WASHINGTON, March 9, 2016 - The Big Easy played host to farmers last week as a record crowd of producers and exhibitors traveled to New Orleans for the biggest Commodity Classic in the event’s history.

The gathering brings together the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Sorghum Producers, and, for the first time, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. Almost 9,800 attended, about 4,600 of them producers; both figures were records.

This year’s event was relatively quiet for new policy positions because some of the main issues the groups would typically address – a farm bill, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and management of the RFS, to name a few – have seen substantial action since last year’s event in Phoenix. With just a few exceptions, producers focused more on prices than policy.

“A big issue for us is $3.50 corn, and we need to make sure demand is up,” Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, told Agri-Pulse. He said there “really is nothing new” for issues before his group, which is focusing on proper implementation and governance of existing programs.

The major policy issue getting attention was the biotech labeling proposal in the Senate. Groups took turns speaking favorably of a proposal by Senate Agriculture Committee chair Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, which could see action this week or next. Also on the biotech front, groups – particularly the American Soybean Association – repeated calls for improving the approval process for biotech traits in foreign markets, especially China and the EU. And there’s also what seems to be an uphill battle for TPP passage.

Here’s a breakdown of the issues addressed by the organizations:

Corn Growers push for increased production, demand

Promoting voluntary nutrient management programs (NMPs), increasing ethanol use, and improving consumer attitudes about technology in production agriculture should be the top priorities for the National Corn Growers Association, according to results of the Corn Congress held at Commodity Classic.

Some 106 delegates from corn-growing states voted Saturday after hearing from CEO Chris Novak on the state of the association and from chairs of various committees on their work and priorities.

The delegates voted on priorities within three overarching categories: Enhancing Productivity and Environmental Sustainability; Increasing Demand; and Strengthening Customer and Consumer Trust.

The promotion of voluntary NMPs, one of five goals included in the Sustainability category, finished just ahead of the goal of promoting soil health and water quality initiatives.

Not surprisingly, the number-one goal in the “Increase Demand” category was to boost the amount of ethanol used by 2020 to 4 billion gallons. Tied for second place were goals to improve infrastructure and increase exports of corn and corn products. (The delegates voted on other goals within that category. What they voted on is here; the results are here.

In the Customer and Consumer Trust category, delegates said that after improving customer attitudes about technology in production agriculture (such as the use of GMOs, crop inputs, and precision farming), the most important goal is to expand relationships with new partners, including environmental and public health groups, to advance NCGA’s work with ethanol.

Novak also said corn growers need to push to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership approved, not just because expanded trade is good for corn growers, but because it would reduce tariffs on U.S. beef exports, giving the cattle industry – and feed demand – a boost.

And echoing prominent proponents such as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Novak said that without TPP, “we’ll never strike a free trade deal with Europe,” referring to the still-being-negotiated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and the European Union.

Soybean discussion heavy on biotech, trade

A Senate debate on GMO labeling “is the tipping point for biotechnology in the agricultural sector,” American Soybean Association Chairman Wade Cowan told reporters at the Classic, echoing sentiments from other ASA leaders.

Cowan said producers need to “rock the Hill” with their calls for national, voluntary GMO labeling. He even provided a toll-free number (1-866-464-6633) for advocates to call to get advice on messaging and best practices for reaching out to their senators on the issue. In an interview with Agri-Pulse, ASA President Richard Wilkins called it ASA’s “front page issue.”

While existing ASA policy already deals with GMO labeling, the group took action on other biotech issues, specifically low-level presence trade barriers. After a good deal of discussion and massaging of language, the delegates voted to encourage work by USDA and its foreign agriculture and trade counterparts to institute a LLP policy with a specific acceptable threshold.

Meanwhile, for the first time, ASA voted to officially oppose splitting farm and nutrition provisions in future farm bills. Wilkins told Agri-Pulse that the two provisions need to stay together in one bill, because a split farm bill be would very difficult “if not improbable or impossible.”

ASA also voted to reinstate language in its policy document that speaks against co-location of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff with their state offices. North Dakota growers expressed frustration that conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited were sharing offices with NRCS officials, but Iowa welcomed the help. The group also voted to change language that would shift from looking to increase protein levels in soybeans to instead finding ways to “enhance the nutritional bundle” of the crop.

Wheat looking to increase production, improve technology

The wheat industry is fighting a prolonged decline in acres, including a projected drop of 6.7 percent in this year’s plantings. To combat this slippage, the National Association of Wheat Growers is instituting a national yield contest similar to a competition run annually by the National Corn Growers Association. Brett Blankenship, NAWG’s immediate past president, told reporters he hopes the contest will be “a shot in the arm” for wheat production. “The first step is to stop the decline in acres,” he said. “Until we learn how to grow 300 bushel wheat, we’re not going to replace corn acres, but with a 20 percent yield gain in wheat . . . we’ll be able to reverse the trend.”

Blankenship also wants to focus on improvements in seed technologies such as the potential for GMO wheat or varieties from “new breeding techniques shy of GMO.” The Washington farmer spoke in favor of advancements in wheat genetics, but when asked if he would grow biotech wheat on his own property, Blankenship said that “would be a marketing decision more than an agronomic one.” He pointed to the high amount of Washington wheat that is exported to markets that are “sensitive” to biotechnology.

NAWG board members voted to formally support voluntary GMO labeling, specifically through notification such as a QR code or a point of contact for consumers to learn more about the biotech ingredients in their food. The group also voted in favor of “immediate congressional ratification” of the TPP as well as encouraging the Labor Department and other regulatory agencies to eliminate excess regulations that might hinder use of the H2A visa program for agricultural labor.

Association of Equipment Manufacturers pushes rural broadband

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers, a new sponsor of Commodity Classic this year, said the group is pushing for nationwide wi-fi coverage. “It’s important that fields have wireless coverage,” said Nick Tindall, AEM’s director of government affairs. “Data will boost agriculture more than mechanization has in the past 100 years.”

AEM has also developed a standard to control fugitive dust. “Every pneumatic air planter is adherent to that standard,” which awaits approval by the International Organization for Standardization, Tindall said. “EPA has been monitoring our progress on all those fronts. They’ve been very pleased with the steps we’ve taken voluntarily” and so have not proposed any regulations.

AEM Senior Vice President Charlie O’Brien said members have adjusted to the downturn in the ag economy. “I think there’s a recognition that this is a trough we’re going through,” he said. “I think the members right now are feeling OK with the level they’re at and have planned accordingly.”

O’Brien shared the association’s “Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge,” a crowd-sourcing competition to stir awareness and raise ideas for improving the infrastructure. It plans to pay out $150,000 in prizes to people who help identify and solve infrastructure challenges. “We want people to share personal experiences” of problems with roads, bridges and other parts of infrastructure, O’Brien said.

Sorghum growers voice concerns about pesticide regulation

Representatives of the National Sorghum Producers said they’re concerned about increased EPA efforts to regulate pesticides. In particular, they pointed to the loss of sulfoxaflor, the active ingredient in Dow AgroSciences’ Transform, due to a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision last year.

The Texas Department of Agriculture has requested a Section 18 exemption to use the product this year to control sugarcane aphids on up to 3 million acres of sorghum.

NSP also hailed the introduction of a new product, DuPont’s Zest, the first new herbicide technology focused solely on sorghum, which will provide growers with over-the-top grass control for the first time. Advanta US is currently producing seeds with the non-GMO trait. Field trials will take place this year.


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