Corn Commentary

Year of the Farm Bill

fb-2014It was probably the biggest agricultural news story of the year. What was supposed to be the 2012 farm bill was passed and signed into law this year as the 2014 farm bill, a multi-tasking piece of legislation according to President Obama.

“Despite it’s name, the farm bill is not just about helping farmers,” said Obama as he signed the bill in February. “Secretary Vilsack calls it a jobs bill, an innovation bill, an infrastructure bill, a research bill, a conservation bill … it’s like a Swiss Army knife.”

Well, that’s like about 20% of the knife, since 80% of the $956 billion price tag on the legislation is for food assistance and nutrition programs. “That’s why my position has always been that any farm bill I sign must have protections for vulnerable Americans,” said Obama. “This bill does that.”

USDA has spent the majority of 2014 working to implement the nearly 1000 page bill, and will continue that work into 2015 as farmers make their choice between the new ARC and PLC farm programs by March 31. “In addition to ARC and PLC, we’ve seen the institutional of our supplemental crop insurance option, the STAX program for our cotton growers, and the whole farm policy for our specialty crop growers,” said Secretary Vilsack.

One of the issues from the new farm bill that remains to be resolved in 2015 is the definition of “actively engaged” for a farming operation. “That is a definition that has great significance and importance out in the countryside,” says Vilsack, who noted that Congress exempted small family farms and family held farming corporations. “It will probably be limited to partnerships and joint ventures which represent somewhere between four and five percent of all production.”

2014 may be the year we finally got a new “Swiss Army knife” farm bill, but 2015 is the year we’ll finally get to use all of the implements.

Father of Ethanol Award

ace14-merle-collinThe American Coalition for Ethanol meeting in Minneapolis last week honored Congressman Collin Peterson of Minnesota with its highest award for supporters of ethanol, the Merle Anderson Award.

Anderson, a co-founder of ACE and known to many as the “Father of Ethanol,” proudly presented the award to his congressman. “Farmers have probably tripled their net worth in the last ten years,” said Anderson, giving credit to Peterson for getting farm bills passed. “I don’t think you’d have had a farm bill the last two farm bills if you wouldn’t have had Collin Peterson.”

Merle Anderson Presents Award to Rep. Collin Peterson

Peterson helped to pass the energy bill with the Renewable Fuel Standard and remains a strong supporter of ethanol in Congress. “It’s just been a tremendous success story in agriculture because it’s changed the marketplace so farmers can get a decent price for their corn,” he said. “We do have our opponents and they are still working to undermine things,” he continued.”They want to go back to $1.85 corn and I tell them if they are successful they will rue the day because nobody can grow corn for $1.85.” Peterson says the only way farmers survived when prices were $1.85 a bushel was because of the government subsidy “and that’s gone.”

Peterson remains hopeful that the EPA will eventually come out with a better final rule on the 2014 volume obligations for the RFS. “I think the fact that they delayed this for now a third time shows they are listening,” he said. “It appears to me that they realize they made a mistake here and they’re trying to figure out how to undo it.” He thinks it could be next year before the rule is final, but “a delayed decision is better than a bad decision.”

In this interview, Peterson also comments on WOTUS, farm bill implementation, immigration, and more. Interview with Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) at ACE Conference

27th Annual Ethanol Conference photo album

Overdue Farm Bill Passed

baby-farm-billAfter a what seemed to be a never-ending labor process, Congress has finally delivered a new farm bill – well past its 2012 due date.

National Corn Growers Association President Martin Barbre, like most farmers, was happy to see the long process come to an end. “While it’s not perfect, we’re pleased to see the bill contains many provisions we’ve been working hard for over the years,” he said.

There are definitely some changes included in the legislation. “This is not your father’s Farm Bill. It’s a new direction for American agriculture policy,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Among the most notable changes for farmers is the option to participate in either the revenue-based Agriculture Risk Coverage program or a Price Loss Coverage program with fixed reference prices. Stabenow notes the legislation also includes “one of the largest investments in land and water conservation we’ve made in many years” consolidating 23 existing conservation programs into 13 programs.

As a nod to Stabenow’s tireless work on the legislation for the past two years, President Obama is expected to sign the bill in Michigan on Friday.

Corn Commentary for Farm Broadcasters

There was lots of corn commentating going on last week at the 70th annual National Association of Farm Broadcasting (NAFB) annual meeting in Kansas City.

nafb13-martinThe National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) is a big supporter of the guys and gals who put farm news on radio and television stations and the internet. “It gives us the opportunity to get our message out to the public and to farmers,” said NCGA President Martin Barbre.

