Jekyll Island – More than 1,500 Georgia farmers and agribusiness leaders from across the state met on Jekyll Island Dec. 8-10 for the 76th Annual Georgia Farm Bureau Convention. The three-day event included a tradeshow and commodity conferences where farmers heard updates on policy and production issues impacting Georgia’s major commodities. During the general session on Dec. 9, convention attendees had the pleasure of hearing U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Dist. 1), Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black and American Farm Bureau Federation policy experts. Gov. Nathan Deal addressed GFB members on Dec. 10.
Kingston, whose district includes Jekyll Island, welcomed GFB members to Georgia’s coast. He expressed cautious optimism that Congress will pass a farm bill.
“It’s possible a farm bill will be done. I’d handicap passage of the farm bill right now at 55 to 45 percent,” Kingston said. “As you know, the ag production part of the farm bill has not been the controversy but rather the nutrition program, which I don’t think we’ve spent enough time trying to reform.”
Kingston also addressed immigration reform, predicting that if Congress passes legislation it will happen before the end of the first quarter in 2014.
“I think we can have immigration reform with a guest worker program, and I think it will have an electronic verification component,” Kingston said. “I think we’ll have some sort of immigration legislation in the first quarter of next year if it’s going to happen.”
Kingston expressed concern that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have on-farm experience or employees who understand agriculture as it implements the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is requiring farmers to adopt new production practices in an effort to increase food safety.
“It looks like they are putting more emphasis on food grown and produced in the U.S. than imported food,” Kingston said.
Kingston praised Farm Bureau for its efforts to represent farmers saying, “Farm Bureau is a leader. It rises to the occasion, and it is one of those few organizations in Washington that everybody likes and trusts. It has a golden reputation.”
GFB President Duvall urges Congress to pass farm bill, recounts GFB’s legislative successes
While delivering his annual address to GFB members, GFB President Zippy Duvall addressed the pressing need farmers have for a new farm bill that establishes federal farm policy.
“The inability of Congress to pass a farm bill has been disappointing. The country needs a farm bill, and we call on Congress to pass a version that can be signed by the president,” Duvall said.
Duvall also recounted legislative efforts and successes the organization has made on behalf of Georgia farmers during the past year.
“When we look back at the issues we were facing a year ago, it is very clear we’re winning on many fronts,” Duvall said. “In spite of a tough economy, uncertainty in government, smaller numbers of farmers, and a host of other challenges, we were successful on some important issues.”
A year ago federal estate tax law was set to revert to an outdated $1 million exemption and the tax rate was set to increase to 55 percent, which would have threatened farm families and small business owners from being able to pass their farms from one generation to the next. Getting Congress to pass a permanent estate tax law on Jan. 1 that maintained the $5 million exemption rate per person, indexed to inflation with a top tax rate of 40 percent was a major victory for Farmfarmers, Duvall said.
Other legislative successes that Farm Bureau achieved this past year included blocking federal legislation that would have restricted farmers’ use of antibiotics in livestock production and blocking federal legislation that would have allowed the federal government to regulate livestock enclosures.
GFB also worked with members of Georgia’s U.S. Congressional delegation to get language
removed from the Water Resources Development Act that would have severely restricted Atlanta’s use of Lake Lanier. Duvall said the proposed restriction could have caused a major impact to farmers.
GFB worked with the Georgia Department of Public Safety to ensure that implementation of the commercial drivers license exemption included in the recently enacted federal MAP-21 bill doesn’t cost Georgia farmers. Farmers can register online for their CDL exemption form through the GFB website without cost.
Duvall said Farm Bureau continues to work for national immigration reform as immigration is a federal problem that requires a federal solution.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner encourages farmers to engage with consumers
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black also addressed the convention attendees during the general session, encouraging them to share the story of agriculture with consumers in language they will understand.
“Farmers speak the language of farm and consumers speak the language of food,” Black said. “We have a language barrier, but I’m convinced we can drop the language barrier, and that’s why the Georgia Department of Agriculture is putting so much effort into the Georgia Grown Program. We can speak to people through food and share science-based information.”
Black said the GDA plans to take its food truck on the highways and byways of Georgia to share agriculture’s story in the coming year. GDA employees served Georgia grown food to GFB members on the first day of the convention from the department’s Georgia Grown food truck.
“As farmers we have to pick up more of the food dialogue so we can communicate with consumers,” Black said.
Black also thanked county Farm Bureau offices for their efforts to help farmers register for the Georgia Agricultural Tax Exemption (GATE) program, which gives farmers sales tax exemptions on most supplies used to produce their commodities.
GATE was created when the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 386 in 2012. Farmers must re-apply for a GATE certificate through the GDA each year.
