OKLAHOMA CITY— American Farmers & Ranchers/Oklahoma Farmers Union (AFR/OFU) delegates took the fight for a better rural America to the steps of Capitol Hill virtually this week as they lobbied members of Congress during the 2020 National Farmers Union (NFU) Fall Legislative Fly-In Sept. 14-18.

While Oklahoma delegates lobbied on behalf of the AFR/OFU membership, their voices were joined by more than 400 NFU members from across the nation representing the Farmers Union organizations of various states and regions. In total, NFU members met with more than 130 members of Congress in one-on-one virtual sessions.

AFR/OFU delegates met with the entire Oklahoma congressional delegation including Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford and Reps. Frank Lucas, Kendra Horn, Markwayne Mullin, Tom Cole and Kevin Hern. Delegates also met with congressional leaders from other states including members of the House Committee on Agriculture Reps. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.), Austin Scott (R-Ga.) and Neal Dunn (R-Fla.).

Common themes for AFR/OFU’s one-on-one congressional meetings quickly emerged as delegates began to voice concerns on the state of U.S. agriculture and rural America as a whole. Top-of-mind was the desperate need for additional pandemic relief for the still-reeling agriculture industry. AFR/OFU delegates thanked members of Congress for their role in providing direct assistance, but were clear in their message that it simply has not been enough.  Underwhelming CFAP (Coronavirus Food Assistance Program) payments have plagued farmers and ranchers and negative returns and one-man operations have shut them out from Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) respectively.

For those agricultural producers who have received direct payments, arbitrary rules and demarcations—particularly the payout discrepancy between pre- and post-April 15 CFAP payments for cattle producers—have limited funds and often punished producers for sound business practices. As one AFR/OFU delegate remarked to Inhofe, “CFAP payments have made a difference in Oklahoma, but it could make a really big difference if we could get some of that equity back.”

Across the board, Oklahoma’s cattle producers have taken the hardest pandemic hit. AFR/OFU delegates hit the cattle market issues hard, detailing what cattle producers have endured the last several years and during the Covid-19 pandemic. The current state of the U.S. live cattle market was discussed at length, as well as causes and potential solutions.

In an effort to increase market transparency and competition, AFR/OFU delegates pushed for the proposed “50/14” rule, which would require large meatpackers to purchase at least 50 percent of their total live cattle purchases through negotiable transactions through the cash or “spot” market and limit ownership of those cattle to not more than 14 days prior to slaughter. The proposal is intended to “improve the accuracy of formula pricing… and increase transparency for producers and feeders.” Discussions of the proposed rule were positive with most of the congressmen AFR/OFU met with being either supportive or willing to explore the rule change.

Without cattle market changes like the “50/14” rule, farmers and ranchers face more years of market abuse and uncertainty. The pandemic has layered more trouble on top of several rough years and many people are struggling to hold their farms together. During every congressional meeting, AFR/OFU delegates reminded lawmakers that keeping family farmers in existence has been an incredible challenge even with relief payments, which are just barely keeping producers afloat.

AFR/OFU delegates outlined the mental health issue in detail and requested additional funding and support for the national farm stress initiative. The AFR/OFU Farm Stress Management Team program was given as a great example of how additional funding could have a dramatic footprint nationwide in farm country.

In addition to funding and market challenges, AFR/OFU delegates hit the agricultural consolidation issue hard during every congressional meeting. The dysfunction of our nation’s food system as a whole and the meat packing sector specifically was glaringly obvious during the height of the pandemic, with much of that dysfunction stemming from the incredible consolidation of agriculture and food supply chains. There were countless conversations during the week about how to leverage antitrust laws to reduce that consolidation, spread risk more effectively, and reduce foreign ownership of the U.S. domestic food supply.

AFR/OFU delegates and many of the lawmakers they met with agreed that the industry’s risk is too concentrated and adjustments will have to be made to safeguard against any future disruptions. On the packer consolidation issue, AFR/OFU Scott Blubaugh did not mince words. “We need a level playing field and it’s time for Congress to address concentration in meat packing.”

AFR/OFU delegates delivered a strong message and solution to the consolidation issue—reinvigorate small-scale meat processing facilities. Thousands of small and mid-sized processing facilities across the U.S. have shuttered over the last few decades, leaving limited slaughter capacity outside of major meat processing centers. To get the industry back online, plant owners will need funding and additional inspectors.

AFR/OFU delegates used the positive impact of recent Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry (ODAFF) CARES Act grants to small and mid-sized processing facilities within Oklahoma as a springboard to promote Rep. Frank Lucas’s RAMP-UP Act, which aims to increase state- and USDA-inspected slaughter capacity nationwide through grants for small and mid-sized processing facilities.

The current success of the CARES Act grants and the future success of the RAMP-UP Act should it pass has led to an urgent need for additional state and federal meat inspectors. AFR/OFU delegates hammered this point in every congressional meeting with delegates reiterating to each congressman, “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.”

One of the issues most discussed during congressional meetings had nothing to do with the U.S. food system, but everything to do with challenges caused by Covid-19—the lack of and desperate need for broadband in rural areas coast to coast. The disparity between those with and those without high-speed internet has proven to be a significant barrier to rural schools as they strive to provide equal education for all. As one AFR/OFU delegate told Mullin, “Slow or unreliable internet is NOT good internet.”

An encouraging sign for AFR/OFU delegates, every congressman agreed that the issue is dire and understood the magnitude of the rural broadband issue. Each lawmaker had an idea of how to best bring broadband to underserved areas, with most understanding the significant role government will take in project completion. Ultimately, AFR/OFU delegates and lawmakers alike agreed with what one delegate said bluntly, “Having connectivity in rural Oklahoma—that’s critical.”

In light of changing climate concerns, AFR/OFU delegates discussed soil health, carbon sequestration, cover crops, and the advantages of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Within Oklahoma, the conversation included increased funding and improvements to upstream flood control and aging infrastructure.

AFR/OFU delegates pushed new conservation options for farmers and ranchers at the national level as well, including a discussion of a potential “working lands” conservation program. This short-term “working lands” could help reduce overall yields and improve commodity prices. It would also improve soil quality so, as Blubaugh put it, “When the world is hungry, our soil will be ready.”

Other discussions centered on issues that have persisted for years in agriculture and rural America, but were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. These topics included, of course, the vulnerability of rural healthcare, the plight of the dairy industry, the optimism and volatility of international trade, the importance the U.S. postal service, and the loss of local access to government and educational services, including Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices and Extension.

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.