Labor, regulation, taxes among top concerns in challenged industry

JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Local dairyman Mike Saylor had been up for hours when he asked Zippy Duvall a question about price supports at 8:30 Friday morning.

Saylor wasn’t about to let the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President out of his sights without an answer on one of the bureau’s top issues.

“We feel like he could maybe help us in our pricing structure — that’s mostly what it’s all about,” Saylor told News Channel 11.

“It’s just got so far out of hand with our milk price versus our input cost,” Saylor continued. “Inputs are just like four to five times and milk’s went up maybe 2 to 3 percent  in the last several years.” 

Duvall — probably the most influential voice for farmers in the country — fielded lots of questions at a breakfast at the Washington County Farm Bureau. He was wrapping up his first state tour since COVID arrived, and since his wife of 40 years died.

Zippy Duvall addresses Tennessee Farm Bureau members from multiple counties Friday in Jonesborough, Tenn.

Duvall covered everything from climate change, regulation and farmers’ mental health to labor, immigration, estate taxes and concerns about the Biden administration.

The third-generation Georgia farmer seemed glad to be out of Washington and talking about a group of Americans he said carry an 88 percent approval rating but whose needs aren’t well understood by the public.

“We don’t have to depend on any other country to feed us and God help us if we ever get in that condition,” Duvall said. “That’s why it’s important to every American to understand what agriculture’s going through and make sure that it stays healthy and thriving across rural America.” 

That’s been a challenge as more family farms go under or close, regulations mount and migrant labor — a key to the industry — often seems more like a political hot potato than a business issue.

It hasn’t been easy for Saylor and his family, who have diversified their approach despite his preference to stay focused on their traditional area.

“We do some custom work, we do some row crops – we just do a few other things to create a little extra revenue,” Saylor said.

That’s partly because margins in dairying are minuscule to negative. Saylor said 30 years ago he got $15 per hundred pounds of milk, paid about $12,000 for a truck and got a ton of feed for $150.

Today that ton of feed costs him $400, a truck’s about $60,000 — and that milk? $17.50.

Dairy farmer Mike Saylor, center, and others listen attentively as the farm bureau’s top national leader Zippy Duvall talks issues Friday in Jonesborough, Tenn.

“I want to be a dairyman,” Saylor said. “I don’t want to do this other stuff, because it takes time away from the dairy, that you could be doing that or you could be spending with your family or whatever it might be.” 

The federally controlled “milk marketing order system” is one of two primary farm policy issues highlighted on AFBF’s website, the other being the entire 2018 farm bill.

Duvall said it’s in its own league for putting an entire ag sector on the edge, but that farmers are generally at the mercy of others when it comes to income.

“Farmers are price takers not price makers,” Duvall said. “Any time that you add cost to it it something they have to absorb because they can’t really dictate what the price is that they get for their commodity.”

The Biden question

Duvall knew his audience was largely supportive of former President Donald Trump and that many were worried about a Biden administration’s impact on their way of life.

He encouraged them to hope for the best and said that’s what he was doing. Concerns about what climate change rulings might mean? Show that you’re early adopters of smart practices, Duvall said.

And he told News Channel 11 new Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who also served in the role under President Barack Obama, will be an ally.

“If he (President Biden) had a called me and asked me what Democrat would you like to serve as secretary I would have had said Tom Vilsack,” Duvall said.

He mentioned Vilsack’s four years heading the U.S. Dairy Export Council post-Obama as another plus. “He learned a lot about trade and its importance to farmers in that role,” Duvall said.

“He’s a big picture guy, he’s about rural America and he wants to do the right thing for farmers across this country.” 

Duvall said he’s already developed a good relationship with Vilsack and seemed to suggest the only potential downside would be having his hands tied by his boss.

“I’m excited about working with Tom Vilsack and hope that this administration will give him the authority to be able to do the right thing for rural America and farmers.” 

One area where Duvall said he hopes political progress is made — for the sake of both farmers and millions of human beings who call the U.S. home for at least part of the year — is immigration.

Tennessee Farm Bureau President Jeff Aiken, right, talks policy with American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall at Aiken’s Bowmantown, Tenn. farm

“If you’re born and raised in America you don’t want to do that kind of work anymore and that is a very unfortunate thing,” he said.

That shift has made migrant labor essential in American agriculture. Duvall said AFBF believes a couple things need fixing in that regard, including the guest worker program.