NCGA sponsors the welcoming reception for the NAFB and then organization leaders do tons of interviews with the broadcasters during the annual Trade Talk, which is where I interviewed Martin about a number of topics, including but not limited to, the farm bill and WRRDA. Interview with NCGA president Martin Barbre

nafb13-ncgaNCGA First Vice President Chip Bowling of Maryland was also on hand to chat with the broadcasters. He also talked about the farm bill, like everyone else, and about environmental regulations in his area around the Chesapeake Bay that are threatening agricultural producers.

It was especially interesting to farm broadcasters from the Midwest to get a different perspective on corn farming from a producer on the East coast. “In the Mid-Atlantic, we started planting corn right around the first of April, we had a good start and the corn crop just took off from the get-go and grew,” said Chip, noting it was a lot different this year in the Corn Belt. “Obviously with 14 billion bushels coming off, somebody grew a lot of good corn.”

Leah Guffey interviews Chip here: Interview with NCGA first VP Chip Bowling

2013 NAFB Convention Photo Album

Newspaper’s Credibility At Issue

In 36 years of being directly involved in agriculture and the issues that make it so…interesting, frustrating, rewarding, and painful…I have only seen one positive story written about the issues effecting the profession, especially ethanol, in the Chicago Tribune. I remain convinced to this day that it was a mistake that slipped by editors and that the cub reporter responsible is driving a cab in the Loop and speaking in tongues.

I think it is ok to say this Windy City pub never met a farm policy or ethanol issue they didn’t like to bash, facts aside. Apparently farmers are immune to the whims of business considerations like making enough to pay the bills and plant another crop. Why else would the Trib opine that farmers are getting more for their corn after a 25 year economic drought that saw farmers getting $2 to $2.50 a bushel regardless of real world cost or demand? (Let alone make such comments in the wake of prices just dropping 40 percent).

So, following their direction, I guess all of you farmers can get off your combines and retire. Apparently you have spent your entire life, not to mention several generations, involved in the most under appreciated hobby in history. No more production of food, feed, or fiber. No more ethanol fuel because we are just going to continue to depend on prickly and dangerous oil producing nations for their finite black gold.

On a more serious note, I think the Tribune needs to be called on the carpet for the sham they have been selling to the public for years that they have a pro-business/pro-jobs position.

Despite dozens of third party experts bringing them information backed by science that exposes the errors in their thinking the Trib, especially its editorial writers, remain steadfast in their spewing of misinformation and loathing of ethanol despite its emergence as a critical economic engine in much of the U.S. Are these folks not suspicious or troubled at all by the millions of dollars being spent by the petroleum industry in recent years to damage the reputation of ethanol. One of the tenants of good journalism is to follow the money in trying to understand societal issues. Clearly Goliath is trying to squash David and somebody should be asking why.

Here are a few of the factual perversions in their latest diatribe:

  • Farmers are not planting as much corn as possible. In fact we are 20 million acres shy of planting the acres we did in the 1920s.
  • The Trib notes we use 40% of the corn crop to make ethanol. Actually we use the equivalent of only 27% of the crop because only the starch from the corn kernel is used to make ethanol. The protein for livestock feed is concentrated, easier to transport and a high value product.
  • Blaming corn for higher meat prices is also off base. Declining domestic meat consumption and the outrageous cost of transportation of all food products to market – thank you big oil – has something to do with that.
  • Plant diseases and pests are nothing new. Farmers deal with them all the time and do so very well thank you. Goss’s wilt that you reference touches only 10% of the corn crop, and is far from being devastating, unless of course you fall in the 10%.
  • And did you actually criticize crop insurance in one breath while also intimating we should take away a farmer’s ability to choose what to plant? That will make the kids want to return to the farm business.

Radio Report Shares Story of Full Impact, Importance of Farm Bill

Sometimes, it seems as if the reality of farming in the United States gets lost in the media shuffle. With so much attention turned towards serious situations abroad or sensationalized scandals at home, thoughtful journalism on the issues affecting American agriculture often do not make the front page unless a major weather event, such as a drought, raises concerns over availability or food prices.

Yesterday, National Public Radio’s Here and Now provided an in-depth look at why the farm bill matters to rural America. Focusing on the positive impact of crop insurance, this piece provides a look at why an issue some might dismiss as only important to farmers actually matters for the multitude of businesses that depend upon farmer dollars.

Farmers might not agree with every word uttered by every party interviewed for the story. Certainly, there are as many opinions about the course of this legislation as there are producers touched by it. For everyone involved in agriculture, such well-reasoned, rational radio does provide a benefit in introducing a nuanced narrative to listeners who might not be otherwise familiar with the issue.

