Washington Insider-- Thursday

Farm Bureau to Boost Grassroots Efforts

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Vilsack Upbeat About TTIP and Ag Issues

Progress in Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP/US-Europe) trade deal negotiations will continue despite ongoing disagreement over ag-related issues including geographical indications (GIs), regulatory cooperation and market access, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said, following a meeting with his German counterpart.

Vilsack said he hoped that progress in TTIP negotiations will continue. “I do think it’s important for us to make serious and significant progress over the next six to nine months,” he said, following a question about a deadline for TTIP negotiations.

Besides GIs, Vilsack noted that regulatory systems, biotechnology and beef imports from the U.S. are all issues being debated by U.S. and EU negotiators. He said that the U.S. is prepared for the “difficult and complex” discussions needed to resolve those issues.

The end of President Barack Obama’s term represents a “good opportunity” to come closer to a conclusion of TTIP talks, Vilsack said, noting that he believes the outstanding issues can be resolved to a point that “there is not as much to do in the future.”


Congress Considering Cuba Trade Bills

Cuban trade issues are the subject of several bills being proposed in Congress which seek to expand upon the recent reopening of relations with the island nation, but they face an uphill battle to passage in an election year.

Some of the proposed legislation:

· The Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2015 would allow for payment or financing for sales of agricultural commodities to Cuba by people under U.S. jurisdiction. The bill would allow U.S. banks to extend credit to Cuban entities to buy U.S. agricultural commodities. Currently, transactions must be handled on a cash basis, limiting the ability of U.S. exporters to sell U.S. ag products in Cuba.

· The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act would also repeal restrictions on export financing and allow ag producers access to USDA marketing programs in the Cuban market. Also, the legislation would allow limited U.S. investments in Cuban agribusiness, provided those businesses are not state-owned.

· The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act would take away presidential authority to enforce the embargo on Cuba.

· The Cuba Normalization Accountability Act of 2015 would express the sense of Congress that the U.S. should not relax restrictions on travel to or trade with Cuba until the president submits a plan for resolving confiscated property claims in Cuba, as well as securing human rights in the country.

Other bills seek to prohibit U.S. citizens from transferring money to or making financial transactions with the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba or any entity which is more than 25% controlled by those groups.


Washington Insider: Farm Bureau to Boost Grassroots Efforts

In an interesting, ag-related report this week, Bloomberg said that in response to declines in ag income, the largest U.S. farmer organization now is planning a more aggressive approach to “cultivating grassroots efforts.” The group has a new president who expects struggles with weak markets that will test the safety nets in the new 2014 farm bill and he plans to spend time organizing his members to support these protections, Bloomberg said.

Zippy Duvall replaced longtime American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman this year and that the tough economic outlook means that it is now time for some of the “more than 200 speeches” he’s planning to give on behalf of agricultural interests in the near future.

Duvall suggests a tone change for the organization, as well. He said his key message will be that the Farm Bureau is going to need to become more aggressive to defend programs that will be more important to farmers as other income sources shrivel, Bloomberg reported.

“We’re going to know really soon whether the farmer has enough safety net to help through hard times,” Duvall, a poultry, hay and cattle producer from Georgia, told Arkansas Farm Bureau members in Little Rock on Tuesday last week.

Some key goals include getting cottonseed added to farm-bill programs (popular in Arkansas, a cotton state), Bloomberg reported, as well as getting the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress (less popular in Arkansas, thanks to rice provisions that are less than what they want) to boost exports are top priorities for the year.

The report also notes that Duvall said it is not too early to begin discussing the next farm bill, which would be due in 2019 and that, “If we don’t, we’ll be playing catch up” against other groups, some of which would like subsidy cuts.”

Citing the National Rifle Association and AARP as examples of organizations where grassroots members make their influence felt in Washington, he called for Farm Bureau members to become more vocal with members of Congress to hold lawmakers accountable.

“When we say that we need you to speak on issues, [we ask] that you take two minutes on your phone to respond to our request.” he said.

Bloomberg suggested, somewhat strangely, that would be a different approach for Farm Bureau, “which in some regions functions more like a Rotary Club that sells insurance than an activist group ready to rumble with GMO opponents and animal-welfare advocates -- and, a shift, Bloomberg notes approvingly, that “matches the times, with both farm income and the government’s appetite for aid shrinking.”

Well, Duvall is likely being advised to be active and visible as he takes the reins of his widely different state membership interests. Certainly, producer returns and incomes will be important. In addition, he also may want to spend at least some of his efforts buffing up the image of the U.S. agriculture industry his group represents, which critics say is too industrial, too dependent on government, not protective enough of U.S. land, water or air -- or, conscious enough of consumer health in the United States and overseas. Certainly, the AFBF has traditionally faced no lack of controversial issues and Duvall likely can expect an even broader future array of concerns as he settles in to his new job, Washington Insider believes.

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