients in livestock regulations, we are seeing things on the march,” Parrish said. “With regard to waters in the U.S., what is interesting is if you think back to last year we had an opportunity to comment on a guidance document. That guidance document effectively did what Congress couldn’t do which is write the term navigable out of the clean water act.”
Discussion turned to the scope of the EPA and what they could actually control when it came to agriculture.
“EPA has a really hard time relating to agriculture. They come at the clean water act from the perspective that we have a hard time with,” Parrish said.
The EPA is pushing really hard to get states to adopt numeric nutrient standards, and so far EPA has allowed states to have narrative standards. Narrative standards allow professional judgment to come into play in determining quality of water.
“But what EPA is doing with nutrient standards is they get back to this restore issue and they’re saying, OK, we want our waters to be the best of the best,” Parrish said. “So the top 25 percent of our most pristine waters is where we set our standards. Which means 75 percent of the most pristine waters become impaired.”
What Parrish is seeing around the country is a lot of activity to mandate it or try to leverage agriculture into doing things for nutrient standards. Some states are developing nutrient strategies. Mississippi, for example, has been convinced by EPA to adopt some of the strictest numeric nutrient criteria, so strict that there isn’t even technology that allows them to achieve it.
“Because once those standards are in place, that is a restriction on everybody. It is going to be a restriction on agriculture. It’s going to be a restriction on new and expanded permits, whether you’re treating the waste from the subdivision or you’re bringing in new jobs and got a new business,” Parrish said. “That’s what we’re dealing with, and EPA is going to be leveraging and picking off states one by one. It’s important for you guys to be involved.”
Labor and immigration
In 2012, when KFB took their tour, child labor was a big issue at the time, and Paul Schlegel said Kansans should be thankful they had the help they did then, especially from Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS.
“Sen. Moran, he was our leader in the Senate, and frankly I don’t know that we could come out as well as we did without (him),” Schlegel said. “It’s always important in this business and we’re always up asking vote this way, vote that way; don’t do this, don’t do that. It’s important to say thank you, and you’ve got a real good friend up there, a great delegation here and the House. But if you could, say thank you to Sen. Moran.”
Immigration is also an important issue, and Schlegel said getting a legal labor force in agriculture is a top priority.
“There’s two issues when we’re thinking about labor for agriculture. Number one is we need to have a program nationally that gives us a legal supply of labor. There is currently nothing,” Schlegel said.
There’s no program that works for all of agriculture in every sector, in every region in an economical efficient way. Negotiations faltered last year with the labor unions, because they wanted a new minimum wage for agriculture that was a lot higher than the current minimum wage.
The other aspect of and the one that gets all the attention is what to do with the 11 million people that are here who are not supposed to be here working illegally.
“Frankly we have quite a lot in agriculture. We hire in agriculture about a million people annually. Of that one million people, at least half are not authorized to work in the U.S.,” Schlegel said. “(If they are sent back) we are going to lose huge amounts of production, be enormously dislocated in our sector, and we cannot do that.”
Schlegel said the question that needs to be resolved and resolved in a way that’s healthy for the sector, that’s respectful of the individuals who work on farms.
Mary Kay Thatcher updated the KFB attendees on the progress of the farm bill. She suspects there will be movement on it soon, with the Senate moving first, but she thinks Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, is a “bit crazy” for going first because of all the hard work she did last year to get it through the committee and for the House to never bring it up.
“I would have said you guys do it, and if you get it done go through the work again, but she’s willing to stand up and take the lead again and move forward,” Thatcher said. “I suspect that they’re going to be out for the next couple of weeks and when they come back about the sixth or seventh of April I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d see some movement in the senate ag committee in the next week or two after that.”
Eventually it will move to the Senate floor and Thatcher thinks the House Ag Committee won’t be too far behind.
“Probably they’ll lag a bit and see how things go on the Senate side,” Thatcher said. “So, I don’t have any firm answer for you.”
She does think it will be November or December before any action is taken. Some direct payments will be lost. The Senate bill this year will look a lot different that last year, and she suspects the House version will be similar. She does think this farm bill will move away from typical commodity programs (e.g., direct payments, marketing loans) and move more on crop insurance.
“We are really having a hard time especially from our urban and suburban members who believe every farmer out there is rich,” Thatcher said. “They do not seem to be able to distinguish between somebody who grew corn and soybeans last year and therefore made some pretty decent money and somebody who is a pork or dairy producer and had to feed that $17 soybeans and isn’t making as much money. They just look at it and say farmers are rich, and so then they look at it and say we really don’t need a safety.”
Crop insurance will face some changes, and it could be an easy target in the next farm bill, simply because after the food and nutrition programs, crop insurance has a lot of money.
“Congress does things the easy way. They will look at where all the money is and take it from there,” Thatcher said. “The other reason they’re going to look at that is if you follow the environmental working group at all you are seeing that in the last year or so, they don’t even talk about direct payments any more. Because they know they already won and are on their way out.”
Later, Sens. Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Moran spoke to the group at a reception. Roberts garnered a round of applause when discussing a broken government.
“Everybody talks about red and blue states. We’re into identity politics in regards to helping a certain segment of our society according to race or creed or color or gender, whatever,” Roberts said. “I just think it’s time we might ought to stop and think and say what’s right for America, and all America.”
Moran agreed. And said one thing that motivated him to initially get involved in politics and public policy was his belief in Kansans.
“We’ve got to be very careful or we’re going to lose it,” Moran said.
And those people who are charged with feeding America, Roberts said—the farmers and ranchers—have an important task.
“I hope you’re at least aware of the fact that we started off during the previous session in Congress trying to educate people the value of agriculture is awfully hard to do,” Roberts said. “Talk about the fact that the world’s population is going to go up tremendously in the next several decades, and how on earth are we going to feed this country and then a troubled and hungry world to boot. That’s going to be a very tough thing.”
Roberts asked Stabenow about the progress of the farm bill, and said she’s in a tough position because of staffing issues and the looming Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. She hopes to start marking the bill up by the end of April. One part of the farm bill—the food and nutrition aspects of it still troubles Roberts.
“We really have to take a look at that program. I introduced a bill, by the way, that I think that is comprehensive and I think it brings more integrity to the program it aims to the people who really do need the benefits,” Roberts said. “To save $36 billion and my worry is that we’re going to get to a situation where this program may implode and you don’t want that to happen from those that are truly needing the program and receiving appropriate benefits.”
Those who need it are often overshadowed by abuse and fraud, but there are a lot of different things in the farm bill that needs to be closely examined.
At the time of the KFB visit, the sequester had just gone through, and Roberts’ staff was indicating that due to the sequester, the department has determined that they are going to cut the direct payments by about 8 percent.
“Hey, folks, I didn’t think we’d get any direct payments,” Roberts said. “So if we have to live with a sequester with an 8 percent cut, even though I could point out to Tom Vilsack that there are areas he might want to cut and if we can keep the meat inspectors on the job, and the poultry inspectors on the job and a few other things, and we still get the direct payments that’s the best disaster program I can think of in lieu of the fact that I know we really needed to continue to strengthen and improve the crop insurance program.”
Moran said whether or not there is a successful farm bill there is a much bigger picture.
“It’s about whether or not our kids can return from K-State back home to the family farm and whether or not my time in Congress I have done anything of value there is a greater chance of our kids and grand kids have a chance to raise their families in places we all call home,” Moran said.
The rural lifestyle remains important to Moran. Whether it is the grocery store in a rural town to the farmers and ranchers, he said to remember one thing.
“We have a way that we live our lives that we do not want to lose,” Moran said. It is worth fighting to save rural America.”
Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at email@example.com.