KFB Candid Conversations: American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall

Posted on Mar 6, 2017

KFB Candid Conversations presents a discussion about the topical issues facing the agricultural industry in a question and answer format with a member of the agricultural community. In this column, the issue of national farm policy is discussed with American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall who is in his second year as the AFBF leader. Duvall lives in Greene County, Georgia where he owns a poultry, cattle and hay production operation.

In traveling the country, what are some of the concerns you are hearing from producers at their local levels?

As I’ve traveled the country, the two biggest issues I hear, depending on what kind of farm I’m on, is either regulatory reform or ag labor. It is really important to them that we focus this year on trying to find some solutions in those two areas. That doesn’t mean other issues aren’t just as important, but those are the ones that are in the front of their minds right now; ones that affect them day-in and day-out. Trade, tax reform, and the Farm Bill are all just as important but when you’re standing there on their farm they wonder who’s going to help them pick their crop that afternoon or what regulation they are going to have to take time out of their day to try and straighten that out.   

 

With a new administration in Washington, do you have reason to be optimistic about some kind of regulatory reform?

Sure. Regarding regulatory reform, this president speaks our language and says for every new regulation that is released under his watch, they will have to do away with two old ones and that’s exactly what we like to hear. He talks about doing studies on how it affects the economy when we put those regulations into effect. Are we getting a value out of that regulation or just spending more money. He talks about transparency and people having a say into what goes into these regulations. The one that is in the front of our minds is the EPA’s Waters of the U.S. It’s held up in the court system right now so we’re hoping to get something done with that. But we need this President to ask for it to be reconsidered before July. Hopefully he will do that and if he does, we have the opportunity to go back to the drawing board or maybe even do away with it. The movement is heading in the right direction for us to get some relief there.  

 

What would you say to the President about the status of international agricultural trade?

It hasn’t been but just a few months ago that the people I represent, the farmers and ranchers of America, and the people that live in the Rust Belt, paved the road to the Whitehouse for Mr. Trump and he needs to hear the desires and needs from those areas. I see that he has met with the labor unions that represent a lot of the workforce in the Rust Belt and I would like to have the opportunity to sit down with him and some of the commodity leaders and talk about the other group and remind him that it’s crucial we face issues like immigration, like farm labor and like trade. Trade is going to be a big one. We support him. We helped him get there. He withdrew us from TPP and I want to tell him that cost us $4.4 billion across America. We don’t hold that against him but we want to know how he’s going to replace that promise we had in that treaty or how he can make it better because he said he would make trade better for everyone. Trade means 20 to 25 percent of income to our farmers and we can’t survive as an industry without it.
 

What needs to be done as far as farm labor is concerned?

The President has made some promises and so far he has proven he’s going to deliver on those promises. Our issues are what the H2A program or a farm labor program looks like in his mind. We know he understands that because in his businesses, before he became President, he used H2B workers so I’m sure he has been educated on what a lot of the issues are.  We want a workable system and what to talk to him about that. We support an adjustment of status, not amnesty, for people (immigrants) who have been here for years and years and have children here who are legal citizens. We want to make sure those people get treated humanely. You know we all may have broken a law and they did by coming here illegally and they should pay a fine or some circumstance should come from that but they are good people contributing to communities and they are embedded in communities and a big part of the economy. We hope the President will listen to that and find some kind of solution. 
 

How important are those seasoned migrant workers to agriculture?

Getting the same workers to come back on your farm every year is really crucial. The difficulties we are seeing right now is, many of the undocumented workers we have on our farms are leaving because they are scared and there really needs to be a solution to that. As they leave, that has put a huge demand on this very unworkable system we know as H2A. It’s very expensive, very cumbersome and the need or desire to use that program because of the lack of undocumented workers or lack of American workers who won’t do the job has almost quadrupled in the last five years. The man power in the foreign consulates and the man power in the federal government is just not there to handle that load. Right now, that is a tremendous problem for us and we either have to fix immigration with immigration reform, create a workable farm labor system or we’ve got to staff our federal government so they can handle the program we have. And this becomes more crucial everyday because we are getting closer to planting season. 
 

What is your advice to new farmers just beginning their careers in the agriculture industry?

I would tell new farmers that if their desire is to be in agriculture, they have made one of the biggest decisions of their life and I can’t think of a better place for them to be. The best days of agriculture are ahead of us. My word of advice to them is to be patient. Help get through this difficult time we are in and start making plans for the future. Agriculture is like a rollercoaster ride; you just need to put the seatbelt on and hang on for the ride. You have to make sure you conserve in good and bad times and be ready for the highs and lows. For those who are out there right now and really struggling, I know what that’s like. I was farming in the 1980s and there’s never been a time like that for agriculture. You have to diversify, make sound business decisions, and be conservative to get through these tough times because there are brighter days ahead.  
 

We hear the word sustainability used often today. What is true sustainability as it relates to agriculture?

When we talk about sustainability in our country today, it has become a buzz word and it’s really a word that farmers and rancher know better than anyone because no one reuses, recycles or does more with less than farmers do. To be sustainable we have to have the GMO technology; we have to have broadband coverage across America; we have to have all the things that urban businesses have so we can be successful. For someone to say, in the name of sustainability, they won’t use GMO products, for instance,  is misleading the public because those GMO products  helps us be more sustainable with taking care of our natural resources and being more profitable on our farms. I’m asking our farmers to reclaim ownership of that word because it really belongs to us.