Corn Commentary

Sorting out the Differences: The Legislative Progress of the Farm Bill and Disaster Assistance

This year’s farm bill actions have been difficult to keep track of, even for those of us that live inside the beltway and work on this issue almost every day.  NCGA has been working on the 2012 farm bill for almost four years and Congress began its formal work on the legislation this year.  But as drought conditions throughout the U.S. increasingly worsened, a disaster assistance package was also thrown into the mix, creating confusion for many.

Both pieces of legislation are extremely important to farmers across the country, and Congress has taken steps on each.  However, there is still work to be done.   To help differentiate between them, here is a quick summary of where we are – and what still needs to be done to get both the farm bill and disaster assistance package signed into law.

Where we are on the 2012 farm bill:

  • The Senate Agriculture Committee and the full Senate have both passed the legislation with a strong bipartisan vote.
  • The House Agriculture Committee passed a different version of the 2012 farm bill, but it has not been debated or considered by the entire House of Representatives.  Floor time has also not been scheduled.

What still needs to happen?

  • First, the full House of Representatives will need to vote on and pass the legislation as quickly as possible when they return from August recess.
  • Afterwards, House and Senate conferees will work out the differences between the two bills and reach a suitable compromise.
  • The final bill, or conference report, would then need to be voted on and passed by both chambers of Congress.
  • President Obama would then either sign the bill into law or veto it, sending it back to Congress.
  • The current law (the 2008 farm bill) expires September 30.

Where we are on the drought disaster assistance bill:

  • The full House of Representatives passed this legislation prior to leaving for August recess, and did so with minimal changes.
  • The full Senate has not considered the legislation.

What still needs to happen?

  • The full Senate will need to vote on and pass the legislation.
  • If there are differences between the House and Senate versions, a similar path will be used for conferees.
  • President Obama would then sign the bill into law or veto it, sending it back to Congress.

One important fact to point out is that the Senate version of the 2012 farm bill, which has been passed, does include disaster assistance programs.  However, in light of this year’s challenges, they may want to revisit these programs to include additional provisions for livestock and specialty crop producers.

Freaked Out about Food?

While reading convoluted media accounts of the droughts impact on any number of issues and hearing forceful statements about farming that have little, if any, basis in reality, one very simple piece of advice comes to mind. The smartest thing that someone can do is to admit what they don’t actually know.

Third-hand accounts and rampant rumors spread through poorly edited media accounts or completely unedited social media rants often form the basis for many people’s perceptions of food and farming.  The overwhelming majority of the U.S. population finds itself unable to personally interact with an industry that, although vital to life, it has been removed from for generations.

Treading metaphorical water in an attempt to keep up with daily challenges, well-intentioned, intelligent men and women may forget the source of their viewpoint yet ardently support the behaviors stemming from it.

Farmers have come out and opened their gates wide in an effort to share a slice of their lives and a glimpse into how the food on our nation’s table actually came to be. Be it through a campaign such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Corn Farmers Coalition or CommonGround, farmers have mobilized in an unprecedented manner to start a national conversation about the food that they grow and the profession they love.

Where does the conversation start? It starts by finding a common understanding between the people who grow food and those who buy it on what each group honestly does not know about the other.

To help lay groundwork for this dialogue, CommonGround spoke with moms across the country about feeding their families. The results show that even active, concerned parents may still have questions.

These questions can create a lot of guilt. From the nutritional value of organic foods to who actually grows food at all, real decisions are being made out of guilt that, upon closer examination, has no basis in the reality of modern agriculture. The choices can cost real dollars and cause real stress.

The solution is real conversation.

Take a moment to see if myths and misinformation cause unnecessary stress for your family or someone you know. Then, take a deep breath and relax.

Farm moms worry about what they feed their families too. They know how stressful trying to provide the best for your children can be. They want to do the same thing.

Then, take another moment to check out how these farmers want to help families across the country eat fearlessly. Literally walking consumers through what they do, the volunteers of CommonGround share what they do on their farms and explain why they do it.

An open, honest conversation about food is underway. The smartest thing that everyone can do is admit that both sides can learn so much from one another. Together, we can all become smarter about food and grow a healthier tomorrow.

