Iowa Farm Bureau sets policy agenda

Annual conference has few contentious issues as farmers wait on lawmakers

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WEST DES MOINES — Iowa Farm Bureau delegates at the group’s annual conference in West Des Moines this week hashed out minor policy issues as they wait for change on major issues that are out of their hands.

Farmers are waiting on Congress’s 2018 Farm Bill and Iowa lawmakers’ plans for funding water quality projects across the state. They also are waiting — and hoping — commodity prices improve so they can do more than break even.

“We don’t all agree, but we try to be a unified front,” said Jason Russell, who raises hogs near Monticello and was Linn County’s voting delegate at the two-day conference.

The group approved new resolutions on topics that included reducing rental rates for the federal Conservation Reserve Program that members said would make it easier for beginning farmers to rent land, and expanding programs allowing for killing deer, which eat crops.

Invasive species, like Palmer Amaranth, also were on delegates minds with a new resolution requiring CRP seed mixes be free of noxious weeds.

The resolutions, which bubble up from county Farm Bureau meetings, set a course for Iowa Farm Bureau staff to lobby state and federal lawmakers. And the Farm Bureau has a lot of sway.

The not-for-profit organization, started in 1918, made nearly $700,000 in political donations from 2010 through January and has five registered lobbyists at the Iowa Statehouse in the 2017 session.

The Iowa Farm Bureau’s annual revenue was $88 million in 2015, the most recent year for which Form 990 tax forms are on file. The Farm Bureau spent $31.5 million in 2015, with the largest line items listed as employee compensation at $8.2 million, publications at $4.2 million and grants and other assistance at $2.8 million.

That year, the Farm Bureau had 34 people paid $100,000 or more, including two executives — Executive Director Denny Presnall and General Counsel Ed Parker — who each got more than $800,000 in total compensation, the records show. Farm Bureau President Craig Hill made more than $460,000 in total compensation in 2015.

After approving resolutions in open session Thursday morning, Farm Bureau delegates moved into closed session, in part, to vote on salaries for Hill and other board members. The new salaries aren’t announced, but will be part of future tax forms.

Thursday’s meeting was relatively quiet, Hill said during a break, because the Iowa Farm Bureau established its positions on several hot-button issues in earlier years.

To fund water quality initiatives, Hill said the Farm Bureau supports an Iowa Senate proposal to make about $27 million in new money available by 2021 through $12 million in sales tax already paid on water bills and $15 million new used to pay off Vision Iowa project bonds.

The Farm Bureau last year did not back a House plan to phase in a three-eighths cent sales tax increase over three years, while reducing income tax, to raise $180 million a year for conservation, particularly water quality.

“If no existing revenue is found, we would consider new revenue,” Hill said of the tax increase.

Several Farm Bureau policy positions involve helping beginning farmers. One is a resolution that “CRP rental rates should be less than current land rental rates.”

The CRP pays rent to farmers in exchange for them taking environmentally sensitive land out of agricultural production. The rent is supposed to be comparable with average cash rental rates, but the Iowa Farm Bureau would like to see it lower so landowners would be more likely to rent the land to a farmer than put it in CRP.

“We’re in constant competition with the federal government when they are giving $300-plus per acre to put it in CRP,” said Debbie Hinnah, the voting delegate from Keokuk County. “I can’t afford that.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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