OKLAHOMA CITY—The Oklahoma State Department of Health, in partnership with Gov. Kevin Stitt and federal, state and private industry leadership, recently announced the creation of the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence (OPCIE). OPCIE is intended to be the state’s frontline of defense against future biosecurity-threatening diseases. The facility will be located in Stillwater, leveraging Oklahoma’s rural and urban assets to benefit public health.

OPCIE’s creation is being announced as part of the Oklahoma Public Health Lab’s move to Stillwater. The new lab will include a human diagnostic/public health laboratory, a genetic biorepository, and a multi-disciplinary basic science lab for human, animal, plant and food-related bioterrorism research.

AFR/OFU Cooperative supports the relocation of the state’s public health laboratory to Stillwater, as well as the creation of OPCIE. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of state-of-the-art centers like OPCIE to both urban and rural populations and national security as a whole.

“Covid-19 threatened the health of our state and our nation, and also served as a warning about the vulnerability of our food system,” said AFR/OFU Cooperative President Scott Blubaugh. “The last few months have shown that quick, accurate testing for both human and animal disease is a vital part of our nation’s security. OPCIE is a necessary and welcomed investment in the future of our state and national food supply chain. It will play an important role in keeping food on the table for millions of Americans.

“Oklahoma State University is a hub of agricultural research and animal and human health innovation, making Stillwater a logical place for the Public Health Lab. OPCIE will make collaboration between OSU and the state lab second nature. This collaboration is crucial for farmers, ranchers and rural communities across the state.”

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.

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OKLAHOMA CITY—If 2020 were a normal year, the American Farmers & Ranchers/Oklahoma Farmers Union (AFR/OFU) Cooperative would be planning its annual AFR Youth Speech Contest. Agriculture students statewide would be preparing their speeches in hopes of high judges’ marks and first place trophies. But, this is not a normal year.

This year, concerns of Covid-19 exposure, coupled with potential venue closures, caused the contest to be canceled for the first time in 75 years. In its place, AFR/OFU has created a new professional development opportunity for students statewide.

The “Mastering the Art of Public Speaking” (MAPS) video series fulfills the AFR Youth Speech Contest mission to encourage young Oklahomans to hone their public speaking ability through speeches about agriculture, natural resources, policy and science.

“Public speaking is an indispensable skill students use throughout their lives,” said AFR/OFU Cooperative President Scott Blubaugh. “We’re very proud of the AFR Speech Contest and what it’s done to foster professionalism and confidence in Oklahoma’s youth. It was an extremely difficult decision to cancel this year’s competition, and we knew we had to do something in its place. So, we decided to designate 2020 as the ‘Year to Teach.’”

Last fall, nearly 500 students, grades 4-12, competed in district AFR Speech Contests across Oklahoma in hopes of making it to the state competition. The 2020 AFR Speech Contest is just one of many extracurricular events that have been canceled this year due to the pandemic. As AFR/OFU watched more and more professional development opportunities either cancel or postpone, it became clear something had to be created to replace this year’s canceled speech contest.

“These students are involved in FFA and 4-H because they want to better themselves and be prepared for college or the work force,” said AFR/OFU Interim Youth Coordinator Jim Pilkington. “They’re ready and willing to learn, but the opportunities for professional development have been slim in the last few months.”

In response to the gap in opportunity, AFR/OFU commissioned the MAPS public speaking tutorials to help students hone their skills and prepare for future contests. The videos were created by two nationally-recognized public speakers—Rhett Laubach and Kelly Barnes—who are well-versed in the type of speeches needed to excel in FFA and 4-H contests.

The 12-part video serious covers all facets of a successful speech, including choosing a topic, conducting research, outlining, writing, voice quality, facial expressions, body movements and how to answer questions following a presentation. There’s even a segment on proper speech judging techniques and how to provide constructive criticism.

“While event cancelations have been disheartening, they’ve provided an opportunity for us to redirect resources into projects that are going to stand the test of time and be beneficial to students for years to come,” said Blubaugh.

The videos were created with two purposes in mind. First, they’re designed to be used as a guide for students who have never prepared or given a speech. Some students do not have access to speech advisors who can properly train them for contests. The videos are intended to help students prepare a speech even without outside assistance.

Second, the videos are intended to be a new tool to help students hone existing public speaking skills. The tutorials can be worked through like a checklist with students comparing their current work against that of the public speakers in the videos.

