Agriculture grows differently in the West as Georgia poultry, cattle, and hay farmer Vincent Mearl “Zippy” Duvall is finding out.
Duvall, elected the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) in January, answers to about six million member families across the 50 states and Puerto Rico. In late June, he was on the road on a meet-and-greet tour of member states, including Utah, Arizona, and California.
He is actively learning about the different farming regions of the country by listening to the ‘grassroots,’ talking with producers and learning about the issues on their radar screens.
Western Farm Press caught up with him during his stop at the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation headquarters in Gilbert.
Agriculture’s top concern
“Immigration is an issue everywhere,” Duvall said when asked about his No. 1 concern facing agriculture today. “Immigration in the East is about a stable work force. In the West, it’s not only about a need for a constant labor force but also about border control.”
Duvall calls the nation’s current guest worker program “broken.”
“We need a simplified H-2A program that allows farmers and ranchers to bring reliable help here to harvest, as well as to utilize experienced undocumented workers who have been here for years and have become parts of family farms.”
He explains, “We should be able to pass laws that would give them an adjustment of status - notice I did not say ‘amnesty’ - but a status adjustment where they can stay and work. In America, we’re not supposed to suppress people and leave them in the shadows, but help them contribute to the community as taxpayers.”
What is the practical likelihood of immigration reform?
“We don’t have it,” Duvall says. “We’re admitting that we’re okay with how it is now, and hopefully whoever becomes the next leader of this country will realize this.”
If the U.S. brings immigration reform to reality and creates an easier to use H-2A program, he says the result will be more crops left in the field due to the lack of labor.
Duvall notes, “Crops can’t wait on paperwork. Some farmers are missing their window of opportunity to harvest.”
DOL log jam
The AFBF leader places much of the blame for the current log jam on the U.S. Department of Labor.
“Farmers are already missing deadlines to have crews in place due to a bureaucratic hold-up with guest worker visa applications,” Duvall says. “It’s time for the agency to shape up and bring the system into the 21st century before our agricultural labor situation worsens further.”
He adds, “Unfortunately, ignoring our unique labor needs seems to be business as usual for the Labor Department.”
Acknowledging that agriculture remains the economic engine of rural America, Duvall describes today’s farmers as optimists and survivors - hard workers with good hearts who believe farming is a way of life, not just a job.
Realistically, it’s a way of life that is morphing with the generations. Duvall is concerned about the aging farmer population. The average farmer today is in their late 50s with the average rancher’s age nearing 70 years.
“This is alarming,” he says. Also concerning is many young people don’t include agriculture on their list of potential vocations. Why not?, Duvall asked.
“There’s no human right more precious than the right to eat. Of all the industries in the world, agriculture will always be around since everyone must eat. It’s an honorable place for agriculture.”
When asked whether agriculture was the right decision for him 30 years ago when he started out milking 60 cows, Duvall said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
While the AFBF chief encourages younger people to become involved in agriculture, he also notes the bureaucratic mess facing the industry.
“We get up every morning and fight regulations handed down by the federal government. We wake up wondering about new battles we must face to protect our private property rights. I’ve seen the gradual loss of those rights through the clean air and water acts, and the Endangered Species Act.”
Other top issues, the farm leader says, include trade, commodity prices, immigration, and environmental concerns.
What’s ahead for agriculture?
Despite agriculture's challenges, Duvall remains bullish on the future of farming.
“The future of American agriculture is bright. We have to find the areas of policymaking that will encourage growth.”
He acknowledges that agriculture has a plate load of other issues and shared his concerns and optimism on the following issues.
Commodity prices – Duvall says, “While a crisis doesn’t currently exist, conditions are not favorable. Net farm income is estimated at $55 billion this year, down from $123 billion in 2013.”
Trade barriers - “We’ve spent years putting the (proposed) Trans Pacific Partnership together. If we don’t move forward and ratify it then another country will. It would add $4.4 billion dollars to farm income in a depressed economy and we desperately need that.”
Technological assistance – Duvall says, “Technologies are coming down the pike that will give us the opportunity to plow less, spray fewer chemicals, grow food with less water, and be more environmentally friendly. We need to let science lead us into the next generation.”
Looking at agriculture today, Duvall says, “We’re in a down economy now, but agriculture goes in cycles. We’ll come out of this one as a stronger industry, just like families do during hard times. There are challenges in front of us, but challenges generate opportunities to make things better.”
Duvall’s future role
As AFBF’s top leader, Duvall says it’s his job to seek out and build relationships with key policymakers, and to speak for farmers “when they can’t be at the table” when decisions are made which will impact their lives and businesses.
And as the American Farm Bureau Federation nears its 100 year anniversary in 2019, Duvall pledges to continue the vital role of previous American Farm Bureau presidents.
“My predecessor (Bob Stallman) was here 16 years and his predecessor (Dean Kleckner) served 14 years. I’ll serve as long as the American farmer and rancher want me to.”
“I look forward to helping change people’s lives for the better.”
It’s free – Western Farm Press Daily – agricultural news delivered to your Inbox.