OMAHA (DTN) -- As Bob Stallman was beginning a weeklong ride into the sunset, ending his 16-year term as president of the American Farm Bureau, the four candidates seeking to take the helm at Farm Bureau were gearing up to make their final pitches to the group's membership.
Stallman was recognized Wednesday in Washington, D.C., at USDA headquarters with an appreciation day led by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The Farm Bureau annual meeting starts this weekend in Orlando, Florida, and will wrap up Tuesday with election of a new president.
Despite lower commodity prices plaguing the industry, Farm Bureau candidates say regulatory issues dominate their discussions with state boards of directors and members. Each candidate vowed to carry the water, so to speak, to prevent EPA's waters of the U.S. rule from ever going into effect.
"WOTUS is the most universal problem that they are scared about," said Don Villwock, who was president of the Indiana Farm Bureau until turning over the reins last month and is one of the candidates for the national presidency. "That issue, by far, has been top of mind. I think it's the largest land grab in the history of the United States."
Villwock is running along with Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau and current national vice president; Zippy Duvall, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau; and Kevin Rogers, president of Arizona Farm Bureau.
The South has a lot of sway in Farm Bureau grassroots. Including a handful of committee chairs, AFBF has 353 total voting delegates. Southern states account for 203 delegates while the Midwest has 92 delegates, the West has 32 delegates and the Northeast has 20 delegates.
"The South has the most delegates and how that plays out will probably determine who the winner is," said Lacy Upchurch, who just stepped down as president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau after 10 years.
Delegates are based on membership totals. Tennessee leads the country with 34 delegates at the national convention. Upchurch said he considers each of the candidates good friends, but he thinks the race could come to Duvall and Villwock because of the regional delegate concentration. "All of them have a real good grasp of the issues facing American agriculture and how to address those through education, public perception and those things," Upchurch said.
Besides serving as national vice-president since 2008, Barry Bushue runs a diverse horticulture operation with flowers, vegetables and pick-your-own berries just outside of Portland, Oregon. His operation is retail and Bushue deals a lot with the shopping public.
"We get folks as far away as Idaho and as close as our next-door neighbors, so we get a broad range of folks," Bushue said. "It's been a good business model for us. My wife and I transformed the farm years ago. It's also been a good opportunity as a Farm Bureau leader to interact with a public that really doesn't understand agriculture as well as we would like. It's been a great opportunity for us."
One of the issues Bushue wants to expand upon in Farm Bureau leadership is communication between farmers and consumers. Focus groups through the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance have shown the public likes farmers but distrusts agriculture.
"Clearly, there is a consuming public we need to have a better relationship with," Bushue said. He added, "There is a gap there, which is going to be important for Farm Bureau and the other agricultural coalitions to bridge."
Like others, Bushue sees a lot of regulatory challenges facing farmers. Beyond WOTUS, Bushue also cited problems with the Bureau of Land Management when it comes to grazing permits and the decline of cattle numbers in Western states. "Organizationally, we're going to have to be very strong, very adept and we're going to have to be very innovative," he said.
Zippy Duvall, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, said farmers talk about weather and price, but increasing regulatory pressure is at the forefront of policy discussions.
"The first thing they start talking about is WOTUS -- waters of the U.S., and the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species (Act) and taking away our private property rights," Duvall said. "Those pieces of legislation continue to erode our private property rights and that's probably the thing that's on the front of everybody's mind. That's uniform across the country."
Duvall is a beef and poultry producer, but grew up mostly in the dairy industry until he converted the dairy to a cattle herd about a decade ago. Duvall notes the diversity of agriculture in his state, ranging from fruits and vegetables to cotton, dairy and poultry.
Despite a regional delegate advantage, Duvall said he realizes he can't rely on regional loyalty to win. Delegates need to weigh who will be able to build coalitions in Washington and understand the diverse set of issues affecting different crops and livestock producers.
"The South does have more delegates, that is exactly right," Duvall said. "But farmers are independent people. If you can find a group of farmers who can stick together on everything, I would like to meet them. They will think independently and vote independently of regional areas."
Kevin Rogers, president of Arizona Farm Bureau, farms just outside of Phoenix. Kevin, his brothers and other members of the family grow alfalfa, cotton, corn silage and wheat. Besides his work with Farm Bureau, Rogers also served for 15 years on the National Cotton Council Board. He also has been involved in trade missions and served on several USDA air quality task forces.
DTN could not reach Rogers for an interview. Rogers said in a recent radio interview that farmers need to reach out around the country to consumers and companies to talk more about agricultural production.
"It seems like you can't wake up and read the paper or turn on the radio without listening to some grocery store or food chain telling us what they are going to do about the food that they sell. I think one of the big takeaways from me is we have to continue to reach out to the public and let them know what we are doing on our farms and why we are doing it," Rogers said.
Don Villwock raises white corn and some popcorn in southern Indiana. Part of his crop goes to a local tortilla processor and some goes for export to countries such as Japan. Villwock also is a former ag liaison under then-Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar and was a former state director of what is now the Farm Service Agency in Indiana.
Beyond regulatory battles, Villwock said he has heard from Farm Bureau members that they want to see the organization go on the offensive against people critical of agricultural practices. Villwock said farmers have been taught to hold back in response to attacks on agriculture. He said he thinks farmers and organizations now must respond more swiftly to attacks from groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S. Nothing should go unchallenged.
"Farmers, ranchers and livestock producers are just tired of getting beat up in the press by people that question the integrity of the food supply, whether it's HSUS or Chipotle," he said. "We are just getting fed up and tired of being back on our heels. I think we just really need to take the offense."
The AFBF board has voted to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the new Farm Bureau president also is going to need to cajole members of Congress to support the pact. Villwock questions whether TPP would get a vote in a U.S. presidential election year.
"Trade, especially at the American Farm Bureau, is critical and if we're going to grow American agriculture, we're going to have to expand trade and be a player," Villwock said. "Trade is a two-way street and trade is never perfect. There are winners and losers, but it is a reality. You will probably be seeing more focus on getting TPP passed."
AFBF candidate Facebook pages:
Barry Bushue: http://dld.bz/…
Zippy Duvall: http://dld.bz/…
Kevin Rogers: http://dld.bz/…
Don Villwock: http://dld.bz/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
© Copyright 2016 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.