He said the formula to calculate wages “isn’t based on sound principles,” and seemed to suggest some farmers are mandated to pay more than a fair market study would suggest they should.

“We need to make sure that formula is redone to represent the pay for that job that gives that worker a fair pay but it also gives a salary and a pay that a farmer can afford and stay in business and continue to create those jobs.” 

He also said the H-2A guest worker program should be adapted to the needs of all farm operations — which isn’t the case with Saylor’s.

“In dairy you need someone every day and every night regardless of what day of the year it is and the current work program doesn’t allow year round workers.” 

He went there on undocumented workers

Without prompting, Duvall brought up the issue of undocumented migrant workers. The AFBF website has several position briefs on the issue, and he echoed the bureau’s line — which doesn’t fit with most GOP talking points despite farmers’ general lean toward the Republican party.

“Some have been here 10 15 years, they’re part of our communities and part of our families and they need an opportunity to adjust their status,” Duvall said. “Shame on us for having a country where we force people to live in the shadows.”

The AFBF touts its proposed solution as “tough but fair” and says “enforcement is an important part of the solution, but not the whole solution.”

“Did they do something wrong by coming here undocumented, yes,” Duvall said. “Let’s give them a way to work through that, allow them to work in our country and go back and forth if they still have family at home in their country, go back and forth and see them. That’s the right thing to do and somehow I think we’ll find a way to solve that problem.” 

Is there a future in farming?

Duvall went from the breakfast at Jonesborough’s Farm Bureau headquarters to Jeff and Jack Aiken’s farm in Bowmantown. Jeff is the Tennessee Farm Bureau president who managed to convince Duvall that East Tennessee would be a good place for his first significant travel outside Washington since COVID hit.

The pandemic offered yet one more cost to farmers, though it was for a need they certainly wanted to address.

“No one was prepared to get PPE to protect workers,” Duvall said. “For us to get access to that equipment and to be able to afford that was the hard thing for our farmers to adapt to.” 

While some financial help came, the challenge exemplified farmers’ lives, which Duvall said tend to be filled with uncertainty about the future.

“There’s a lot of issues around how do we keep farmland in agriculture, how do we pass it on to the next generation.,” Duvall said.

The impact of estate taxes is just one example. Many family-owned farms have the vast majority of their assets tied up in farm real estate and equipment. After a death on farms the size of those in Northeast Tennessee, surviving family members can see their ability to continue farming crippled by tax bills.

“As those policies are discussed we are actively following it and watching and make sure that we don’t do any harm to the system that allows us to pass our homes.” 

Jaclyn Aiken, with one of her “pet” show Herefords, hopes to make a career of farming in Washington County, Tenn.

That’s just one important factor that could make it harder for Jaclyn Aiken, Jack’s daughter and Jeff’s niece, to continue the business she loves in partnership with her brother Justin.

She’s about to graduate with an agriculture degree from Walter’s State Community College and hopes to take care of the animal side of the operation while her brother steps into the crop side and uses his diesel mechanic skills to keep the equipment in top shape.

“I like being around my family and the thing about our farm is it’s a family farm and we all do things together,” Aiken said.

The hard work, financial risk and lack of glamour mean fewer and fewer Jaclyn Aikens are out there wanting to stay in the business, Duvall said.

“If you’re born and raised in America you don’t want to do that kind of work anymore and that is a very unfortunate thing, because it is a wonderful way of life and a great place to raise your family.” 

Duvall hopes people like Jaclyn Aiken are ready for a risky business, because unpredictability comes from all sides, including the traditional one.

“Our business is a high risk business because we deal with nature, that’s in the good Lord’s hands,” he said, noting that Jeff Aiken was out late Thursday night making sure his greenhouse temperature was set to cope with near-record lows.

“When everybody else is in their bed turning the thermostat up to be just a little more comfortable, farmers are out there taking care of their plants and taking care of their animals to make sure no harm is done,” Duvall said.

 “We take that in stride it’s just a way of life. To other people it would be a huge inconvenience, but we do that to make sure that we can continue to supply what people depend on.”

Empty store shelves last spring as the pandemic hit farm labor and the supply chain showed just how vulnerable the food system can be, Duvall said as he got ready to leave the mountains and head back to the Beltway to try and plant seeds for a viable future for people like Jaclyn and Justin Aiken.

“We want to keep our rural communities alive and well, but we also want to make sure our country stays secure and the only way we can do that is to continue to feed ourselves.”