Driving from Portland to Pendleton on Wednesday, American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said he was amazed by the change in scenery and even more surprised by the productivity of agriculture among the sand and sagebrush of Eastern Oregon.
“I thought a desert was a desert, and it wouldn’t grow anything even if it had water,” said Duvall, a third-generation farmer from Georgia. “But I’ve seen some beautiful crops right out in the middle of nowhere.”
Duvall arrived Thursday morning at the Pendleton Convention Center to address the Oregon Farm Bureau annual meeting, where he discussed a host of national agricultural issues including farm labor, international trade and what he described as over-regulation by the federal government.
The trip also satisfied Duvall’s goal of visiting all 50 states in his first term as president of the American Farm Bureau, which advocates for policies on behalf of farmers nationwide.
“This is a beautiful state, and you should be proud of it,” Duvall told the Oregon delegates.
The number one issue facing American agriculture, Duvall said, is labor. When asked later about legislation that would replace H-2A visas with a new H-2C program — which passed the House Judiciary Committee in late October — Duvall said there are still some problems to work out with the proposal, but added that “we want a workable program that not only deals with seasonal workers but year-round workers to bring some stability to our workforce.”
Duvall went on to talk about “burdensome” environmental regulations, though he was pleased with the Trump administration’s decision to revoke the contentious Waters of the U.S. rule. Landowners worried that WOTUS would give the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers regulatory authority over virtually any waters, creating uncertainty for farmers and ranchers.
While the rule has been scrapped, Duvall said farmers need to keep up the pressure on lawmakers to ensure new regulations are clear and workable.
“We all know the other side that opposes us on our effort to rewrite the rule, they’re going to be ready to challenge the next rule that comes forward,” he said.
Unlike the previous administration, Duvall said current federal leadership is much more receptive to the Farm Bureau’s concerns and interests. He praised fellow Georgian Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s secretary of agriculture, as someone who relies on sound science and data to make decisions.
“I’ve got high expectations for him doing the right thing,” Duvall said.
Along with Perdue, Duvall said he has seen plenty of promise from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Together, Duvall said the three men are committed to putting federal land, timber and grazing back to work for rural America.
Duvall specifically mentioned Zinke’s recent proposal to shrink a number of national monuments, including the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Southern Oregon.
“The bottom line is we want to go back to using common sense,” Duvall said. “As they create those monuments, it becomes a huge burden on our farmers and ranchers who have been there for generations, using those federal lands to graze.”
On the trade front, Duvall said renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, has made for some concerns, though he remains confident the right people are in place to minimize the risk to agriculture.
“(President Trump) swings a big stick,” Duvall said. “He’s a businessman. We probably really know his techniques. We’re just scared of who’s going to call his bluff.”
Finally, Duvall said the Farm Bureau will be shifting its focus next year to the 2018 Farm Bill in Congress. The top priority will be to maintain federal subsidies for crop insurance.
The Farm Bill is not a safety net, Duvall insisted, but rather a food security act. “Hungry countries and hungry armies are not very strong,” he went on to explain.
Barry Bushue, Oregon Farm Bureau president, said the group was pleased to have Duvall on hand to talk about national agricultural interests. Closer to home, Bushue said they anticipate a fight heading into the 2018 Legislature against the proposed cap-and-invest energy policy, which he said could dramatically increase fuel and energy costs for Oregon farmers.
“When you’re hauling product and you’re running equipment, those costs add up,” Bushue said.
The annual Oregon Farm Bureau meeting is a chance for delegates from each county farm bureau to get together and set their policies for the coming year. The meeting began Tuesday and wrapped up Thursday evening with a reception and banquet.
Duvall said local engagement is critical moving forward, as state and county voices eventually echo their way back to Washington, D.C.
“We have people willing to listen now,” he said.