ORLANDO, Fla. (DTN) -- After 16 years of leading the American Farm Bureau Federation, Bob Stallman highlighted reasons for farmers to celebrate at his farewell address Sunday, but the outgoing national president also stressed the need for Farm Bureau to continue its diligence against "reams of government regulation."
Farm Bureau delegates will vote Tuesday on a new president for the organization. Stallman sought to set the stage for the next AFBF president by stressing free-market principles and the importance of farmer engagement to resist bureaucratic intrusion.
"Generations of farmers and ranchers have survived bad markets and bad weather, but bad government should not be the straw that breaks us," Stallman told the roughly 5,000 or so people attending the convention.
Stallman pointed to the EPA-Army Corps of Engineers rule on waters of the U.S., saying the rule last year highlighted "one of the worst examples of over-regulation." He also criticized EPA for "aggressive campaign-style tactics to mislead the public" on the implication of the WOTUS rule.
"When rainwater runs across a farm field is all it takes to allow federal agencies to tell you that you cannot use your land, that is government regulation run amok," Stallman said.
Stallman later told reporters he expects Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups to continue pushing for relief from Congress on the waters of the U.S. rule rather than wait for the rule to move through the federal court system.
Highlighting the current contentious political environment, Stallman said he believed Farm Bureau reflects the country's founding principles of individual liberty, limited government and free markets. At the same time, Stallman also seemed to jab at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump whose slogan is "Make America Great Again." Stallman said, "One of the current presidential candidates says he will, 'Make America Great Again!' Well, I think America is still great. But to keep it great we should never lose sight of those founding principles."
As an organization, Stallman said Farm Bureau should revisit those founding principles. He then questioned the role of the government safety net. "When we ask for the aid of government, we should not be surprised when we find ourselves bound by the chains of government!" Stallman said.
Talking to reporters following his speech, Stallman said that comment was built around Farm Bureau's beliefs. "All that was was a note to our delegates as an organization to go back and think about this," Stallman said. He added, "It's not a new question for this organization. It's one we have considered many times. But I think all of us need to understand that when we ask and receive from the government, it does bind us. And for those of us who don't like to be bound by the government, you can't have it both ways."
Such comments come on the heels of cotton producers, bankers and members of Congress asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to change a rule in commodity programs to allow cotton farmers to collect Price Loss Coverage payments for their cottonseed yield. Farm Bureau signed onto a letter asking Vilsack to make such a declaration. Vilsack has simply said such a decision is coming soon.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions still and we are waiting to see if the secretary does have the authority to do this or if we need an alternate plan," Stallman said.
The cotton challenges reflect the overall doldrums of the agricultural economy at the moment. Stallman said the current farm bill tried to put in place risk-management tools to help producers deal with low-price situations. Stallman said he believes the current markets aren't unusual as the best cure for high prices is high prices and thus the best cure for low prices is also low prices.
"We have risk-management tools in place to help producers make it through tougher times," he said. "There is no short-term solution for that. That is a matter that will require an adjustment in production or in market demand. Those adjustments will happen. That's the way agricultural economics work."
Regarding other unfinished business in Washington, Stallman told reporters that immigration reform remains a major concern for farmers. He lamented the politics revolving around the issue and noted that agriculture increasingly needs Congress to act and reform the guest-worker program. Congress is unlikely to make any moves on immigration given that the topic and border security are a cornerstone for Republican presidential candidates.
"Realistically, the politics of that make it difficult to see any action on that in 2016, and that's unfortunate because the clock is ticking on what happens with a lot of operations that don't have the labor to basically plant and harvest their crops," Stallman said.
Stallman said he was also "hoping, perhaps too optimistically" that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be completed in 2015, but that did not happen. He said he believed TPP needs to be "teed up" early in 2016.
"So that is one of the areas of focus we will have as an organization is to try to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership passed because that agreement is extremely important to agriculture. I think what's talked about enough is if we do not ratify that agreement. What happens is we get left behind in a lot of these other countries where other partners in that agreement have gone ahead and ratified it and put it in force."
On biotechnology, Stallman defended genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in his speech, saying that naysayers who pretend to speak for average consumers, but only spoke at Whole Foods, "will eventually have to come around." Stallman told reporters Farm Bureau doesn't object to announcements by companies such as Campbell's Soup to label products for GMOs, but Farm Bureau opposes any kind of labeling mandate from the state or federal level.
"We do not want mandatory labeling," he said.
Stallman also was asked about the standoff in Oregon. He said what happened to the Oregon ranchers in the court case, Dwight and Steve Hammond, was not "justice or fairness" by prosecuting the ranchers under a terrorism law. "And the sentences they received, in our minds, was excessive," Stallman said. "But all of that was accomplished under the rule of law. What the other guys are doing now with their stuff of occupying federal buildings and all of that, that's outside the rule of law and that's not acceptable."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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