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Ford, Duvall: Farm labor, food supply chain, Internet, diversity big issues

In a conversation Monday during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s online convention, Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall and Land O’Lakes President Beth Ford said that, while the COVID-19 pandemic will be the biggest issue for the next months, farmers face several other issues in the new year.

Duvall said he considers farm labor to be the biggest factor holding back U.S. agriculture because “no one in the United States wants to do this kind of work any more.”

He pointed out to Ford that dairy farmers do not have access to labor because dairy farms need workers year round and the program to bring in workers is for short-term help.

Ford responded that she has told the incoming Biden administration that it is fine to talk about bringing in tech workers, but that farm labor is also needed.

Duvall noted that the “just in time” system under which farmers and processors supply food to stores on a timely basis worked well for many years, but that the supply problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that there needs to be a balance with “just in case.”

There are also “discrepancies” around pricing because consumers have paid more for beef while farmers have gotten low prices for cattle, Duvall noted.

Ford emphasized the importance of infrastructure, especially access to high-speed Internet service and access to health care. She said the cost of eliminating the digital divide in rural America would be $80 billion, and that farm leaders need to think about the implications of the country moving toward electric cars, especially the impact on biofuels and corn and soybeans.

Both Duvall and Ford said agriculture needs to think more about diversity.

Ford, who is the first openly gay woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, said, “I do my best work because I am myself. I want to be valued by my work, by my content.”

Agriculture, she said, needs to “bring in people who are excited about the work we do. We need the best and the brightest.”

Duvall said that at Farm Bureau he wants to be inclusive of genders, races and sizes and types of farms.

“Our organization is 102 years old. We are known for being very slow to change,” Duvall said. “We want to move forward and do our part in solving these problems. We are intensely involved in developing new leaders in agriculture.”

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