“We’ve seen this need for a long time,” said Blubaugh. “We’re thrilled to be able to offer both underserved students and up-and-coming public speaking champions a tool that will help them work through the many aspects of public speaking.

“This tool is something we intend to maintain and update regularly. It will help build public speaking skills in Oklahoma youth for years to come.”

The AFR Speech Contest is just one of many AFR Youth Program traditions. The organization also hosts a youth leadership summit, statewide scholarships, livestock judging and grading competitions, and many other development opportunities. For more information on the AFR Youth Program, visit the AFR/OFU Cooperative website at www.afrcoop.org.

The MAPS video series will be provided statewide to all 4-H, FFA, and homeschool groups and nationally to National Farmers Union (NFU) and state Farmers Union groups across the country. Individual students will also have access to the tutorials through the AFR/OFU Cooperative. For more information about the MAPS video series, including how individuals can access the recordings, contact AFR/OFU Interim Youth Coordinator Jim Pilkington at (918)830-0017 or jim.pilkington@afrmic.com.

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.

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BRISTOW—FFA and 4-H youth from across Oklahoma demonstrated their knowledge of the commercial cattle industry, Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the Oklahoma State Commercial Cattle Grading Contest in Bristow. AFR/OFU Cooperative sponsored the inaugural event, which boasted approximately 400 individual participants in more than 100 teams.

To excel in the contest, participants employed their knowledge of high-quality cattle traits to choose breeding and market animals that would prove profitable in real-life production situations. The contestants ranked animals by structural soundness of replacement heifers, profitability of cull cows, market steer yield potential, and more. Ultimately, contestants were rewarded for their recognition of high-quality cattle—just as a producer would profit from similar selection within their own herd.

“The ability to identify the best animals within the herd or in the auction ring is of utmost importance to a successful cattle operation. Developing this skill early in life ensures contestants’ success as future cattle producers,” said AFR/OFU Cooperative President Scott Blubaugh. “We are proud to sponsor a competition that translates to real-life situations and encourages Oklahoma’s youth to pursue careers in production agriculture.”

The contest offered competition opportunity for individuals in three age brackets—4-H, FFA and adult—and three- or four-person 4-H or FFA teams. Awards were presented to the top five individual or team in each bracket.

The top-placing FFA teams were:

1st Place: Stillwater FFA (Abigail Burton, Lilly Cooper, Brandt Gazaway, Preslee Watley)

2nd Place: Oklahoma Union FFA (Ashlyn Hough, Hannah Long, Charli Moore, Kyla Taylor)

3rd Place: Wyandotte FFA (Jaret Burney, Taylor Fent, Kallie Morisset, Taylor Post)

4th Place: Stillwater FFA (Sarah Hatfield, Austin Hooten, Riley Luginbill, Payton Piparato)

5th Place: Henryetta FFA (James Martin, Austin Palmer, Ethan Palmer)

The top-placing 4-H teams were:

1st Place: Oklahoma Union 4-H (Addison Dick, Bradon Kuehn, Daniel Moody, Bodee West)

2nd Place: Crescent 4-H (Kylee Bell, Ridge Garrett, Leighton McNair)

3rd Place: Hulbert 4-H (Landon Chester, Nathan Rowoan, Calan Teague, Dusty Tedd)

4th Place: Porum 4-H (Freedom Barnes, Waylon Dishman, Cooper Franklin, Isaiah Sallee)

5th Place: Porter 4-H (Addie Criner, Cash Criner, Karlie Guinn, Rylie Rush)

High individuals in the FFA division were:

1st Place: Bridgett Arnhart, Eufaula FFA

2nd Place: Dax Delozier, Adair FFA

3rd Place: Maysen Garrett, Crescent FFA

4th Place: Sarah Belden, Nowata FFA

5th Place: Cooper Kline, North Rock Creek FFA

High individuals in the 4-H division were:

1st Place: Bodee West, Oklahoma Union 4-H

2nd Place: Calan Teague, Hulbert 4-H

3rd Place: Kylee Bell, Crescent 4-H

4th Place: Addison Dick, Oklahoma Union 4-H

5th Place: Isaiah Sallee, Porum 4-H

High individuals in the adult division were:

1st Place: Jason Couch

2nd Place: Christy Snider

3rd Place: Alan Jennings

4th Place: Cody Dawson

5th Place: Devin Delozier

For more information on the Oklahoma State Commercial Cattle Grading Contest or other AFR Youth Program sponsorships, contact AFR/OFU Interim Youth Coordinator Jim Pilkington at 918-830-0017 or jim.pilkington@afrmic.com.

