Farm leaders prepare for new administration

Jan 30, 2009
by WLJ
Farm leaders prepare for new administration

With the new Obama administration, a new Congress taking over, and the world economy slipping, California agricultural leaders say they will press leaders in Washington to focus on issues that will not only help ensure a plentiful food supply, but also offer an improved financial picture for farming and the nation.

The list of agricultural issues that need immediate federal attention is daunting—everything from climate change to immigration reform to food safety. There’s little disagreement among farm groups about which issues need attention, though some may differ about what should be at the top of the list. “There’s no question that with any administration, leadership comes from the top,” said California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) President Doug Mosebar.

“President Obama will create the broad outline for issues to be addressed and set the tone and timing for when those issues will be considered. But as we’ve learned in all previous administrations, the decisions and directions put together by Cabinet secretaries are crucial for agriculture.”

Mosebar said choices for the new president’s Cabinet seem to be people with centrist positions, including Agriculture Secretary-designate Tom Vilsack. While a new administration will bring change, he said it doesn’t appear that will translate into upheaval.

“We expect subtle changes for agriculture,” Mosebar said. “There’s going to be a lot more emphasis on nutrition programs, conservation and small farms. Over a period of time, we’ll probably see attempts at modest reform in farm programs.”

Agricultural policy experts say there also may be greater focus on rural development, sustainability and organic production.

During the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) annual meeting in San Antonio, TX, AFBF President Bob Stallman called on Washington officials to address the current economic recession and climate change concerns, as well as adopt effective policies on taxes and the environment.

AFBF delegates indicated that Congress and the new administration also should complete an unfinished immigration bill left over from 2008. It is widely believed that AgJOBS legislation will be reintroduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, in coming weeks, but Craig Regelbrugge, government relations vice president for the American Nursery & Landscape Association, said that while the political environment for immigration reform has improved, major challenges remain.

“Immigration-reform activists see Democratic gains in the new Congress as a mandate for comprehensive reform. They want an end to the enforcement raids and a broad legalization for the estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants now in this country, roughly 7.5 million of whom are believed to be employed,” said Regelbrugge, who co-chairs the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, a group CFBF has worked with closely.

“While complete reform of a broken immigration system is a widely shared goal, more than a few lawmakers wonder whether government institutions have the capacity to tackle such an enormous challenge all at once, and to do it well,” he said. Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif urged the Obama administration to make comprehensive immigration reform a top issue during the 111th Congress.

“Without access to a legal, stable workforce, the future of the domestic specialtycrop industry is in jeopardy,” Nassif said. “Our industry has acknowledged that up to 70 percent of our laborers may be falsely documented.” Nassif said there are other issues facing farmworkers, for example the possible passage of the Employee Free Choice Act which would eliminate the right of agricultural workers to vote in private and by secret ballot. As the Obama administration takes over the reins of government, California ranchers face a lot of uncertainty, said California Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Matt Byrne.

“We understand that the first priority is the economy and, like other industries, spending on agricultural programs could be on the chopping block,” Byrne said. “But, we’ll strive to ensure that budget cuts impact cattlemen and agriculture programs as little as possible.” He said climate change will be a top priority for the new administration, but worries that unfair reports and misunderstandings about emission sources, particularly methane from cows, will be a challenge to correct.

“We were pleased to see a westerner chosen as President Obama’s nominee for secretary of the Interior,” Byrne said. “The needs of ranchers are unique, and having someone from the West may help with understanding public lands grazing issues that western U.S. producers face.” He said California cattlemen are preparing to communicate their positions to Congress and the new administration—including the need for alternatives to cornbased ethanol, minimizing government intervention in cattle markets, and the need for stakeholders to ensure that the real story of animal husbandry is told. Fresno County Farm Bureau President Dan Errotabere said he hopes the new administration “will play an active role in helping California come up with solutions to maintaining a reliable, high-quality water supply. What we don’t need is a continuing quagmire.

We have studied state water problems to death and don’t have any more time to dawdle. We need leadership on these issues so we can move forward.”

Errotabere stressed that farmers need “a sustainable water supply and we need decisions that affect not only the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, but also resolve issues related to water supplies on the east side, which have been long delayed.”

The issues facing the nation and agriculture have never been more complex, Mosebar said. “We’re looking for an administration willing to find incentive-based solutions to keep land in farming and farmers working on their land to produce a healthy food supply for everyone.

Our society depends on it and we need to work together to the benefit of all,” Mosebar said. “We hope the new administration and Congress will join us in those efforts.” — WLJ