“This bill has been bipartisan from start to finish,” said Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). “The House agriculture committee passed a bipartisan farm bill last year but for whatever reason the full House didn’t consider the bill. The good news is this year it looks like it’s going to be different.” Comments by Senator Debbie Stabenow
“It has been 354 days since the Senate passed its last farm bill,” said Senator Amy Klobachar (D-MN). “What we have here is a bill that saves the taxpayer $24 billion in 10 years over the last farm bill. That’s why it makes no sense to me to play a game of Green Light, Red Light and then at the end of the year we extend the last farm bill that’s even more expensive.” Comments by Senator Amy Klobachar
Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) was pleased to be part of passing a farm bill in her freshman year. “It is a year late but it is a bill that will send a message to the American people that we need to provide a certainty, we need to do things in a timely fashion,” she said. Comments by Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
“The Senate has again passed a deficit-reducing, bipartisan bill that will help our farms, our families, our economy, our environment,” said Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) upon passage of the bill. “We’ve shown the Senate can do its work.” Comments by Senator Sherrod Brown
So, can the House do its job so a farm bill can be completed by the end of summer? Representative Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, a member of the House agriculture committee, is hopeful. “Certainly that should be the goal,” says Rep. Hartzler. “I know the leadership of the House Ag and I think the Senate Ag Committee as well want to see this done and wrapped up by August, so we’re certainly going to try.” Interview with Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO)
Iowa State University professor Dr. Elwynn Taylor is one of the nation’s foremost extension climatologists, but even the best sometimes get the weather forecasts wrong.
When asked this time last year what the drought possibilities were for Iowa he said “less than 50%.” Take those odds to the racetrack and you would have been a big winner last year if you had bet on the drought.
At the World Pork Expo last week, Dr. Taylor provided his insights for 2013. “My outlook I put out most recently for the national corn yield is 147 bushels to the acre,” he began. “147 is considerably better than 123 for last year’s corn yield for the U.S. and considerably below the trend line which is 160.”
He noted the radical weather extremes Iowa has already seen this year, going from snow in early May to 101 degrees on May 14 to flood on May 24, breaking all kinds of records set in 1947. “Seems like I’m mentioning 1947 quite a bit,” said Taylor. “This is the year that we’re in right now with the volatility of weather that we had seen in ’47.”
“We’ve got a hurricane season just started expected to be on the harsh side, drought likely to persist in the western part of the Corn Belt, temperature high and low both being significant and more extreme than usual, and climate likely increasingly erratic during the next 25 years,” Taylor summarized. “Manage your risk, that’s the way we live through the volatile weather.”
When customers arrived at Linn Coop Oil Company in Marion, Iowa the morning of June 1 to fill up their 2001 and newer model vehicles with 15% ethanol they were surprised to find the pumps bagged as “out of order.”
“I had three consumers come in and ask me why the pumps were bagged and I said it’s because we can’t sell it,” said manager Jim Becthold. “It’s really hard on the consumer to understand the rules and regulations as they come down to us.”
What is really “out of order” is regulations that make it impossible for retailers like Linn Coop in Iowa to get the proper blendstock for E15 that is necessary during the summer months. “We’ll be able to sell it again on September 15, but through the summer months with the high gas prices, we can’t offer that fuel,” he said. “Really can’t see why we can’t do that. We can sell E10, E85, E30, but we can’t sell E15.” Bechtold faced the same situation last summer as he was preparing to offer E15.
Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA) sees the issue as part of a “war on renewables being funded by Big Oil.”
“Consumers who want a higher grade ethanol blend (E15) are being denied that choice,” said Braley, who is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee which has jurisdiction over the federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). He notes that is exactly why Congress passed the RFS in the first place, “to make sure that we were providing a cleaner burning fuel that would help reduce our dependence on foreign oil and provide consumers greater choices at a lower cost.”
The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association held a press conference at Bechtold’s station Monday morning to draw attention to the situation. “We’re not asking for something that doesn’t exist,” said executive director Monte Shaw. “The gasoline blendstock we need to make E15 in the summer is available, it flows through the very pipeline system that services Iowa, but they will not let us take it out of the pipeline here.”
Earlier this year, Iowa’s E15 retailers sent a letter to the oil refiners asking them to provide the proper summertime gasoline blendstock for E15. The letter noted that such fuels are already transported by the pipeline servicing Iowa. Yet, as of the June 1st summertime deadline, no oil refiner allowed Iowa retailers access to the necessary fuel. That refusal forced Linn Coop Oil Company and Iowa’s other E15 retailers to stop selling E15 as a registered fuel to 2001 and newer vehicles.