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.

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OKLAHOMA CITY—President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced an additional $14 billion in Covid-19 relief for agriculture producers through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP 2) Sept. 18, 2020. During the pandemic, U.S. agriculture has lost billions to plummeting or volatile markets, sudden drops in demand, and supply chain weaknesses. CFAP is intended to support agriculture producers as they continue to face market disruptions and associated costs caused by Covid-19.

“Oklahoma’s farmers and ranchers have been through the ringer,” said AFR/OFU Cooperative President Scott Blubaugh. “2020 has been a disastrous year, and it’s just the most recent in several years of market volatility that agricultural producers have suffered through.”

“Oklahoma producers, and their counterparts across the country, are continuing to face financial hardship. CFAP 2 will not erase the uncertainty or worry plaguing our farmers and ranchers, but it’s a step in the direction and we’re grateful for the assistance. Hopefully, this will put more producers back on sure footing so that those farming today will still be farming tomorrow.”

The first round of CFAP focused on market losses from January 15 to April 15 of this year; CFAP 2 will target losses from April 16 to August 31. Because of the target dates, winter wheat was overlooked in the first round. All classes of wheat are included in the second round, an inclusion that will no doubt help farmers in Oklahoma and throughout the Wheat Belt.

“Our state’s hardworking wheat growers were overlooked for direct payments earlier this year,” said Blubaugh. “I’m very pleased to see they’re included in this round of CFAP and will receive some relief. It’s good news, just as next year’s crop is going in the ground.”

Some Oklahoma cattle ranchers were also overlooked in the first round of CFAP payments. USDA was heavily criticized for an April 15 demarcation used to determine payments for livestock. Producers received 85 percent of actual price loss from Jan. 1 to April 15, but only 30 percent of expected losses from April 15 through the next two quarters.

Oklahoma cattle producers were hit hard by this dividing date. As live cattle prices plummeted in March and early April, ranchers scrambled to find ways to keep the stock they had intended to market during that time. Ranchers who managed to hold onto their animals felt punished by the much lower direct payment amount.

In an effort to correct the disparity between pre- and post-April 15 payments, the CFAP 2 payment rate for beef cattle is $55 per head. Payments are based on the maximum owned inventory of eligible livestock, excluding breeding stock, on a single date between April 16 and Aug. 31.

“Following a disappointing first round of payments for most cattle producers, CFAP 2 payments still fall short of much needed relief,” said Blubaugh. “We would much rather get our paycheck through the marketplace, but 2020 simply did not allow for that. We’re grateful for the second round of the program. But, I fear without further assistance, we may still lose some Oklahoma ranchers.”

The CFAP 2 payment limit is $250,000 total per individual or entity for all commodities combined. Corporations, limited liability companies and limited partnerships may qualify for additional payment limits. Producers can apply for CFAP 2 through their local USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) office Sept. 21 through Dec. 11, 2020.

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.

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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.

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OKLAHOMA CITY—American Farmers & Ranchers/Oklahoma Farmers Union (AFR/OFU) delegates made a final push for Oklahoma agriculture on the fifth day of the 2020 National Farmers Union (NFU) Fall Legislative Fly-In Sept. 18. Participants lobbied virtually on behalf of the AFR/OFU membership.

Representative Kevin Hern Congressional Meeting

AFR/OFU delegates met one-on-one virtually with Rep. Kevin Hern on Friday. During the meeting, Hern and AFR/OFU delegates spoke casually and candidly about the issues plaguing rural America both before and during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hern kicked off the conversation with an issue that’s at the forefront of rural concerns in Oklahoma – broadband access. The disparity between those with and those without high-speed internet is becoming more apparent every day and, during Covid-19, rural school systems and the students they serve have felt the lack of bandwidth acutely. Hern agreed with the magnitude of the rural broadband issue and mentioned another group he felt was in dire need – rural business owners. He said small businesses in rural areas are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in the online marketplace because of slow internet speed. Without competitive access to online markets, many small businesses simply can’t survive.

