An annual address for a group as diverse, and influential, as the American Farm Bureau Federation requires reviewing what has past and what is ahead and in Sunday's address to the membership President Bob Stallman did just that. In a year filled with drought, fiscal cliff worries and a failed farm bill he still was able to deliver some good news to members.
The annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., brings with it plenty of links to the music industry from performances to speeches. The nearly "choral" theme this year - Many Voices, Once Vision - is the guide for this year's event, which has brought 6,000 people to the Volunteer State.
Stallman, who is entering his 12th year as president of the organization, points to some permanent tax code changes, including the new estate tax with its $5 million exclusion and 40% tax rate. He notes that if farmers had been pushed over the "tax cliff" and the estate tax measure hadn't been acted on the impact could have been tremendous.
"Most people think that $1 million is a lot of money. But according to Iowa State University, in 2012 the average value of farmland in Iowa was estimated at nearly $8,300 per acre," Stallman told the crowd during his opening remarks. "With an estate tax threshold of $1 million, can you calculate how many acres of Iowa farmland it would take for the estate tax to kick in? It's not 1,000 acres, Not even 500 acres. It's only 120 acres."
Farm Bureau had pushed for a total end to the estate tax and Stallman acknowledges that hasn't happened. "But putting permanently lower rates and a higher exemption in place is a big victory," he notes. And he adds that capital gains rates are also locked in permanently.
Stallman notes that Congress inaction remains a significant problem. Inability to get a five-year farm bill passed, even as the Senate passed a version and the House Ag Committee had a bill is a frustration. The new Congress will be under new pressure to make something happen. "What Congress did on the farm bill is not perfect, but at least it gives us certainty for 2013," he notes.
Beyond a new farm bill, Stallman told the crowd that farm labor issues are an important topic moving forward. The organization has joined a broad-based coalition that aims to fix "a broken farm labor system. The results have been labor shortages, lost crops and bureaucratic nightmares."
The coalition will offer what Stallman calls a "reasonable, practical and common-sense farm labor option that works for growers and workers alike."
The proposals will go beyond H-2A and aims to work for all farmers who hire farm labor, no matter what size farm they operate.
In the speech, Stallman notes that Farm Bureau members must let their new elected, and re-elected, leaders know "that our nation can no longer afford political drama, manufactured crises and self-serving jackass stubbornness. We have grown tired of that 'reality show.'" The comment drew broad applause from members frustrated by congressional inaction.
He notes that Congress must still deal with the collision with the nation's debt. These are actions that will require leadership. "People are hungry for leadership. They want leaders who will look beyond the next election - leaders who, like you, believe in and stand up for something that's bigger than themselves."
Stallman says the group is re-inventing itself to meet changing needs, which includes some staff realignments. It's all part of the Centennial Development Project. All state organization presidents are involved in the effort.
"So far, our stakeholders have told us that they need a strong Farm Bureau. They want a Farm Bureau that speaks for all farmers - big, small, organic, conventional, young or old. They want a Farm Bureau that is true to its heritage, but one that is also nimble and offers new programs and services that meet the needs of a new generation of farmers and ranchers."
It his closing comments, Stallman evoked Davy Crockett, the Tennessee Volunteer who came to the aid of Texas independence battle. And Stallman quoted Texas Ranger Captain W.J. McDonald who had the creed: "No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a coming."
"That aspect of our organization has not changed we keep on a-coming!" Stallman says. "our sense of what is right with and right for rural America will lead us on."