OKLAHOMA CITY—American Farmers & Ranchers/Oklahoma Farmers Union (AFR/OFU) delegates continued lobbying for Oklahoma agriculture on the fourth day of the 2020 National Farmers Union (NFU) Fall Legislative Fly-In Sept. 17. Participants lobbied virtually on behalf of the AFR/OFU membership.
AFR/OFU delegates met one-on-one virtually with Rep. Markwayne Mullin and Rep. Tom Cole’s legislative staff. In these meetings, AFR/OFU delegates focused on solutions to the nation’s meat processing woes and everyday challenges rural Americans face, both during Covid-19 and beyond.
Representative Markwayne Mullin Congressional Meeting
AFR/OFU delegates’ congressional meeting with Mullin was a productive back-and-forth conversation. AFR/OFU President Scott Blubaugh kicked off the meeting by thanking Mullin for his public comments regarding U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue earlier this year. It was apparent that both Mullin and AFR/OFU delegates felt Oklahoma’s farmers and ranchers need all the help they can get, particularly in regard to the beef industry consolidation issue.
From there, the meeting quickly turned to a detailed discussion of what cattle producers have endured the last several years and during the Covid-19 pandemic. The incredible amount of consolidation in the beef, pork and poultry industries, coupled with foreign ownership of much of the meat packing industry, made for an easy argument for better enforcement of antitrust legislation already on the books.
AFR/OFU delegates thanked Mullin for his work pushing for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments, but both parties agreed the arbitrary April 15 demarcation punished cattle producers who were able to hold animals over in hopes for a better market. As one AFR/OFU delegate stated, “They penalized us for making adjustments to try to keep the animals.”
Another AFR/OFU delegate kicked off the discussion on what help can be provided for small producers who directly market their products by suggesting an increase in slaughter capacity through Oklahoma’s small and mid-size processing facilities. The recent Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry (ODAFF) CARES Act grants extended to some of these processors were discussed at length. Blubaugh reminded the group, that while this is an excellent opportunity for many of the state’s smaller processors, it further increases the urgent need for additional state meat inspectors. “We’re moving at rapid pace to build capacity within Oklahoma, but it won’t do much good if we don’t have more inspectors.”
The second half of the Mullin congressional meeting was dominated by the rural broadband issue. The disparity between those with versus those without high-speed internet has proven to be a significant barrier to rural schools as they strive to provide equal education for all. One AFR/OFU delegate outlined the challenges rural schools have encountered as they try to educate students with unreliable internet service and clearly stated, “Slow or unreliable internet is NOT good internet.”
Mullin confirmed and agreed with the magnitude of the rural broadband issue. He reminded AFR/OFU delegates of the significant role government played in connecting rural Americans by electricity and then by telephone, and the role government will have to play in connecting rural America through Private companies cannot justify investment in “end of the line” projects because they will never be a positive return on investment. Mullin was frank, saying broadband simply will not happen without government assistance.
Representative Tom Cole Congressional Meeting
The congressional meeting with the staff of Rep. Tom Cole was a shorter, but still productive conversation that centered on issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to the lack of rural broadband and the vulnerability of rural healthcare, CFAP pandemic relief payments were top-of-mind for AFR/OFU delegates. AFR/OFU delegates strongly encouraged Cole to push USDA to correct the disparity in payments between pre- and post-April 15.
One AFR/OFU delegate spoke in detail about the funding challenges today’s farmers and ranchers face. The pandemic has layered more trouble on top of several rough years for agriculture and many people are struggling to hold their farms together. Like many Oklahoma agriculture producers, this delegate uses outside income to supplement his farming operation even in good years. He commended Congress on the CFAP payments, but said it’s just barely keeping producers afloat. He was recently forced to sell land that had taken him a lifetime to procure. “You’re going to see more and more people have to make those choices on whether they’re going to go forward.”
As with other meetings, AFR/OFU delegates hit the meat processing consolidation, antitrust concerns and cattle market issues hard. They also covered at length the urgent need for funding for both state and federal meat inspectors and the need to keep Farm Service Agency (FSA) local offices open and available to producers. The epidemic of farm stress mismanagement throughout American agriculture was also a major discussion point, as well as the idea of a new “working lands” conservation program that could help reduce overall yields and improve commodity prices. The program discussed would be a short-term program that would improve soil quality. Blubaugh state he didn’t see any drawbacks to the potential program. “We know someday the world will need that grain and when we do need it, that soil will be better than it’s been in a century.”
AFR/OFU Cooperative is a membership services organization established in 1905 as Oklahoma Farmers Union. AFR/OFU provides educational, legislative and cooperative programs across the state and serves as a watchdog for Oklahoma’s family farmers and ranchers and rural communities. The organization is actively supportive of the state’s agricultural industry and rural population with membership consisting of farmers actively involved in production agriculture and non-farmers adding their voice in support of AFR/OFU principles.