AFR/OFU delegates also discussed at length the urgent need for funding for both state and federal meat inspectors. AFR/OFU President Scott Blubaugh said he thought it was wonderful that consumers have a stronger desire than ever before to connect to their local farmer or rancher, but that Oklahoma is currently unequipped to meet the demand for locally-raised meat products. Given consumer interests, the recent CARES Act meat processing grants, and potential RAMP-UP funding, Blubaugh believes the state will need to double the number of inspectors to meet the demand that is coming quickly. He said frankly, “Any relief we can get would be greatly appreciated and help a lot.”

Hern agreed with the dire need for additional inspectors and the need to break down any other barriers to small and mid-sized processors becoming state, or possibly federally, inspected. He had heard of the backlog at local processing facilities, as well as the lack of freezer and hanger space. He said as a local business owner for more than 30 years, there was nothing more exciting than to see more localized processing and production and to maintain that local connection all the way through to the consumer.

Hern was also excited about the recent CARES Act grants given to some Oklahoma meat processors and the prospect of more funding becoming available soon through Rep. Frank Lucas’s RAMP-UP Act. He said the lack of inspectors is a downside with expansion plans compressing from 10 years out to under six months. Basically, everyone is scrambling to catch up. But, Hern said, “This is a great opportunity to bring prevalence and visibility back to our local processors and revive that old way of processing local beef.”

AFR/OFU delegates also thanked Hern for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments, lobbied for Tester’s and Grassley’s proposed 50-14 rule, and highlighted consolidation in the meat sector and the need to increase competition for a “free and fair” live cattle marketplace.

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.

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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.

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OKLAHOMA CITY—American Farmers & Ranchers/Oklahoma Farmers Union (AFR/OFU) delegates continued lobbying for Oklahoma agriculture on the third day of the 2020 National Farmers Union (NFU) Fall Legislative Fly-In Sept. 16. Participants lobbied virtually on behalf of the AFR/OFU membership.

AFR/OFU delegates met one-on-one virtually with several members of Congress or their staff—Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA), and Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL). In these meetings, AFR/OFU delegates focused on solutions to the nationwide meat processing disruptions and other issues exacerbated by Covid-19.

Senator James Lankford Congressional Meeting

The congressional meeting with Lankford’s staff was an in-depth conversation about the U.S. beef industry, consolidation in agriculture, and the dysfunction of our nation’s food system as a whole. It was a dynamic, positive dialogue with questions and answers from both parties.

During this dialogue, the state of meat inspection in Oklahoma was a hot topic. AFR/OFU delegates discussed current funding initiatives to increase slaughter capacity both within the state and nationwide, as well as the dire need for more state and USDA inspectors. This need was emphasized when one delegate stating, “Funding to step up inspection on small to mid-size processors doesn’t matter if there are no inspectors.”

In addition to the food system discussion, AFR/OFU delegates covered the need for rural broadband and the vulnerability of rural healthcare. They also reiterated the need for additional funding and support for the national farm stress initiative. There is a farm stress epidemic growing in American agriculture and the AFR/OFU Farm Stress Management Team program was discussed in detail as a great example of how additional funding could have a dramatic footprint nationwide in farm country.

Representative Kendra Horn Congressional Meeting

AFR/OFU delegates were pleased to meet with staff of the sole Democratic member of the Oklahoma federal delegation. AFR/OFU President Scott Blubaugh kicked off the meeting by thanking Horn for her recent leadership in relation to Covid-19 and her involvement in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which has unveiled a “March to Common Ground” framework to help break the gridlock on the latest pandemic relief package negotiations.

In keeping with other congressional meetings from earlier in the week, the need for increased slaughter capacity and meat inspectors was front-and-center. AFR/OFU delegates lamented the loss of many small and mid-sized processing facilities across the state and outlined how that loss has impacted them. The fear conveyed is that without an increase in capacity for smaller processors coupled with an increase in the number of state and USDA inspectors, the disruptions from Covid-19 could repeat. Intertwined throughout this discussion was Rep. Frank Lucas’s RAMP-UP Act, which aims to increase the number of plants eligible for state or federal inspection on a national scale.

Agriculture and food security issues dominated much of the remaining conversation, including issues like funding and appropriations, commodity markets, foreign ownership of food system assets and corporations, antitrust behavior in the meat processing sector, and international trade, specifically the optimism and volatility of trade with China.

Additional discussion topics included soil health and the push for new conservation options for farmers and ranchers. As expected, the need for rural broadband was also a key talking point, with one AFR/OFU delegate stating, “Having connectivity in rural Oklahoma—that’s critical.”