Vilsack Champions Administration Support for Ethanol

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack demonstrated the Obama administration’s strong commitment to ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) by spending over an hour at the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) conference on Friday morning, right after the release of the new crop forecast showing lowered corn production due to the drought.

“This is an industry that is worth supporting,” he told the crowd of more than 250 ethanol industry leaders. “Which is why the president is supporting the Renewable Fuel Standard, and it’s why I’m supporting the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

In light of the lowered crop forecast for corn due to the drought, Vilsack noted that the RFS has built-in flexibilities and the market is responding as it should. “The market responds, the market reacts, the market pays attention, and we’re already seeing that,” he said.

Vilsack stressed that passage of a new “food farm and jobs bill” is the best way to help farmers and ranchers through the current drought situation. “It’s going to be critically important to rural America that we get this job done,” he said.

Listen to Vilsack’s remarks here: Secy Vilsack at ACE
Visack answers audience questions: Secy Vilsack Questions

2012 ACE Conference Photo Album

NCGA CEO Addresses ACE

National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) CEO Rick Tolman shared the farmer’s perspective to the American Coalition for Ethanol’s conference while addressing the group on the 2012 corn crop, the drought and NCGA’s support for ethanol and all markets for U.S. corn.

“It could all change tomorrow,” was the theme of Tolman’s talk, just hours after the USDA released a new crop forecast showing a 13% drop in corn production this year compared to last. “This too shall pass,” said Tolman. “We think the future’s going to be bright still.”

Tolman stressed the importance of withholding judgment on the final size of the total corn crop until more complete information is available and harvest is complete and reminded attendees that a few short months ago it appeared that farmers would produce a record crop, far exceeding forecast demand. Despite the significant short-term impact of the drought, he noted that conditions will improve, production will increase and ethanol will remain a key market for corn.

Tolman said NCGA is working to set the record straight about the RFS and correct misinformation that has been distributed by those who want to waive or dismantle the program. Most important is the inaccurate statement that more corn is used for ethanol than is used for livestock. “That is not true,” said Tolman. “More corn is GROUND for ethanol, but more still is consumed for livestock” when the co-product distillers grains is added to the equation.

Listen to my interview with Tolman at ACE: Interview with NCGA CEO Rick Tolman

Listen to Tolman’s comments at ACE: NCGA CEO Rick Tolman remarks at ACE

It May Sound Corny…

Corny ArtIt may sound corny, but lately it seems that a lot of people talk about the omnipresence of corn. While this fact is inarguable, the negative tone of many articles on the corn-centric nature of our lives seems befuddling.  This week, the Kansas City Star took a more insightful approach to exploring how people interact with the crop in their daily lives.  As it turns out, a world without corn doesn’t seems like such a great place to live.

The author carefully walks through what a day without corn might look like. Unable to brush his teeth, scramble a decent egg and with his clothes falling to rags, he finds that corn actually makes small improvements to an incredible number of the items that make our lives more pleasant, healthy or comfortable.

The properties inherent to corn make it our nation’s most abundant crop for a reason. Lending useful applications to products as varied as pharmaceuticals and fireworks, corn may really be the glue the binds us together in many ways.

Another kernel of wisdom, it helps to make that glue too.

Corn is king not because it rules over us. Corn it king because IT RULES! Take a minute to check out how many great, interesting, useful ways that corn is used.

Farmers across the country work hard year in and year out to make sure there is a supply of corn so that consumers can enjoy everything from cosmetics to cola.  Let’s support the great efforts of our nation’s hardworking family farmers, even if it may sound corny to some ears.

CUTC Session Looks to the Kernel for Mycotoxins

When it comes to mycotoxin research, one group at this summer’s Corn Utilization Technology Conference really got down to the heart… or more accurately in this case, the kernel… of the matter. Charles Woloshuk, Ph.D. from Purdue University, chaired the discussion on pathogens that attack seeds. He explained it’s a big issue because it affects so much of the corn trade. “If it goes overseas, [the contracts] are based on the level of toxins,” adding that’s it’s always been an issue with feed, and ethanol producers are concerned that it would show up in their dried distillers grain (DDGs).