As Congress returns from recess, American agriculture must tell its story. It is critical for the men and women who farm to explain the importance of crop insurance to them personally. Likewise, we need to relate the importance to the vast web of equipment dealers, bankers, seed providers and others who benefit from a healthy farming economy. We need to put forth the time and effort and spur Congress to action because we do need a farm bill now.

So take a listen. The story is yours to tell.

Corn Growers Strong at Farm Progress Show

fps13-ncgaThe National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) is out in full force at the 2013 Farm Progress Show, with both president Pam Johnson of Iowa and First Vice President Martin Barbre in his home state of Illinois on site.

They were doing interviews with all the farm media at the show, talking about a variety of topics. We chatted about the condition of the crop – which Pam says is “coming along” in Iowa and Martin says is “better than we’ve ever seen” in southern Illinois.

The farm bill is still a big concern for the corn growers and Pam says they are “not waiting very patiently anymore” for Congress to get the job done. They are strongly encouraging all members to contact their representatives during this August recess and urge them to make some real progress during the few days they are in session during September.

When it comes to membership, NCGA is now over 40,000 strong, which is a lot of voices that can make a big difference. “Our association has shown membership growth every year for the past 15 years,” Martin said. “Makes us feel like we’re really doing our job, really promoting the policy that the members create and making it happen.”

Pam and Martin also talk about the Renewable Fuel Standard, trade, WRDA and biotechnology in this interview.Interview with Pam Johnson and Martin Barbre

Let the Public Convince Themselves of Farmer’s Value

In the maelstrom that is modern society, with a hyperactive media and a beleaguered work force,  I think many of us rarely have the time to do research or critical thinking related to the issues of the day. I place myself firmly in that ilk.

Today a very simple question set the wheels turning. The question came from a farmer who asked how  we can explain complex farm programs and support programs designed to keep family farmers producing food and raw materials to a well fed public.

Several thoughts immediately came to mind. First, farm programs have changed and today policy is moving toward a new paradigm, one that focuses on a safety net approach. At a fundamental level this insurance kicks in to assist growers only when developments beyond their control – such as a wide spread drought – put farm survival at risk.

This well considered and analyzed approach recognizes the intrinsic value of the small slice of our population that feed us and much of the world today. This small group is the receptacle of generations of irreplaceable farming knowledge that have made American agriculture the envy of the world. They have allowed generations of us to take food for granted, and miss a very simple fact…once a farmer calls it quits they don’t return.

Unlike a factory layoff, when a farmer moves on so does the complex storehouse of diversified skills that make farmers a productive juggernaut. There are no recalls when things get better. Likewise there is little incentive for another generation to return to the farm given the entry level investment and associated risk.

So I suggested rather than try to give someone a crash course in agriculture, we speak to the public with the goal of giving this issue a perspective that is undeniably powerful  and defies flippant responses and  misinformation.

So here goes. The next time you speak to a group or an individual ask them to name the industries that are the top contributors to the Gross Domestic product. Then add agriculture to the list if it isn’t already there. Now tell them they can only save one. In my experience, nearly without fail, they will universally select agriculture. This simple exercise puts the incredible necessity of a safe and abundant food supply under the bright light of reason.

Now take the next step in your thinking and consider the important role an agricultural safety net, and the stability it brings, plays in allowing us to spend less of our disposable income on food than any other nation. (About 10% in recent years).  Suddenly, that agricultural safety net, becomes an investment in consumers number one need…sustenance. Not a “farm subsidy.”

If you are wondering, the hottest industries in terms of contribution to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the Department of Commerce:

  • Durable Goods/Manufacturing
  • Finance/Insurance
  • Wholesale Trade – raw and intermediate materials used to produce non-durable goods

Top Industries in terms of job creation:

Interestingly, five of the top ten industries in terms of job creation are social media and internet related. But when the rubber meets the road, social networks feed nobody, video games are not nutritious, and wires and processors have little to do with our immediate survival.


Farm Bill Ball in House Court

deb-stabThe farm bill game is over in the Senate – again – now that senators have passed the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 by a vote of 66 to 27. Senators stressed that the ball is now in the House court.

“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

klobachar“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

heitkampSenator 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)

sherrod-brown“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

vicky-smallSo, 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)

A Few Words from the Chairman

There was lots of activity of interest to corn farmers last week – both on The Hill and in the field.

garryI 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.

Listen to Garry’s comments here: NCGA Chairman Garry Niemeyer

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