Representative Austin Scott Congressional Meeting

AFR/OFU delegates’ congressional meeting with Austin Scott (R-Georgia) was an engaging and in-depth discussion of the current state of the agriculture industry. Packer consolidation and the need to spread out industry risk and invest in mom-and-pop meat packers were highlighted early in the conversation with AFR/OFU Scott Blubaugh commenting, “We need a level playing field and it’s time for Congress to address concentration in meat packing.”

Most topics circled back to program funding and appropriations. Scott said he shares with consumers just how little of their grocery bill goes to the American farmer and often reminds colleagues that agriculture has been one of the hardest hit American industries during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like in Oklahoma, Georgia farmers usually need a secondary income source even in good years.

Scott acknowledged that (Coronavirus Food Assistance Program) CFAP and Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments are not long term solutions, but they’re needed now to help ensure America’s farmers will still be farming next year. While he expects another round of USDA payments, adequate funding simply wasn’t appropriated and the payments may not be enough to sustain agricultural producers.

Tied to the funding issue, AFR/OFU delegates and Scott discussed 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 so, as Blubaugh put it, “When the world is hungry, our soil will be ready.”

At the end of a very productive conversation, Scott wrapped up the congressional meeting by commending on the common challenges producers are facing nationwide. “We’re going to have to adapt faster to the changes we see, but that’s easier said than done in agriculture.”

Representative Neal Dunn Congressional Meeting

The congressional meeting with the staff of Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.) was a shorter, but still productive conversation that centered on meat processing industry disruptions and national food security. As with other meetings, AFR/OFU delegates hit the consolidation issue hard by highlighting the need to spread out food system risk by adding more small and mid-sized processing facilities, as well as state and federal inspectors. Lucas’s RAMP-UP Act was discussed in detail, as well as the impact of foreign ownership of large portions of the meat industry.

Conservation was also an important topic during the Dunn congressional meeting, with specific conversations about carbon sequestration, CRP lands, cover crops, and a new “working lands” conservation program. As with other meetings this week, pandemic relief for agriculture, rural healthcare, broadband and the need for increased farm stress initiatives were covered in detail.

Memorandum of Understanding between NFU and MANRRS

In addition to the one-on-one meetings with Lankford, Horn, Scott and Dunn, AFR/OFU delegates attended a virtual joint event between National Farmers Union and Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS). During the online ceremony, NFU President Rob Larew and MANRRS National President Dr. Antomia Farrell signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) summarizing the ways in which both organizations will collaborate to provide educational and leadership opportunities for young people of all racial and ethnic identities, develop federal policy priorities, and extend each other’s reach within agricultural communities.

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.

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OKLAHOMA CITY—American Farmers & Ranchers/Oklahoma Farmers Union (AFR/OFU) delegates had an effective second day of the 2020 National Farmers Union (NFU) Fall Legislative Fly-In Sept. 15. Participants lobbied virtually on behalf of the AFR/OFU membership.

AFR/OFU delegates met one-on-one virtually with Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and former Chairman of the House Ag Committee Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). In both meetings, AFR/OFU delegates talked of challenges rural citizens have faced during Covid-19, as well as issues farmers and ranchers have dealt with in recent years that are now exacerbated by the pandemic.

Congressional meeting with Senator Jim Inhofe

During the congressional meeting with Inhofe, cattle market issues were top of mind as AFR/OFU delegates discussed the funding discrepancy between pre- and post-April 15 Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments. As one AFR/OFU delegate remarked, “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.”

Another major topic of conversation is the farm stress issue plaguing American agriculture. AFR/OFU delegates noted how it has been a difficult past few years for all producers and that keeping family farmers in existence has been an incredible challenge even with relief payments. One delegate who is a member of the AFR/OFU Farm Stress Management Team asked specifically for additional and continued funding for the national farm stress program.

The various challenges facing Oklahoma’s farmers and the agriculture industry as a whole dominated the remainder of the meeting. Topics included the plight of the dairy industry, trade with China, the desperate need for rural broadband access and, as expected, beef industry consolidation issues. On the consolidation front, the 50/14 concept was pushed in an effort to increase market transparency and competition.

Inhofe discussed the next Senate Covid-19 relief bill and assured AFR/OFU delegates that farmers and ranchers will be well cared for if the legislation passes. Finally, AFR/OFU Cooperative President Scott Blubaugh urged investment in the Sooner State, saying “Every dollar we can keep in Oklahoma helps our rural economy and Oklahoma citizens.”