So, until and unless Braley and others can get the rule changed, E15 remains on summer break in Iowa and consumers will have to pay more at the pump when they go on their summer vacations.
“We’re very proud of having been around that long to serve the interests of our industry,” said CRA Director of Communications David Knowles during the recent NAFB Washington Watch event. “The corn refining industry actually goes back about 170 years,” he noted.
According to the CRA website, corn refining began in the United States around the time of the civil war with the development of the process for corn starch hydrolysis. Prior to this time, the main sources for starch had been wheat and potatoes. In 1844, the Wm. Colgate & Company wheat starch plant in Jersey City, N.J., became the first dedicated corn starch plant in the world. By 1857, the corn starch industry reached significant proportions in the U.S. Starch was the only product of the corn refining industry. Its largest customer was the laundry business. Today, corn is used for not only starches, but a whole host of other products such as sweeteners, fuel alcohol, oil, and bioproducts. “We’re really proud of the technological innovations that have taken place over the years to improve people’s lives,” David says.
The attacks on high fructose corn syrup (HCFS) in recent years presented the industry with a public relations challenge that they have met with an educational campaign started about five years ago to provide people with information about high fructose corn syrup. “Mainly that it’s nutritionally the same as sugar, is not uniquely responsible for any types of diseases and that sugars and all calories should be consumed in moderation,” said David, noting that their market research has shown the campaign, which includes the SweetSurprise.com website, has made an impact.
David says the industry is as strong as ever and looking forward to another sweet century ahead.
There was lots of activity of interest to corn farmers last week – both on The Hill and in the field.
I caught up with National Corn Growers Association Chairman Garry Niemeyer of Auburn, Illinois on Friday as he was busy playing catch up on planting progress. “We are probably about a fourth done with planting corn,” Garry said. “We normally are finished planting corn by the middle of April.” He added that since June 1 is the cutoff date for crop insurance they still have quite a bit of time to get a crop in and “everybody here is feverishly working.” While it has been the longest cold, wet spring that he can remember, Garry says it has really warmed up now in the Midwest and he thinks the corn will probably “come flying out of the ground” now.
Up on Capitol Hill last week, as so many like Garry were busy in the field, two pieces of legislation very important to farmers made significant and long-awaited progress. One was the passage of a new five year farm bill through both the House and Senate Agriculture committees. However, Garry is quick to note that we are still no further along on a new bill than last year at this point. “We never got a House bill to the floor (last year),” Garry noted. “I’m going to hope that the House finishes up, then they go to conference and we get a reasonable bill which will help all American farmers.”
Meanwhile, the Senate finally passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) last week, paving the way for upgrades to the inland waterways system important for farmers. “It’s been a long time, since 2007, since we’ve had a WRDA bill and back before 2000 they used to have a WRDA bill every other year,” Garry says. “Now we just need the funding to get these project moving forward.”
Of specific interest to corn farmers, the bill contains provisions to remove the over-budget and long-delayed Olmsted lock and dam project from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF), the remainder of the cost to be paid 100 percent by general treasury revenue and not cost-shared 50-50 through the IWTF. This action will free up around $750 million to the IWTF to complete critical priority navigation projects. An increase in the threshold for major rehabilitation, from the current $14 million to $20 million, was approved.
The bill now goes to the House for approval and Garry says they are encouraging farmers to call their representatives in Congress to tell them how important this legislation is to them.
The term “massive farm bill” has been used repeatedly in the general media this week to describe the bills passed out by the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, and by “massive” they mean the farm portion of the bill, not the nutrition portion which accounts for 80% of the funding called for in the legislation.
“The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved a massive five-year farm bill that would cut spending while also creating new subsidies for farmers,” reads the first sentence in an NPR story this week that was picked up and carried verbatim by many other news outlets.
The Senate bill cuts about $400 million out of almost $80 billion spent annually on food stamps, while at the same time cuts $5 billion a year in direct farm payments. The House bill makes deeper cuts in nutrition, about $20 billion over the life of the bill, while the programs for farmers take a hit of more than $18 billion.
“There will be some folks out in the countryside who will say ’80% of the bill is saving $20 billion and 20% of the bill is saving $18 billion, how can that be fair?’” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas meeting with farm broadcasters Wednesday just before the markup began. “This is the first real reform to the nutrition title in almost 20 years.”
