Two strong advocates for agriculture in Congress are retiring after this term, leaving a void in the Senate that could make it even more challenging for farmers and ranchers to have their voices heard on the Hill in the future.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced Saturday that he would not to seek reelection in 2014. “I’m 73 years old right now,” Harkin said in a statement. “When the current Congress is over, I will have served in the United States House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for a total of 40 years. After 40 years, I just feel it’s somebody else’s turn.”
On Friday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) announced he would be retiring after serving a combined 20 years in the House and Senate. His reasoning is different than Harkin’s. “Instead, this is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress, especially on issues that are the foundation of our nation’s economic health,” Chambliss said.
Both of these lawmakers have served in leadership positions on the agriculture committees in both the Senate and House and have helped shepherd several farm bills through Congress. Certainly both of their reasons for not seeking reelection are very good ones. There is definitely something to be said for limiting terms in Congress and no doubt a lack of action in Washington, but agriculture needs its friends on the Hill and they are getting fewer and harder to come by. We can only hope that they will be followed by others who see the importance of our nation’s food system.
The four represent a range of agricultural commodities including corn and soybeans, hogs, cattle, and dairy and they were chosen through on-line voting and a panel of judges from nine finalists announced last month at the New York Food Dialogues. The winners will act as national spokespeople, and will share stories and experiences on a national stage to help answer consumers’ questions about how food is grown and raised to feed our nation.
When the four were introduced by USFRA this week, they were asked what they believe is the most important story for agriculture to share.
Chris Chinn of Clarence, Missouri is a 5th generation farmer with her husband Kevin, his parents and brother raising hogs, cattle, hay and row crops. “I think it’s more important for us to listen to the concerns that people have about how food is produced so we can have a more open dialogue,” Chris said.
Will Gilmer and his father own/operate a dairy farm in Lamar County, Alabama that has been in continuous operation since the early 1950s. “It’s important that we help people understand what the new things we’re doing are, why we’re doing them and how it’s beneficial to them in giving them great choices at the grocery store,” said Will.
Katie Pratt and her husband Andy (7th generation farmer) and their two children raise corn, soybeans and seed corn in Dixon, Illinois in partnership with Andy’s family. “One of the stories that needs to be told is that we are families operating businesses,” said Katie.
Bo Stone jointly owns P & S Farms in Rowland, NC with his wife Missy and his parents where they grow corn, wheat and soybeans, hogs and cattle, as well as strawberries and sweet corn that are sold at their own roadside market. “We are all consumers of our products and I’d like for everyone to know that we’re in this together,” he said.
Definition of Relevance \ˈre-lə-vən(t)s\ – noun
a : relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability
I’ve heard the word relevant in relation to agriculture several times in recent months – from Senator Chuck Grassley, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and National Corn Growers Association president Pam Johnson, among others. Not that they are questioning the relevance of agriculture, but that Congress and society in general seem to be not just questioning, but even ignoring, the relevance of agriculture.
What is more relevant to a productive and sustainable society than a consistent, affordable and nutritious food supply? Nothing. What will it take to make the non-farming public realize that what they take for granted is not only relevant but vital?
One way would be if we encourage this whole notion of “grow your own” subsistence farming. Most people would gain a whole new appreciation for farmers if they had to produce all, or even part, of the food they need to eat. They would also gain a whole new appreciation for crop protection products when they get insects and diseases in their crops. If more people had to keep chickens to eat eggs they might have a greater appreciation for poultry housing and antibiotics.
Relevance is all about being able to relate, and the majority of people have a tough time relating to farmers and ranchers. We’ve also never experienced any type of food shortage in most of our lifetimes, so it’s really hard for most Americans to relate to going hungry because the crop didn’t come in. There’s enough food to feed a neighborhood in the average convenience store – or enough to feed a whole starving village in sub-Saharan Africa where they don’t have convenience stores.
Food is what makes agriculture relevant. Agriculture literally equals food – not to mention feed (for more food), fiber for clothing, and fuel for energy. But mainly food. Without the farmers, there is no food.
As long as food is relevant, agriculture must be relevant to society and to its representatives in government.
In 2012, Americans consumed less high fructose corn syrup per person than they have since 1997. Dieters, who have become increasingly conscious of calories in HFCS sweetened beverages such as soda, have dropped their HFCS consumption but not the extra weight.
Levels of obesity continue to grow despite waning HFCS consumption? How could this be when pseudoscientists such as the great Oz have prattled on endless about the evils of corn sugar?
This week, public health and nutrition expert Marion Nestle gave a simple, concise explanation. Noting that the attention paid to obesity has had a negative impact on HFCS consumption, she pointed out dieters need to reduce their overall sweetener consumption to see a real impact.
“A lot of attention has been paid to obesity, and that’s hurt high-fructose corn syrup,” said Nestle. “Now, if only people weren’t making up for it by eating more sugar.”
In short, the truth about sweeteners is quite simple. Sugar is sugar whether it is from corn, cane or beat.
This academic, fact-based approach to nutrition does not offer dieters the same sweet solution that demonizing a single food does, it does offer results. Thoughtful, deliberate moderation does work, whether one needs to drop another pants size or drop the fad diet fluff.
