National Farmers Union President speaks to Rocky Mountain members

RBC | The National Farmers Union (NFU), which has been around since 1902, considers itself to be a community of farmers, ranchers, educators, policy makers, journalists and other citizens who share common concern about current and looming threats to agricultural production and food security primarily in the United States as well as elsewhere around the world. Roger Johnson has been president of NFU since 2009. Previously, Johnson, a third-generation family farmer from Turtle Lake, S.D., was elected and re-elected the S.D. Commissioner of Agriculture four times.

Roger Johnson

Johnson spoke to the 109th Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Convention in Denver last month. Several members of the Northwest Colorado Farmers Union joined approximately 300 of their colleagues, guests and families from many other counties in Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado who attended the convention. Johnson’s report to the convention considered the convention theme: “It’s Who We Are…It’s What We Do….”
Johnson discussed critical Farmers Union issues with the collected crowd. This subject matter included the pending 2018 federal Farm Bill, international trade, taxes, climate change, biofuels, health care, and corporate consolidation in agriculture.
The Farm Bill gets revisited and rewritten approximately every five years. Since 1933, the federal farm bill sets forth the country’s primary agricultural and food policy programs including ag commodities, trade, rural development, farm credit, conservation, ag research, food and nutrition aspects like the school lunch program, and marketing. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition states that the farm bill “connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources – our soil, air and water – that make growing food possible.”
With unusually low farm product prices coupled with higher than ever productions costs, Johnson indicated having a farm bill that works is critically important. Net farm income in the U.S. has dropped from approximately $125 billion in 2013 to just over a projected $60 billion this year, a 48 percent drop. Median farm income for 2017 is projected to be an unsustainable -$1,325, Johnson said.
NFU farm bill priorities, Johnson declared, are adequate funding for programs including agricultural risk coverage (ARC) and price loss coverage (PLC), dairy, renewables, beginning farmers, conservation, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and expanding broadband.
International trade under President Donald Trump, Johnson offered, has meant the welcome withdrawal of the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the expected renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NFU supports balanced trade, the addressing of currency manipulation, regaining and maintaining U.S. sovereignty, and eliminating current Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions that allow corporations to sue, through foreign, unaccountable tribunals, for the loss of any profits they expected due to the imposition of any rules or limitations imposed on their products by the importing country. Nothing seems to be happening instead of TPP, however, and NAFTA re-negotiation seems stalled and not addressing these needs.
To emphasize the need for trade reform, Johnson pointed out that the international U.S. trade balance, or trade deficit, as it is, has grown from just over a negative $100 billion in 1992 to over negative $750 billion now. Without agricultural exports, it’s nearly a negative $800 billion. Looking at only the total NAFTA trade balance in cattle, beef, variety and processed beef, our U.S. cumulative 25-year trade balance is negative $31.6 billion, or negative 17.4 metric tons.
On mandatory country of origin labeling (mCOOL), Johnson cited its repeal by Congress in 2015 on beef and pork as a sovereignty issue, whereby World Trade Organization rulings effectively forced Congress’ hand, “even though we know consumers want to know the source of their beef and pork, and U.S. producers want to tell them.”
On taxes, Johnson laid out the following NFU tax reform priorities: maintaining interest expensing, the practice of cash and stepped-up base accounting, capital gains relief for land sales to beginning farmers, the estate tax, current treatment of gains and losses, renewable energy tax credits and previously qualifying deductions. Johnson decried the current effort in Congress of providing significant tax cuts and breaks to the wealthiest Americans while adding $1.5 trillion to the country’s deficit to be offset by cuts to Medicare as well as farm safety net programs including ARC and PLC. NFU also opposes the repeal of the Affordable Care Act individual mandate.
Regarding the estate tax, Johnson emphasized how unnecessary repeal of the tax is since, in 2016, for example, 98.3 percent of agricultural operators were not required to file since only estate values greater than $5.45 million had to file. Of the remaining 1.7 percent, only 0.4 percent actually owed any tax.
On climate change, Johnson scored those who doubt the science as well as the Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords. NFU will stay involved in climate science work. Agriculture, Johnson said, could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent through reduced tillage, more extensive use of cover crops, optimized nutrient applications and investment in renewable energy and energy-efficient equipment. NFU also supports the continuation of a renewable fuels standards. NFU considers itself a climate leader which it partially pursues through a NFU Climate Leaders Facebook page.
The organization’s ethanol and biofuels campaign includes supporting Ethanol 30 (30 percent ethanol in conventional gasoline supplies) and advanced biofuels development by encouraging further research, development and investment in biofuels. NFU has just recently added a veteran energy, environment and ag policy specialist to their national staff. Johnson said, “Adopting Ethanol 30 gasoline is necessary for boosting the farm economy, mitigating climate change and pollution, and increasing American energy independence.”
For health care, Johnson urged Congress to find a way to create bi-partisan reform legislation that will provide more stability in the marketplace, support rural hospitals, and increase access to affordable, high quality health care. NFU supports a single-payer health care policy.
Regarding the corporate concentration of agricultural inputs, Johnson mentioned the big five companies: Syngenta, DOW/DuPont, Bayer, BASF-Chemical and Monsanto, and warned that these are soon to be the big three if proposed mergers go forth – Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, and DOW/DuPont. BASF would become a very distant fourth. For the global seed market, Johnson reported that 63 percent is now controlled by the big five. For the global ag chemical market, 76 percent is controlled by the big five. For the U.S. corn, soybean, and cotton traits market, 95 percent is controlled by the big five. NFU has petitioned the Department of Justice to oppose the Bayer-Monsanto merger, a $66 billion deal, arguing that it will result in even less choice in the biotech and seeds markets, lead to less innovation as well as higher costs and prices. Decisions by the European Union and U.S. regulators are expected by the end of the year.
Members from the Northwest Colorado Farmers Union who were in attendance at the Denver convention were Adonna, Troy, Leah and Levi Allen, Mark Berkley, Marsha and Doc Daughenbaugh, Sarah and Todd Hagenbuch, Britni Johnson, Kathleen and Reed Kelley, and Grayson O’Neil.