The cuts to the nutrition title caused several members of the House committee to vote against the bill, and Lucas is well aware that will be one of the major sticking points when the bill gets to the floor of the House, which he believes will happen next month. “Whatever we do in the committee, many of the battles – whether it is over dairy, or sugar, or the size of the nutrition reforms, will be fought out again on the floor of the United States House,” he said to the farm broadcasters, echoing that sentiment after the bill was passed out of committee late Wednesday night. “We have an adventure ahead of us in June,” he said before banging the gavel to adjourn.
Agriculture groups seem quite willing to accept the disproportionate cuts for farm programs compared to nutrition programs because they want to see a bill passed that will finally allow them some kind of long term security to keep producing food and fiber for the country and the world. As long as there is just enough of a safety net to protect them from going bankrupt trying to do their job, farmers themselves are likely to agree that the bill is fair enough, but not at all “massive.”
As both the House and Senate Agriculture committees are marking up their versions of a farm bill this week, that was the number one issue for farm broadcasters meeting in the nation’s capitol for their annual Washington Watch.
“We absolutely want to get a farm bill done this year,” said Jon Doggett with the National Corn Growers Association. For corn growers, the top priority is risk management and crop insurance, which is why they joined with a number of other agriculture and environmental groups last week in hammering out a compromise to support tying conservation compliance and crop insurance but oppose means testing or payment limitations. “We worked out some common sense language that makes this a very workable program for growers that offers them plenty of opportunity that if they inadvertently get out of compliance they can quickly get back in,” he said. “In return, we have an assurance from the conservation community that they will be with us to protect the funding for crop insurance.”
It’s a safe bet that few people in the world know more about corn than A. Forrest Troyer, who has devoted his long life to developing improved corn hybrids and has been involved in the development of at least 40 commercial corn hybrids that have sold over 60 million bags of seed. That’s more than enough to plant all the corn in North America for two years!
Troyer worked for Pioneer Hi-Bred, Pfizer Genetics, Dekalb and Cargill Hybrid Seeds, and in his “retirement” is now adjunct professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois. Recently, Todd Gleason wtih the University of Illinois and WILL Radio interviewed Troyer for a great series on “The Story of Corn.” From the evolution of open pollinated corn to today’s genetics, it’s a fascinating story.
For many farmers and ranchers, the federal agency that best exemplifies the cynical phrase “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” is the Environmental Protection Agency.
During a Senate confirmation committee hearing last week, President Obama’s nominee for EPA Administrator admitted that the relationship between the agency and those working in agriculture could be improved.
“I think the agency has bridges to build with the agriculture community,” said nominee Gina McCarthy in response to questioning by Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska about one particular rule that requires farmers to have an oil spill prevention plan in place to protect against water contamination. McCarthy said she looks forward to addressing the issue with Sen. Fisher and others because “I know just how hard the farming community protects their resources and I want to make sure that we have an opportunity to change the relationship between that community and the EPA.”
This week, EPA’s new senior Agricultural Counselor held a conference call with agriculture media to discuss how that might happen. Sarah Bittleman, who previously served as USDA’s Senior Advisor on energy policy, says she knows that there is a lack of trust in the agency on the part of farmers and ranchers.
“My job is to restore some of that trust,” she said, noting that it might be improved by working more closely with USDA, conservation districts and state departments of agriculture that have a better relationship with producers. “By partnering with these other folks who work so closely with agriculture, we can little by little grow a base of increased and better trust relationships,” Bittleman added.
Bittleman says her goal as EPA advisor is to serve rural America.
“I believe we will have a bill this year because we have to have a bill this year.”
That’s what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said to agricultural journalists meeting in Washington DC. While he is confident there will be a “food, farm and jobs” bill sometime this year, he’s not sure about exactly when that might be. “I don’t know when Congress is going to act,” said the secretary. “I know what the ag chairs have said and that is that they’re anxious to get started now.”
That seems to be the general consensus among the policy watchers on Capitol Hill but that’s just about the same thing that was being said last year at this time. The committees were starting to work and the industry was feeling confident that the work would be getting done before the 2008 bill expired in September. Obviously, it didn’t happen.
Secretary Vilsack had two main reasons why we “have to have a bill” this year. “Producers need solutions and a five year plan to make decisions, but there are certain parts of the bill that will resolve sticky issues for us” the Brazilian WTO case regarding cotton being the primary example.
Of course, we had those same two reasons last year, but it was still okay to “kick the can” down the road for awhile. Hopefully it will be different this year. There has to be a point where the road dead ends.