It was a simple request, and one that challenges any leader of a large, diverse organization. During his opening remarks for the 93rd American Farm Bureau Annual Convention on Sunday, President Bob Stallman asked his members to provide one thing: clear direction.
After a long day of deliberation of all of the policy proceedings, with amendments and input offered on a range of items, is that what he achieved?
"We had a good delegate session and we accomplished a lot of things in the time allotted," he notes. "As for the farm bill, we kept a forward-looking policy in place and a move to support direct payments was soundly rejected. We are well positioned to move forward with the 2012 farm bill."
A key issue on many peoples' minds this year was the question of how members would vote this year on a resolution to keep direct payments in the policy directives. They were left out of the official proceedings, and when offered as an amendment, the measure failed. As one delegate commented, "It's hard when you're getting $7 for your corn to get that direct payment. I want to look the naysayers in the eye when they tell me I'm getting a payment and tell them I'm not."
For supporters of the idea, a long-time Southern issue, the loss of direct payments would mean a structural change to farm businesses. This public statement by 369 voting delegates moving away from support of this program sends a signal to Congress and the Administration as deliberations of a 2012 Farm Bill begin.
However, there were some other issues that might cloud the issue. Delegates voted on a measure to support the current market loan program, but asked for a higher loan rate. In essence, the measure included in the Farm Policy section, would counter efforts to cut farm spending.
Who guides policy?
One failed amendment from egg producers, would have had Farm Bureau support the idea that producers would drive the policies that govern their industry. The controversy is from the United Egg Producers, whose proactive work with the Humane Society of the United States has drawn criticism with opponents saying it's just the camel's nose in the tent for future policy.
Delegates didn't support the egg producer amendment in the poultry policy, which may be a challenge when the board discusses a range of policy in its meeting Wednesday.
HSUS and the United Egg Producers are working together on federal legislation that would set standards for animal care for egg producers. "There was a move to get us to change our policy to either a position of support for the [HSUS/UEP] agreement or in a position of not opposing it," Stallman says.
He explained that delegates sent a clear message that they would not support the incremental agenda of HSUS aimed at changing animal production in this country.
Allies in the farm bill debate
Farm Bureau's move away from a policy supporting direct payments puts it in a new direction for the ag industry versus past policy approaches. When asked who might be allies with the organization in the 2012 Farm Bill debate, Stallman replied: "Anybody who wants good policy," he says. "We are going to try to recruit allies. There's not a lot of commitment to anything yet and I view the playing field as wide open."
He notes the policies the association will promote are fiscally responsible and make sense in terms of implementation and providing a systemic safety net. "I think we will find [partners]," he says.
Delegates also brought back support for a balanced budget amendment, which had been removed in the past. They passed a resolution for both parties to work together to resolve the "fiscal mess the country is in, and no department is off the hook," Stallman says.
And he adds that the group wants deficit reduction primarily by spending reductions as opposed to tax increases. "We did not say the overall reduction would not have tax increases, but we encouraged spending restraint."
The Farm Bureau board now starts the hard work of taking the resolutions forward as policy into the new year. As for the 2012 Farm Bill? If Congress doesn't pass a farm bill, would their be a reversion or an extension? "I've probably been asked that a dozen times, and it's hard to predict in an election year, unless both sides see it in their best interests to get a farm bill passed," Stallman says. "The alternative is an extension…and there are a host of issues. Ask me in three or four months, I'll have a better idea on that then."