“It’s hard to inventory fish when they’re underwater.”
This statement is true. They’re underwater and, ostensibly, swimming around.
The first speaker of 20 at the Farmers Roundtable featuring Rep. Al Lawson, Jr., of Florida and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, both Democrats, was advocating for aquaculture to qualify for crop insurance.
As an aquaculture advocate, she was in the minority: Half of the constituents wanted changes for the peanut industry.
Why I Went to a Farmers Roundtable
Since January 2017, I have had a support role in preparing a weekly newsletter related to crop insurance.* In the 56 issues since the publication began, Rep. Peterson has been mentioned six times (10%) and I am sure he has been referenced in many more linked articles. He is the ranking member on the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture.
I have read and summarized articles about similar roundtables held in other places, at different points in the legislative process (the 2014 Farm Bill is set to expire September 30, so the process has had lots of activity throughout the year, especially when President Trump’s proposed budget was released). When I learned one was happening in my own back yard, with Rep. Peterson being the guest of my Congressman, Rep. Al Lawson Jr., I decided it would be interesting to see the kind of full meeting that leads the type of overview provided in a news article.
Plus, having grown up the granddaughter of a farmer who still plowed his field with a mule, I am a sucker for an agricultural story. It’s in my blood.
What North Florida (and South Georgia) Farmers Spoke About
Ten of the 20 speakers expressed concerns about peanut-related issues (many of them also farm cotton). I knew from conversations with a legislative staffer friend that peanut issues are big in Florida, but this experience brought that home.
There is no way I know enough to try to explain the peanut farmers’ issues. I believe they stem from changes made to the 2014 Farm Bill that kept North Florida farmers from being able to establish “base acres,” with the consequence being inability to participate in federal crop programs. This June 2014 article details the potential effects, which seemed to dovetail with much of what I heard at the roundtable.
And I believe the Florida Peanut Federation’s legislative principles echo what I heard at the roundtable. Examples:
“Make it [base] for everyone or take it away” – Murray Tillis
“Help young growers with base updates.” – Virginia Sanchez
Note: If you don’t think detailed discussions of peanut-growth financing matter to you, have you slathered peanut butter on your toast recently?
Extension and Education Issues
Four speakers discussed issues relevant to agricultural education and extension. Tallahassee is home to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, which has offered agricultural programs since 1891.
Extension, as explained by the USDA, “provides non-formal education and learning activities to people throughout the country — to farmers and other residents of rural communities.”
These speakers’ issues concerned making sure agricultural policies sufficiently recognize African-American and other underrepresented farmers. the possibility that the FSA (Farm Service Agency) and NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) will merge, and SNAP Education Funding.
Note: Extension and Agricultural Education matter to all of us. Extension provides free or low-cost programs on nutrition, gardening, budgeting, conservation, and animal life, to name a few (thanks to Washington State University Extension for inspiring my list). As far as agricultural education, I’ll let these students from Lake Gibson Middle School explain in “Aliens Visit an Agriculture Program”:
I thought the majority of the roundtable’s time would be taken with produce-related issues, but only one speaker represented produce. His concerns included new trucking regulations requiring Electronic Logging Devices (many in the agriculture industry believe there should be exemptions, contending the regulations make it more expensive to transport their products (or, in the speaker’s words at the roundtable “are killing us”)).
The speaker also said ICE (immigration regulations) are affecting his ability to import workers and discussed food safety concerns.
The most profound thing the man said?
“I think in 10 years there won’t be any produce grown in the US.”
This was the issue concerning the day’s first speaker. I laughed because I had just been reading an article about the aquaculture industry’s efforts to secure crop insurance coverage for aquaculture earlier in the week.
Aquaculture matters because more than 50% of the world’s seafood is produced by aquaculture.
A speaker address Rep. Lawson, requesting that the Working Forest Caucus be preserved. Rep. Peterson, is co-chair of the caucus, chimed in explaining he is a tree farmer himself.
Forestry matters to all of us for a variety of reasons. One interesting facet of this part of the roundtable was the reminder that it is a balancing act to protect the environment while also reaping the economic benefits of forestry. I don’t have the expertise or room to explain this, but if you are interested in an example of the tension between environmentalists and industry, read about the red-cockaded woodpecker, a bird referenced during the discussion.
A speaker encouraged support for the Organic Certification Cost Share Program. Rep. Peterson told her “we’re 100% behind you” and “we should probably do more.” He also told an entertaining story about Organic Valley milk. Apparently its shelf life is long enough for someone who can’t remember which of his three homes he left his milk in to usually end up with fresh milk.
I did mention trucking when I discussed the produce farmer above, but another speaker focused solely on trucking. A nursery owner, he was succinct and to the point as the previous speaker had covered most of his points.
One of my goals of attending the farmers roundtable was to put the topic of crop insurance in a broader context and understand what it means to people who work in the field (pun intended) regularly. In the United States, crop insurance covers approximately 90% of the insurable acres and 130 crops, according to National Crop Insurance Services. The federal government pays approximately 62% of the cost of premiums, according to NCIS. The roundtable did that for me, culminating with Rep. Peterson’s statement:
We need to get everyone in agriculture under crop insurance to avoid disaster programs.
As with any government enterprise, acronyms ruled the day! I still look certain acronyms up every week to make sure I get them right. Here are the ones I captured (in order of their mention):
PLC: Price Loss Coverage
STAX: Stacked Income Protection Program (this link is older (2014) and provides an overview. The speaker was not a fan, to put it mildly.)
USDA: United States Department of Agriculture (kind of obvious, I suppose)
FSA: Farm Service Agency
Behind the Scenes
Rep. Lawson’s District Director, Deborah Fairhurst, facilitated the event. Roundtables and other constituent gatherings like this don’t just spring up overnight; they take copious planning. As I wrote previously, my experience with advocacy has shown me time and again how dedicated most legislative staffers are and how well most of them encourage constituents to share their diverse viewpoints, regardless of their boss’ ideology. Staffers are the glue holding everything together, in my opinion.
I had to make a time management choice yesterday between attending the March for Our Lives and going to the roundtable. It was not an easy choice to make. Fortunately, the march was covered thoroughly and there will be other opportunities to make my voice heard on the issues that event raised.
I haven’t formulated my thoughts on this completely, and given the strides the young people have made since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, maybe I don’t have the right or credibility to. BUT ……….. we can’t be single-issue voters. Sending emails, posting to social media, making scripted calls to legislators’ offices solely because I know it matters to have a “tick mark” on their tracking system that my issue generated another call … all of these things seem ant-like in their small impact compared to the gargantuan issues, the bureaucracy, the politics of it all.
But I continue to believe each constituent matters (as long as they vote). I continue to believe our small actions add up to large changes.
As a constituent, I hope to be in the room ten years from now when that farmer who said he doubted the US would still be growing produce in a decade stands up and takes his three minutes at a roundtable to celebrate domestic agricultural success.
*I am speaking only for myself in this post. I don’t represent the organization identified in the newsletter I reference or my freelance employer.