AFBF President Zippy Duvall says farm labor, trade on farmers' minds
NEWTON - While visiting Wisconsin last week, American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall had the opportunity to tour farms, cheese factories, meat processing plants and feed mills, listening to both the success stories and concerns of those driving the agricultural engine in the Badger state.
Since he was elected to the top post in the largest farm organization, Duvall has vowed to visit each state to get an up close read on the pulse of the ag industry. During his travels, the soft-spoken Georgia farmer has heard common threads of concerns among workers and business owners.
"The top concern out there is farm labor followed by over-regulation, trade, tax reform and health care and the pressures that creates for farmers and ranchers and their families who are self-employed," Duvall told the media during a stop on his three-day visit at Soaring Eagle Dairy on Oct. 13.
The 1,100 cow Manitowoc County dairy is one of three dairies toured by Duvall during his three-day stay and is owned by Jim and Sandie Fitzgerald, their children and their respective families.
Duvall has been following U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte's attempts to craft a farm labor bill that would replace the H-2A visa program with a program that would help farmers who need year-round employees. However, Goodlatte pulled his guest worker bill when he realized he didn't have enough support to move it out of committee.
"I think one of the sticking points with that legislation is that there's a cap on the number of workers allowed in here. If you're a squash grower and you have 10 acres of squash on the ground and you hit the cap and you can't find any workers, that's a disaster. And that's happening all over our country right now," Duvall said. "Can we get a worker program that allows them to stay years instead of months, I think we can. If we can get people to sit down and settle this like a business issue."
Duvall says that NAFTA has been a very good agreement for American agriculture. While he admits there are some "weak spots" in the treaty, he opts for modernizing the agreement rather than renegotiating it.
"We went from $8 billion worth of trade per year during the life of the deal to $38 billion per year," Duvall said. "We need to keep hammering home to the Trump administration that NAFTA is good for agriculture. Sure, fix some of the holes but do no harm to the treaty."
Duvall voiced his frustration that America appears to be falling behind in forging trade agreements with other countries around the world while the current administration is wresting with its neighbors - Canada and Mexico - over NAFTA.
"We need to get back in the business of creating new trade treaties and tearing down barriers on the world markets," Duvall said. "Our farmers and ranchers have got to have the opportunity for good trade treaties with good rules behind them and be able to go into parts of the world like Asia which is growing so fast in the middle class areas that are going to be demanding protein and better food and clothing. Why should we deny our farmers, ranchers and manufacturers the opportunity to sell to that huge group of people?"
Duvall says the U.S. needs to take the lead on trade treaties once again.
"If we're not the leaders then we're going to have to adapt to rules that were set forth by other countries' agreements out there," he said. "We don't need to be following, we need to be leading."
Duvall says he is optimistic that current U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is the right man for the job in helping to address the most pressing issues facing farmers.
"He's very concerned about the labor issue that he's hired an assistant that specializes in immigration and farm labor. In fact, he is the first Secretary to enact part of the 2014 farm bill that allowed him to create an undersecretary of trade," Duvall said. "He's realized those are the top priorities and I think the American farmer should be excited about having him there. I know he played a major role in (changing President Trump's mind) when he threatened to pull out of NAFTA."
Most consumers have no "earthly idea"of the infrastructure required to produce a gallon of milk or a brick of cheese, Duvall said - whether it be a feed mill or cheese plant.
"I dairy farmed for a living, I know what these people do seven days a week, 365 days a year, and the demands it puts on families and workers here to get that job done," Duvall said. "And they showcased that here today."
Duvall also served as the guest speaker at Manitowoc County Farm Bureau's annual meeting marking its 75th anniversary.