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Man carrying flag across stage during AFBF annual convention AFBF

Trade, farm labor and opioids discussed at AFBF annual convention

Private attorney offers little hope for immigration decision in 2019; timeline for USMCA ratification uncertain.

The American Farm Bureau’s 100th annual convention is underway in New Orleans through Jan. 16.

Here’s a recap of what’s been happening.

Trade outlook

American Farm Bureau Federation policy experts gave an overview of the issues expected to affect farmers and ranchers in 2019.

David Salmonsen, senior director of congressional relations for AFBF, discussed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and outlined the process for ratification. “It could be quick or it could be slow, but there is a timeline that has to be followed,” Salmonsen said.

If USMCA is implemented, it will increase quota access for U.S. dairy products into Canada and end Canada’s Class 7 pricing. It will also keep agricultural tariffs between the U.S. and Mexico at zero.

Salmonsen said that the U.S. has also begun trade negotiations with Japan, the European Union and the United Kingdom, although the start of U.K. negotiations depends on when the U.K. completes the process of leaving the EU. He added that in any agreement, there is political bargaining that will go on over several months.

Salmonsen was joined by AFBF director of congressional relations Veronica Nigh, who discussed the economic impacts of the trade issues and tariffs.

Ag exports to China were down by $2 billion in 2018, Nigh said, and USDA forecasts exports to decline by an additional $7 billion in 2019. China was ranked as the second-largest trading partner for the U.S. for several years but is projected to be fifth in 2019. Currently, 99% of all U.S. ag products exported to China are subject to tariffs.

Nigh said that the biggest concern is that many countries grow soy and corn, and now there’s room in China’s markets for these commodities. “We could lose the market even if the tariffs eventually go away, and it would take time to restore these markets.”

When it comes to the potential impact of the USMCA, Nigh said that while it is positive the U.S. will be exporting more dairy to Canada, it isn’t going to be a major mover of the market as Canada’s total population is 36 million people and the country has a strong domestic dairy industry.

Opioid crisis

Matt Niswander, a first-generation cattleman and family nurse practitioner from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, has treated hundreds of patients addicted to opioids in his rural practice. Most addictions, he says, spring from physical injuries for which the medical profession has been far too quick to prescribe powerful painkillers that put their users in jeopardy.

“We’re talking about people with legitimate pain problems who start struggling,” he said. Niswander, himself, was admitted to the hospital with two broken wrists. Knowing how dangerous opioids can be, he twice tried to turn down painkillers, but was overruled by a nurse and a physician each time. Twice in two days he was prescribed 45 tablets of Lortab, a powerful combination of the opioid hydrocodone and acetaminophen. He filled neither prescription, but medical professionals repeatedly insisted he take the medicine.

Matt’s wife, Colbie, has dealt with the burden of addiction through two adopted sons born addicted to opioids – a legacy of birth mothers who themselves were addicted to opioids. The toll on adoptive families, she said, is heavy – not just on the children themselves, but also the parents who suffer knowing their children may need years of rehabilitation to lead productive lives.

Sheri Lou Tate, a farmer from Washington, Utah, is active in addiction recovery efforts. She was previously married to a farmer who was addicted to opioids.

He hid his addiction from her for a long time until she noticed that whenever they would visit the homes of their friends, her husband would excuse himself to use the bathroom. She soon discovered he was rummaging through their medicine cabinets and, often, stealing drugs. Eventually he graduated to burglarizing the homes of people he knew had recently been injured.

She urged farmers and ranchers to learn the signs of addiction. If necessary, she said, they should have a ready supply of Narcan, the anti-overdose drug credited with saving countless lives.

“If you have a family member you’re concerned about, you can get a single dose of Narcan,” she said. “You don’t have to have a prescription. Anyone can use it.”

Farm labor

Leon Sequeira, a private attorney with LRS Law, discussed how efforts to overhaul the current H-2A visa system received a major blow when Congress failed to pass H.R.4092, Agricultural Guestworker Act or the AG Actin 2018. The bill addressed many of the concerns farmers have with the system. It would have implemented multi-year visas, a broader definition of what industries are eligible and streamlined the application process. Unfortunately, the bill got caught up in the unresolved battle to fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and was never brought to the floor as a standalone bill.

Other opportunities to ease the burden that current laws place on farmers have also fallen short. A Department of Labor proposal to “streamline” the system was due in December 2018 but has not materialized. The other major change in 2018 was an Agriculture Department proposal to change the advertisement requirement for the program from newspapers to the internet.

Sequeira offered little hope for headway on the issue in 2019. The new makeup of Congress, the start of the 2020 campaign season and an understaffed DOL make progress on the issue unlikely. One of the biggest obstacles to changing the system is a divide among the users of the current H-2A program on how to address the labor shortage.

“There is a debate on whether to legalize the current group of agriculture laborers, who lack documented status, or to bring in more workers with a streamlined visa program,” said Sequeira. “It is a battle between the West Coast, where that pool of undocumented workers is large, and the rest of the nation where it is lacking.”

Industrial hemp

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., explained how he helps people understand the difference between hemp and its more infamous cannabis cousin, marijuana.

“Hemp and marijuana are two plants in the same family, the same way that broccoli and cauliflower are in the same plant family,” he said.

Ken Anderson, founder and president of Legacy Hemp, a U.S. contractor with hemp farmers, advised anyone who is considering growing the crop to first secure a buyer.

“There are a lot of opportunities but it can be expensive to start growing hemp,” Anderson said.

Calling industrial hemp “the little engine that could,” Katie Moyer of Kentucky Hemp Works discussed the broad range of hemp varieties and advised farmers to carefully consider which one to cultivate. “The crops are completely different” she said, referring to varieties grown for cannabidiol oil vs. fiber, grain, seed, etc.

The availability of labor should also be carefully considered when thinking about growing hemp, according to Anderson.

“Hemp grown for CBD uses is much more labor-intensive,” he said, referring to those varieties as a horticultural crop while others are agricultural crops. In addition, he recommends farmers starting out with hemp add it to their crop rotation, rather than growing it as their only crop.

The 2014 farm bill gave states the authority to establish hemp pilot programs to study its growth, cultivation and marketing. To date, 35 states have taken advantage of the opportunity. The 2018 farm bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. This deregulation means growers may now transport hemp and no longer face barriers related to insurance and banking.

Source: AFBF, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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