Congressional meeting with Representative Frank Lucas

The congressional meeting with Lucas was a lengthy back-and-forth discussion, covering issues like Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness, farm stress management, Covid relief funding, the state of rural healthcare, the risk of African Swine fever and, of course, rural broadband access.

When discussing the challenges faced by Oklahoma’s agricultural producers, Lucas conceded that farmers and ranchers have experienced several tough years and responding to those challenges in an effective way can sometimes be difficult. With past years and future economic difficulties an almost certainty, Lucas said work on the next farm bill may begin early because there are so many issues to tackle.

During the meeting, Lucas hit hard on beef supply consolidation. While the U.S. system may be the most efficient and low cost in the world, he said it was clear the industry had some issues and that we should work toward solutions. Those solutions included two bills Lucas has authored this year. The RAMP-UP Act would provide facility upgrade grants to existing meat and poultry processors to help them move to USDA inspection and be able to sell their products across state lines.  The Agricultural Security Risk Review Act would include the USDA Secretary on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) ensure sales of U.S. assets to foreign entities do not threaten or impair the national security of the United States.

In addition to the beef industry discussion, AFR/OFU delegates also talked with Lucas at length about conservation efforts within Oklahoma. This discussion emphasized funding and improvements to upstream flood control and aging infrastructure, soil health and water quality.

Congressional Leadership Briefings

In addition to the one-on-one meetings with Inhofe and Lucas, the AFR/OFU delegation attended a briefing by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Cali.), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Former Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

The briefing provided by Pelosi and Peterson were expansive with both leaders giving details on programs and welcoming questions from all NFU Fly-In attendees. The briefings provided by Stabenow, Lucas and Tester were recorded, but also packed with information. In particular, Lucas’ briefing was excellent and is available at https://nfu.org/fly-in/.

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.

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OKLAHOMA CITY—American Farmers & Ranchers/Oklahoma Farmers Union (AFR/OFU) delegates experienced a successful first day of the 2020 National Farmers Union (NFU) Fall Legislative Fly-In Sept. 14. Participants lobbied virtually on behalf of the AFR/OFU membership.

Representative Trent Kelly Congressional Meeting

AFR/OFU delegates met one-on-one with member of the House Ag Committee Rep. Trent Kelly’s (R-Miss.) legislative team via videoconference. During the call, they highlighted the challenges our nation’s farmers, ranchers and rural citizens face as they attempt to wade through and recover from Covid-19.

On the farming front, AFR/OFU delegates hit hard on Covid-19 funding issues. These included underwhelming or nonexistent CFAP (Coronavirus Food Assistance Program) payments and the great need for Small Business Administration (SBA) loan requirements to be loosened for agricultural producers who had experienced negative returns in recent years. Concerns were also voiced over a need to strengthen the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) system to ensure local FSA offices are truly local to the majority of agricultural producers.

In addition to funding issues, AFR/OFU delegates emphasized the food system problems brought to light by the pandemic. Heavy-hitters included the incredible consolidation of meat packers and the U.S. food system in general over the last few decades and the need for further investigation of the meat packing sector in regard to potential antitrust behaviors. Delegates also discussed positive solutions to recent disruptions of the meat supply chain. One solution discussed in depth was Frank Lucas’ (R-OK) RAMP-UP Act, which aims to increase state- and USDA-inspected slaughter capacity nationwide through grants for small and mid-sized processing facilities.

Finally, hardships rural citizens are dealing with nationwide that have been exacerbated by the pandemic were talked about at length. Specifically, points of discussion were the loss of rural hospitals, the vulnerability and availability of rural healthcare, the importance of the U.S. Postal Service to rural America, and the lack of and desperate need for increased broadband access from coast to coast.

USDA Leadership Briefing

In addition to the congressional meeting with Rep. Kelly’s legislative team, the Oklahoma delegation attended a briefing from USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Bette Brand. In the briefing, Brand emphasized that many Rural Development employees live in the communities they serve and face the same issues the department fights to improve. She stated that, despite pandemic shutdowns and remote working environments, the Rural Development team has continued to work and serve.

Brand discussed one Rural Development priority at length—rural broadband access. Brand was clear in her comments—USDA knows the importance of broadband access and considers it a top priority. From Smart Ag and telemedicine to remote work and virtual learning, Brand outlined the reasons for increased broadband access and left the issue with a motto of sorts for the efforts. She said, “When rural America thrives, all America thrives.”

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.

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