ORLANDO, Fla. (DTN) -- Delegates at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention added language to the group's official policy book supporting efforts to designate cottonseed as an oilseed, which would make it eligible for farm safety-net programs.
Farm Bureau's 353-member voting farmer delegation is heavily laden with members from Southern states that grow cotton. Those Southerners fended off an attempt by delegates from Illinois and other Midwest states who expressed concerns about reopening the farm bill.
Delegates went through their policy book Tuesday morning into mid-afternoon before diving into a late-afternoon vote to elect a new president for the organization.
The issue of whether USDA should designate cottonseed as an oilseed has been a major topic at the Farm Bureau convention. A farmer asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a forum on Sunday whether he would make the safety-net change, but the secretary said government attorneys are still researching whether it is legal, how much it might cost and what the trade impacts would be.
"All of us are under the gun to get a message out to cotton growers that we want to help," Vilsack said Sunday. "I want you to know we want to help."
At the AFBF delegate session, Illinois state president Richard Guebert essentially pressed on some of the same questions raised with Vilsack.
"Does the secretary of agriculture have the discretion to include or make that determination without opening the farm bill?" Guebert asked on policy language. "Where would those dollars come from, and how would WTO (World Trade Organization) deal with the inclusion of cottonseed?"
Farmers from several cotton-growing states spoke in favor of the supporting producers. Tom Buchanan, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, quoted Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee during the last farm bill debate, in declaring the agriculture secretary does have authority to make the policy change. Buchanan also assured such a change would not take funding away from other crops. "It does not have any or little impact at all on other commodities," he said.
Farmers from Illinois and other Midwest states proposed striking the policy change and instead recommended that cottonseed receive the oilseed designation in the next farm bill, which would be in 2018 or later. Farmers also stated that the cottonseed designation could translate into a $500 million to $1 billion cost to taxpayers.
CRITICAL TIME IN COTTON BELT
Dan Smith, a Texas Farm Bureau delegate, countered, "Things are so critical in the cotton belt we can't wait until the next farm bill. This is something we need in place now."
Some Southern farmers also took offense to the suggestion that cottonseed is simply a "byproduct" of cotton lint production. They argued cottonseed is a vital product on its own and often ends up as livestock feed.
Jim Harper, first vice president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau, pointed out, "Cotton got virtually nothing in the farm bill, and if we are going to have a cotton industry in this country, we have got to get something for cottonseed."
Farm Bureau members also pointed out that the American Soybean Association has come out in favor of USDA allowing cottonseed to become a federal program crop.
Kevin Rogers, Arizona Farm Bureau president, acknowledged the cotton industry made a mistake in the last farm bill by trying to completely break away from commodity programs and rely exclusively on a supplemental insurance, the Stacked Income Protection Plan, or STAX. "Our guys need to admit we missed the mark. It did not work. Our guys did not sign up for it (STAX)," Rogers said.
Rogers added, "We have guys out there in rural America who aren't going to survive until the next farm bill. This is the only ray of hope for the industry until we can fix it next time around."
With that, the group's delegates voted to keep its language and continue pushing for USDA to support cotton growers with a new safety net.
RECOMMEND TO CHANGE FEDERAL LAW
Delegates voted in a recommendation to the board to seek a change in federal law that would prevent the government from using the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act to establish mandatory minimum penalties against farmers or ranchers for using accepted management practices. This resolution was brought by the Oregon and Utah delegations to change the law after Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond were sentenced to five years in federal prison after conflicts over rangeland burns that affected land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
While pouring over a 332-page policy book, Farm Bureau did make several changes and held a few protracted floor debates in the process. Delegates voted to recommend Congress prohibit EPA from enforcing any new rules or regulations that are being litigated until the legal proceedings are completed. The farmers also voted to recommend that federal agencies be prohibited from communicating support or opposition on proposed federal rules, bills or other government action.
"This is to address the social media campaign of EPA on waters of the U.S.," said Stefanie Smallhouse, first vice president of the Arizona Farm Bureau.
HIGHER FEES RECOMMENDED TO HELP ROADS
On infrastructure, the group recommended increased fees in the Highway Trust Fund to reflect increases in fuel economy and inflation with additional revenue going to the trust fund for the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.
Due to the Western port labor disputes last year, Farm Bureau delegates support giving governors authority to halt certain labor disputes in their states. Under the recommendation, governors could petition federal courts to stop work slowdowns, strikes or lockouts at ports in their states.
Regarding drones, or unmanned aerial systems, Farm Bureau supports FAA registration, as well as FAA developing flight limits, certification and standards for UAS use. At the same time, delegates also supported agricultural UASs going beyond visual line of sight as long as they are controlled by "sense and avoid" technology.
In crop insurance, Farm Bureau would like to see USDA's Risk Management Agency stop lowering a farmer's Actual Production History (APH) when farmers are unable to plant a crop and instead accept prevented-planting payments.
The group also added language opposing a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ban on neonicotinoid insecticides on public lands.
Farm Bureau now officially supports voluntary labeling of food products including ingredients from genetically modified crops, but opposes mandatory labeling of GMOs at the local, state or federal levels.
RENEWABLE FUELS SUPPORT
Delegates reaffirmed Farm Bureau's support for renewable fuels by opposing attempts to repeal or roll back implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard and support regulatory approval of higher ethanol blends in high-octane fuels to help auto manufacturers meet fuel-efficiency standards.
Farm Bureau also now formally opposes a push by the organic industry to create a checkoff program that is not specific to any crop or livestock.
On dairy policy, the group voted to recommend the board pursue study on the cost of the premium level for the Dairy Margin Protection Program to help shape future dairy policy and make premium adjustments in the next farm bill.
Delegates also voted to support a program that would export unadoptable wild mustangs and feral burros to developing or underdeveloped countries to use as draft animals or for other uses.
Farm Bureau delegates also rejected an attempt to strike language from the policy books defining a marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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