The fiscal cliff tax vote brought with it some good news. Along with those end-of-the-year packages Congress also extended the 2008 Farm Bill for another year. That does leave the need for a five-year farm bill unmet.
"Our mantra was farm bill now," says Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, after his annual speech to members in Nashville. "But we saw as the clock ticked that getting an extension was more likely [with fiscal cliff negotiations]." Stallman spoke with media after making his annual speech to the 6,000 Farm Bureau members attending the group's annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn.
The challenge for getting a farm bill passed is continued budget issues and concerns over a difficult fiscal situation. Stallman notes that agriculture is willing to "do its share" in the effort to cut spending, and has gone along with the idea of cutting direct payments. However, that cut should come with some kind of safety net as well.
He notes that the safety net can take a variety of forms including crop insurance. "That can be crop insurance or revenue insurance, something where the farmer has some skin in the game in the form of a premium payment," he notes. "There may be a subsidy for the premium, but it is different than a direct payment."
For now, however, Congress will focus on a range of debt-related issues including sequestration and the national debt. This will take focus from other issues including potential action on a farm bill.
Farm Bureau is part of the American Agricultural Workforce Coalition, which aims to bring some new direction to the festering problem of ag labor. Current issues with more than potentially 10 million undocumented workers in the country, issues with permits and other factors need to be dealt with.
First place for action would be the H-2A worker program, which doesn't meet the needs of dairy farmers, which could change, or be eliminated depending on how final law is written. "In essence, we're looking at a visa program that deals both with contract workers and the kind of worker handled under H-2A," Stallman says. "If a proper substitute for H-2A is developed, the original program could have a sunset."
The coalition is working with the idea that pressure is mounting on the issue. The Obama Administration is set to bring forward its ideas for immigration and labor. This group aims to be in the conversation and bring for the key issues needed by agriculture. Stories of crops rotting in the fields, dairy farm worker raids and other issues surrounding farm labor could be addressed with these programs.
During his talk earlier in the day, Stallman said "When you're keeping people fed, I would say you're pretty darn relevant." Yet he notes that reference wasn't a dig at Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack's comments in December about the "irrelevance" of rural America.
Stallman says that rural America has impact, but the strength it has is shrinking, which is a grander call for groups to get together with a strategy and a focused message to have an impact in Congress.
Going forward, the new Congress didn't see a lot of change. "We still have well-established friends and sell established opponents," Stallman observes. He notes that for the newest members of Congress there is an opportunity to help educate them about the key issues involved.
Going forward groups, including Farm Bureau, will have to fine-tune their message. The theme this year - Many Voices, One Vision - does a pretty good job encapsulating the key challenge ahead.