Woloshuk says the real problem is detecting the mycotoxin in the first place. “When we find it, we get concerned about it, but we can’t predict it very well.” He suggested rotating crops but realizes there’s a lot of pressure to plant corn after corn. “We’re trying to understand the kernel itself,” and what are the critical factors influencing toxin production and how to stop it he concluded.

Listen to my interview with Charles Woloshuk here: Interview with Charles Woloshuk, Ph.D., Purdue University

2012 CUTC Photo Album

Ancient Techniques Looked at to Mitigate Aflatoxins

Attendees at the recent Corn Utilization Technology Conference got to hear a discussion on how the effects of aflatoxins can be mitigated in human and animal feed. “We’re interested in using clay-based materials that actually bind aflatoxins very tightly and somewhat preferentially in the stomach and intestines of animals and humans,” said Timothy Phillips, Ph.D., from Texas A&M University, who chaired the session on mitigating aflatoxins. He went on to explain that aflatoxins are hard to detect, so they are hoping to employ the clays in food to lower the effects of the toxins. “If these clays could be added to animal feed or human foods, or even condiments such salt, [just like adding iodine,] then this will help us to manage the problem.”

Phillips says using these clays to mitigate the effects of toxins is nothing new. “Clays have been used for centuries. Actually, the first reports were in Mesopotamia about 2,500 years ago. We’re excited about using this old medicine and bringing it to a contemporary point.” There’s still some more tests, studies and FDA approvals that need to get done, but he believes it could be a big help for human health, especially in some developing countries.

Listen to my interview with Timothy Phillips here: Interview with Timothy Phillips, Ph.D., Texas A&M University

2012 CUTC Photo Album

Corn-based Biopolymers to Replace Petroleum-based Plastics

Finding new uses for corn… and ways to treat our environment a little bit better… were the hot topics at this summer’s Corn Utilization Technology Conference.

Jay-lin Jane, Ph.D., Iowa State University, chaired the discussion on how biopolymers made from corn can be a sustainable, renewable, alternative to petroleum-based plastics. “The most common use for this type of material is disposable types of materials, because it’s biodegradable and environmentally friendly,” she explained. Examples include plant pots that can remain in the ground and give nutrients to the newly transplanted flowers and vegetables and even fairway-friendly golf tees. “When the golf tee is broken and left in the field, it may become nutrients for the grass.”

Listen to my interview with Jay-lin Jane here: Interview with Jay-lin Jane

2012 CUTC Photo Album

A Tip of the Hat

As many media mercenaries continue misleading attempts to whip an already economically stressed public into a frenzy proclaiming the drought will hit their pocketbooks at the market this fall, the Associated Press offered a more balanced, thoughtful look at the possible impacts today.  Noting the many factors that impact food prices, the article carefully examined how a variety of factors keep food prices in check.

Taking the time to explain the difference between sweet corn and field corn may seem somewhat unnecessary to those who work the land daily, but it helps consumers understand the nuances of our industry.  Educated consumers are empowered consumers.  They have the knowledge and perspective to evaluate sensationalized claims with a critical eye.  An open, honest conversation about our food benefits consumers and farmers alike.

So, kudos AP. The tools farmers use to tell their story, such as CommonGround and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, continue their work to help open this conversation. It is refreshing to see media taking on an active role in using its clout to educate its readership.  America’s family farmers appreciate the help.

USDA and Meatless Mondays – Give ‘Em a Break!

As someone who has worked for both a large global corporation and a large governmental agency, I know how impossible it is to monitor everything said or posted by such a large number of employees.  And “impossible” is the right word – especially if you are a federal agency with more than 100,000 employees around the world.

We have been loath to publish anything about USDA’s minor “Meatless Monday” mention on an internal publication that was posted online, but now that the debate has made its way to the New York Times, it’s time to be clear.

1. All you have to do is look at a USDA menu to see it is not anti-meat, as some in the livestock sector thought; or anti-vegetable, as those on the other side of the fence now argue.

2. When the newsletter was pointed out to the USDA, the agency did the right thing, and did it quickly.

3. When Mark Bittman of The New York Times picked a new fight after the brouhaha, by asking USDA a when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife kind of question (“Is it more important to support meat producers than those who produce other crops?”), USDA did the right thing yet again … and gave the right response.

Now, it’s time for everyone to stop talking about it. And we will do the same, unless the attacks and idiocies continue.

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