Steve Martin MSU
Dr. Steve Martin, from left, associate director and Extension professor, Mississippi State University, visits with producers Jodie Huddleston and Hartwell Hudson, both at Leland, Miss., at the Summer Commodity Conference of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.

Zippy Duvall: Labor, infrastructure critical issues for agriculture

“Labor is the No. 1 issue in agriculture today," American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said during a visit to Mississippi. Also ranking high on the list of farmer concerns: infrastructure and loss of farmland to development.

Concerns about a dwindling supply of farm workers, a deteriorating network of roads, bridges, and waterways, and farmland being gobbled up by urban/commercial development are foremost on the minds of U.S. farmers, says Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Of those, he said during a panel discussion on “Maintaining Competitiveness in the Global Marketplace” at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s Summer Commodity Conference at Mississippi State University, “Labor is the No. 1 issue in agriculture today.

“As I travel America and talk to farmers and ranchers, they want to know ‘Who’s going to help me work my cattle, plant my crops, take care of the crops and harvest them?’ Yes, we have the H2-A program for agriculture, and H2-B program for forestry. But they are cumbersome, expensive, and have a whole array of regulatory restraints that make it almost impossible for farmers — especially smaller ones — to benefit from them.”

JOE RAEDLE/Getty ImagesLabor photo

"Farmers and ranchers want to know ‘Who’s going to help me work my cattle, plant my crops, take care of the crops and harvest them?’" says American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall.

Farm Bureau policy, Duvall says, is that “we support a flexible, reliable work force from out of the country, but these programs need less regulation, and need to be configured so small farmers and year-round farmers can use them. As it stands now, dairymen can’t even use H2-A.”

TRUMP SENSITIVE TO LABOR ISSUES

A couple of months previously, he said, “I was on a roundtable speaking to President Trump, and we voiced our concerns about these labor issues and the need for immigration reform. A poultry farmer told how ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had raided his farm during a poultry-catching operation. They were looking for just one violent criminal, but they took everyone who was working that night.

“President Trump responded that sort of thing isn’t his intent, that he doesn’t want to hinder farmers, ranchers, and small businesses. He turned to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and asked, ‘Don’t you think we can find some way to solve this problem?’ Mr. Trump is sensitive to the problem, and he needs our support, and Congress needs our support in resolving it.

“These workers, who in many cases have been on our farms and in our communities for 10, 12, 15 years, paying taxes and obeying our laws, need to have some type of adjustment of status so they can continue to work on our farms and provide for their families. These people aren’t relying on the federal government for assistance — they’re out there working to support their families and have a better life.”

It’s important, Duvall says, “for us to push forward with this critical need for a change in policy. You need to make sure you communicate this to your elected representatives, to Secretary Perdue, and to the administration. Right now, I know that the secretary and other administration officials want to know how the enforcement section of immigration policy is affecting agriculture, and we need to provide that input. We need to be continually engaged with the people developing policy, and make sure they do it in a way that’s beneficial to us.”

JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

The nation's infrastructure is of critical importance to American agriculture, says American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall.

Upgrading the nation’s transportation infrastructure is a pressing need for agriculture, Duvall says. “I think the opportunity for us to do this is higher now than it has been because we have a president who is focused on it. In Iowa yesterday, he talked about infrastructure, technology, and other issues of importance to agriculture. His goal of rebuilding America includes rebuilding our infrastructure.

“We’ve just got to keep the pressure on those who can make it happen, to make them understand how important it is to our nation for our bridges, roads, locks and dams, and research and development to continue at a high level so we can continue as the world leader in agricultural production and dependability.”

 ENCROACHING URBAN DEVELOPMENT

Farmers are “painfully aware,” Duvall says of the encroachment of urban and commercial development on agricultural land, and the challenge of “maintaining our freedom to operate our farms in this environment.”

The $4 that Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation members pay as dues to the American Farm Bureau Federation “is the biggest bargain in American politics,” he says. “That contribution allows you to have almost 20 full-time, professional lobbyists on Capitol Hill, working every day on issues of importance to agriculture.

“The anti-agriculture extremists are at every town hall meeting, they’re writing letters, making phone calls, making sure they’re heard. We almost lost atrazine, which helps us protect our corn crop, because all the public was seeing and hearing was, ‘this herbicide is causing male frogs turn into female frogs.’ The policy makers hear this kind of thing constantly, and we have to make sure we counteract it with sound science.

“Your Mississippi Farm Bureau and state agriculture officials made a major push, contacting everybody they knew to urge them to support keeping atrazine. That’s what we’ve got to do for all our issues: write letters, make phone calls, send e-mails. Our staff and lobbyists can do the heavy lifting on a day-to-day basis, but you have to also be engaged, you have to be there, too, working to defend agriculture and our way of life. All of us, whatever farm organizations we belong to, need to come together and speak with a united voice, stay actively engaged, and support the organizations that give us a collective, strong voice.

“ If there’s a town hall meeting, I can assure you that the environmentalists, the animal rights activists, the ultra-conservatives and ultra-liberals are going to be in the room, and we need to be right there with them to make sure we protect the policies that will allow America’s farmers and ranchers and rural communities to move forward into the future.

“If you’re not there, the policy makers won’t hear your voice, won’t know your needs. We have to be there with them, and support workable immigration policy, the rebuilding of America’s infrastructure, and other policies that are so important to agriculture and world trade.”

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