The Rhode Island Farm Bureau’s Annual Dinner Meeting featured something extra special this year: a visit from American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Vincent “Zippy” Duvall. The meeting was held at the Alpine Country Club in Cranston, RI in November. Also present were Rhode Island state senators and representatives, U.S. Senator Jack Reed, educators from Cooperative Extension, local agricultural leaders, and farmer members.
Each year the RI Farm Bureau (RIFB) honors local agricultural heroes. Ann Stamp, Rhode Island farmer and Monsanto’s Northeast Farm Mom of the Year, spoke about her experience meeting with the other regional Farm Moms. Navigator Awards were presented to State Representatives Samuel A. Azzinaro, Michael W. Chippendale, and Joseph M. McNamara. State Senators Walter S. Felag, Jr., Nicholas D. Kettle, and V. Susan Sosnowski also received Navigator Awards for their support of agriculture in the legislature. The Golden Tractor Award went to U.S. Senator Jack Reed for his involvement in increasing markets for American-produced cheese.
The annual Farm Bureau Dinner Meetings are multi-purpose affairs. One primary goal is to formulate resolutions on local agricultural matters and to receive updates on national issues. This year the Rhode Island membership passed three resolutions. The first is to “pursue legislation that will allow farmers to construct solar farms on preserved land without permission from the state and without having to share the proceeds from the land lease with the state.” Many farmers have sold development rights under agreements prohibiting construction without prior approval. This resolution would offer such farmers an opportunity to generate income by altering a relatively small amount of land without substantially affecting the long-term quality of the soil.
The second resolution is to “establish a policy that fosters and promotes farming at individual town levels through the town’s comprehensive plan. Establish a list of farmers by location and offer training to assist them in becoming members of the Comprehensive Plan Review Committee in their towns to ensure that farming is included as economic development as is mandated by law.” While Rhode Island law states that agriculture should be included in the Comprehensive Plans each town revises every five-10 years, towns that have active farmer involvement in the planning process pass plans that are more inclusive and supportive of agriculture. RIFB intends to offer training to farmers interested in shaping the Comprehensive Plans in their towns.
The final resolution passed supports “composting toilets on farms for field and farm house application.” Farm Bureau members consider composting toilets to be an environmentally-friendly alternative to other types of facilities in growing areas and in farm houses, so the Bureau will seek legislative and regulatory changes to reflect that position.
Once the business meeting concluded, social networking began. Farmers asked Cooperative Extension agents about production concerns and discussed insurance options with their insurance agent. State senators and representatives were also available to hear about legislative concerns from their constituents.
Following the social hour was the dinner and special presentations. American Farm Bureau President Vincent “Zippy” Duvall was the featured speaker. Though Duvall hails from Georgia and speaks with a Southern drawl, he quickly connected with his Rhode Island audience. He noted that his hometown of Greensboro in Greene County are both named in honor of Nathanael Greene, the Rhode Island-born major general who served in the Continental Army, settled in Georgia until his death, and was buried in Savannah. Duvall also congratulated the Rhode Island Farm Bureau for being the first state to meet their quota in 2016. He remarked, “We appreciate what you bring to our organization when you volunteer and when you serve.”
Duvall strives to live his life according to Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” That applies to his professional life as well as to his personal one. When he was elected President of the AFBF in January 2015, he made himself a promise that, in order to truly understand American agriculture in all its diversity, he would visit every state during his tenure. His visit to Rhode Island marked his 31st state visit.
The President of the AFBF is in a unique position to influence agricultural policy, and Duvall has already had several conversations with President-elect Donald Trump. AFBF posits that “agriculture is always a winner in trade,” and has encouraged the incoming President to consider the impact of trade agreements on farmers.
As he has travelled the country, Duvall notes that two common challenges confront all American farmers: labor and regulation. AFBF supports giving “undocumented skilled labor adjustment status” to enable them to become legal and continue working in the U.S. The Federation also recommends “a workable guest labor program” to help farmers access the labor they need.
Regardless of the support or opposition he gets from Washington, Duvall is passionate about uniting agriculture. He maintains, “I have educated myself to make me a better president for all farmers.” He hopes famers across the country will follow suit, learning about other types of agriculture and supporting those whose agriculture may look very different from their own. “Our farmers and ranchers can have the backs of farmers and ranchers in another part of the country we don’t even know.”
President Duvall’s message met with a standing ovation, suggesting that the RIFB membership shares his vision.