Applications may be completed online at http://www.agr.georgia.gov. Application forms are also available at some county Farm Bureau offices. To qualify for GATE, an applicant must meet one of these criteria: 1) produce a minimum of $2,500 per year or more in ag products. 2) provide at least $2,500/year of agricultural services 3) maintain orchards, timber or other multi-year products with the long-term capacity to produce $2,500/year or 4) own property that qualifies for the Conservation Use Value Assessment or Forestland Protection Act.
Visit the GDA website or call 1-855-327-6829 for more information on applying for GATE.
AFBF policy experts give updates on farm bill & immigration legislation
Bob Young, American Farm Bureau Federation chief economist and deputy executive director of public policy, discussed the farm bill and challenges the farm economy can expect in coming years.
“I do think we’re going to get a farm bill done,” Young said. “I won’t be surprised if the conferees [farm bill conference committee members] have an open meeting this week, which is a strong signal they’re ready to move forward.”
Young said the commodity title of the new farm bill will shift focus from direct payments to crop insurance.
“The commodity title will be complicated. Once the bill is finalized, I suggest you spend less time at your Farm Service Agency and a lot of time with your crop insurance agent,” Young said.
Young cautioned farmers to prepare for lower commodity prices due to demand for crops, such as corn, plateauing and production in other countries growing.
“The 500-million bushel demand growth for corn has plateaued. This is why we’re looking at corn prices in the three-dollar range,” Young said
Young also told the convention attendees to prepare for interest rates to rise from three percent to five or six percent.
“Because agriculture is such a capital intensive industry it will feel the impact of an interest rate increase,” Young said.
American Farm Bureau labor specialist Kristi Boswell discussed the status of immigration reform legislation in Congress. The U.S. Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) by a 68-32 vote on June 27. The Senate bill includes a
blue card program that allows experienced agricultural workers the chance to obtain legal immigration status after passing background checks and paying a fine provided they continue working in agriculture for five years. The Senate bill also outlines a new guest worker program administered by the USDA that would replace the current H-2A labor program.
Although the House has yet to pass an immigration bill, in April Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced the Agricultural Guestworker Act (HR 1773), which would establish a new guest worker program that, like the Senate program, would be administered by the USDA but doesn’t include provisions for current ag workers to continue working.
“Farm Bureau is trying to figure out a way to have access to a legal workforce that’s affordable,” Boswell said. “We need to find a way to keep our experienced workforce. We have workers who have worked on farms fifteen to twenty years.”
Boswell encouraged farmers to call their members of Congress to share how the immigration issue impacts their farms.
“2014 is an election year and it gets really tricky. We’re looking at the math to pass a bill out of the House, and we have to have 218 votes. If it doesn’t happen this year it looks a little bleak,” Boswell said.
Gov. Deal addressed GFB members on the last day of convention, thanking them for the contributions they make to Georgia’s economy. Deal noted that agriculture has a $71.1 billion economic impact on the state economy, and one out of seven Georgians is employed in some facet of farming, forestry or other related activities.
“According to the University of Georgia, forty percent of exports that go through the Savannah Port are agricultural products. You (agriculture) are the largest single component of the exports through that facility,” Deal said. “That’s important to our state and it’s important to our country because you help give us the balance of trade that we have been so seriously deficient in. Savannah still has more exports than imports, and it’s important that we try to keep that ratio because that means we’re producing products here that we can sell to the rest of the world.
Deal recounted the efforts being made to deepen the Savannah Port saying that the state of Georgia has set aside $231 million dollars for the project, and he is going to ask the General Assembly to fund another $35 million. Deal said once Congress finalizes federal funding for the
Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, Georgia will ask the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers for approval to start spending the state money to begin the project.
Deal also outlined steps the state has taken to grow the economy by attracting manufacturing companies and jobs to Georgia by removing the sales tax on energy used in manufacturing and removing the sales tax on some products used in agriculture to produce commodities.
“Virtually every week we have new announcements of new jobs that are coming to the state of Georgia, and they’re not just coming from overseas, they’re coming from other states,” Deal said. “We’ve got about 30,000 people who have signed up for the GATE cards to exclude sales taxes from their purchases of appropriate agricultural related products. As long as it is being appropriately used I think it will more than makeup for itself in productivity and in revenue that is gained by making you more profitable.”
Founded in 1937, the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation is the state’s largest general farm organization. The organization has 158 county chapters. Its volunteer members actively participate in local, district and state activities that promote agriculture awareness to their non-farming neighbors. GFB also has 20 commodity advisory committees that give the organization input on issues pertinent to the major commodities grown in Georgia.