WASHINGTON, March 4, 2015 – International trade, the 2014 farm bill and concerns about government regulation were some of the key themes discussed when over 7,900 growers and agribusiness leaders – a new record – gathered in Phoenix for the 20th annual Commodity Classic. Farmers representing the American Soybean Association (ASA), the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and the National Sorghum Producers (NSP) met to debate key policy issues. Here are some of the highlights:
The trade campaign is on. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talked about the 2014 farm bill, announcing a one-month extension of the base and yield reallocation. But his focus was clearly on international trade, helping his boss win support for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and getting new trade agreements negotiated. “I’m asking you today to get engaged. To help convince this country that it’s in our economic and national security interests to get these trade agreements through……30 percent of sales, 2.7 billion new consumers…...not letting China write the rules…..pretty doggone important time to engage all of you.” On the same day, all but one of the former Ag Secretaries of Agriculture sent a letter to Congress urging members to approve TPA and a day later, Ambassador Darci Vetter, the U.S. Trade negotiator for agriculture provided growers with a briefing on TPA and an update on negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership.
Protecting the RFS. NCGA President Chip Bowling said that in addition to trade and concerns about overreaching federal regulations, defending the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) remains a top concern for his organization. “Our number-one goal for the last several years has been to protect the RFS,” Bowling told Agri-Pulse. “We'll continue to get attacks on it; we have handled them in the past and like farmers always do, we'll figure out a way to make the best of a bad situation.” In the meantime, while EPA continues to delay releasing RFS volume levels, NCGA is working to enhance demand with programs like “Prime the Pump” which has raised about $26 million to buy blender pumps for retail fuel chains that agree to sell fuel blended with 15 percent ethanol. They’ve signed up six major retailers, thus far. They also want to establish a higher standard for new ethanol pumps, and require manufacturers to only build those that support E25 blends and above in the future.
National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe said the reason bills like the Corn Ethanol Mandate Elimination Act (S.577) keep coming up to attack ethanol has more to do with political calculations of the oil and refinery industry rather than legitimate public policy concerns. “The reason the opposition has been so fierce is not because . . . the program (the RFS) is a failure; if the program was a failure, they wouldn’t care,” Jobe said. “It’s because the program is a success and they’re afraid of losing market share.”
Wheat checkoff on hold. Efforts to find some type of new or enhanced funding for wheat research and promotion has been tabled indefinitely, said NAWG’s immediate Past President Paul Penner. After funding two reports on how a new checkoff or other mechanism might work, “we’ve decided that a lot of different states have insurmountable difficulties in being able to implement any form of additional funding,” he told Agri-Pulse. “There are a myriad of laws that affect every state. Some prohibit a federal checkoff, some would have to go through their state legislation. So we are taking a deep breath and let this go for now. At some future date, if there is a groundswell of support from the states, it will be taken up again.”
WOTUS and wetlands. There seemed to be almost universal opposition to EPA’s proposed rule defining “waters of the U.S.” among Commodity Classic participants. The ASA delegates called for elimination of the full proposal, while NCGA noted that “Federal jurisdiction over navigable waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act should not be expanded in scope.” But there were some deep divisions on a host of other environmental issues, including whether or not any non-governmental organizations, like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, should be allowed to work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service on wetlands determinations. During the ASA delegate session growers from North and South Dakota, along with Minnesota, spoke strongly against what one described as “inequitable influence” created by co-locating NRCS staff with privately-funded staff.
Farm bill implementation. Most growers seemed very satisfied with the farm bill decision-making tools available and the service they’ve received from Farm Service Agency offices. But clearly, a large number of producers have yet to sign up before the next deadline, March 31. The National Sorghum Producers expressed some concerns with the new farm bill, specifically when it comes to separating irrigated and dryland yields under the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) program. They are also focused on the growing demand for exports. (See page 10.)
Crop insurance and prevented planting. Grower groups all offered strong support for crop insurance, while expressing concerns about new attacks on the program. NCGA delegates spent a lot of time debating whether or not prevented planting rules should be tightened, with the Iowa delegation proposing: “For production units that receive prevent plant benefits under the federal crop insurance program, the assigned yield for that year should be in the range of 60-75% of the farm’s current APH for the crop involved.” While Iowans argued that they wanted to demonstrate concern about the cost of crop insurance to the taxpayer—North Dakota members insisted that this type of change would harm prevented planting provisions for producers who truly need it. The proposal was tabled for further review. In the ASA delegate session, North Dakota delegates wanted to remove support for linking crop insurance participation to conservation compliance. One North Dakota delegate noted that “we showed our hand during the farm bill debate but now we need to say we don’t really want it.” Delegates from Iowa and Illinois opposed the move. Iowa Soybean President Tom Oswald noted that it was a critical component of soybean farmers’ sustainability strategy. ASA board member from Illinois, Ron Moore, called the linkage “an opportunity to build coalitions with groups that we don’t always see eye to eye.” The proposed measure was rejected.
Diversity concerns remain. It’s pretty easy to sit in the delegate sessions of every one of these organizations and see the obvious demographics: the majority are white, male, and graying – with just a few exceptions. Some farmer leaders tell Agri-Pulse that they’ve tried to recruit more diverse members, but for a variety of reasons, they aren’t successful. After all, they say, you can’t exactly pull a young woman off the farm into leadership positions when she’s needed to make ends meet on the farm. USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden was on hand to repeat – perhaps with more emphasis than she did last year – that there are plenty of women and other diverse candidates available. And “it depends on how you ask,” she noted. “Women don’t want to be invited to fulfill a quota. They want to be considered because of their talents and skills.”
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