Now I know that there are not too many fans of the Humane Society in this room. But egg producers thought it was in their best interest to avoid fifty different referendums, fifty different sets of rules. So they sat down with folks and they reached common ground. After all, isn’t that what we’re asking our Congress to do? Isn’t that what we’re asking our political leaders to do? To sit down and make common cause? I think the egg producers have the right idea.
There is no doubt that most livestock producers in the United States consider HSUS to be a threat to their operations – their business, their livelihoods, their very lifestyle. But it is an issue that crop farmers, particularly corn growers, need to be concerned about as well since it impacts your largest customer base. As the livestock industry goes, so goes the corn industry.
The question of whether agriculture should sit down with groups like HSUS to find “common cause” is a poll question this week on AgWired.com and while the answers had at first been running well against such dialogue, the poll has now been “hijacked” by HSUS who got out supporters to vote in favor. Overnight, the poll received nearly 400 responses in the affirmative – and some of the comments of those supporters show exactly why all of agriculture should be very afraid of their agenda.
“Let animals be animals, not commodities.”
“Stop the torture and Killing of the animals.”
“People should just stop eating animals period – there’s no such thing as humane murder.”
The ultimate agenda is obvious – the end to animal agriculture. Once the livestock industry begins to make concessions to animal rights activists that drastically change production methods it becomes a very slippery slope very quickly. It will only be a short matter of time before allowing chickens more room in cages becomes allowing all animals the right to life. Treating animals humanely is not the same as treating them like they are humans – but many activists see no difference.
With that, the question may actually be, can there even be “common cause” to find?
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is happy to be keeping his “great job” and continuing to fight for the future of American agriculture.
“I am extraordinarily privileged and honored to have the job as the United States Secretary of Agriculture and to have another opportunity to continue this work,” Vilsack told the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting this week in Nashville. “I don’t know that there’s not a more important place, a more significant place in the future of this country than rural America.”
Vilsack told Farm Bureau members that he was glad to see 2012 come to an end and expressed his optimism that 2013 will be better for agriculture. “We are committed … to making sure that 2013 is not a repeat of 2012. We need a five-year bill and we need it now,” he said, going on to outline that the bill needs to include a number of important items, including an adequate safety net, commitment to trade and support for research and renewable energy.
“It is rural America that if you think about it is providing the feed stock for most of the energy and most of the fuel that’s consumed and used in homes and businesses across this great land. It is rural America that’s responsible for millions of jobs,” he said. “The question, given all of that contribution and more from rural America, why is it so difficult for us to get a five-year bill through the Congress? What has happened?”
Admitting that rural America has less clout in Washington than in the past, Vilsack said it’s “going to be important and necessary for us to have conversation about how we rebuild that political capacity, and I believe we can.”
Corn farmers might be wise to take a cue from a certain sector of their counterparts in traditional business sectors and learn the value of expectations management.
In 2012, farmers felt the brunt of their own success as, after years of continually pushing the boundaries of how much they could grow using fewer resources, a massive drought hit the Corn Belt hard. Fields of young corn plants, the beginning of what many anticipated to be a record corn crop, withered in the relentlessly dry heat. Corn production powerhouses, including Illinois, Iowa and Indiana, found their crop would not meet initial projections.
For their inability to (literally) make it rain, these farmers faced massive cries from media outlets’ sensationalized stories. Ever vigilant in their quest for higher ratings, many journalists eschewed responsible research in favor of “commonsense” commentary, crying over and over that consumers would be shocked when they saw their grocery bills come fall.
From their self-claimed moral high ground, media mercenaries lobbed a frenzied attack. Will Americans starve to feed their cars? Should draconian rationing measures be instituted? Were the Mayans right?
With the USDA’s annual crop reports released, a clearer picture of the 2012 crop is forming. Corn farmers, who faced a serious adversary in Mother Nature, managed to grow 10.8 billion bushels of corn. No, the crop did not break all previous records, but it made the top ten lists.
Despite the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, farmers raised the eighth-largest corn crop since the United States started keeping records. Through better seed varieties, developed through biotechnology, improved practices and cutting-edge technology, our nation’s corn farmers fought back against Mother Nature’s assault.
They struck major blows at key times. Iowa took the front despite the drought, growing 1.87 billion bushels of corn. Minnesota and Nebraska stepped up production and buttressed the crop, growing 1.37 and 1.29 billion bushels respectively. Even Illinois, who saw their normally chart topping yields shrivel in the sun, made a major contribution to the nation’s overall totals, producing 1.28 billion bushels.
The lesson therein? Corn farmers fell victim to their own success in 2012. While striving to produce even more bounty year after year, their achievements became commonplace. Thus, when these over-achievers faced a natural disaster, their efforts were met with backlash instead of understanding support. When their fields suffer, farmers suffer. Yet, this fact was largely ignored.
The eighth-largest corn crop on record does not generate the sort of excitement that a record-breaking harvest may have. It does show the strength and reliability of U.S. farmers. Even in the face of a drought that would have decimated the crop only decades ago, they succeeded in providing a top ten crop. Expectations placed upon America’s farmers have obfuscated the triumphs of 2012.
Sadly, it is a story that deserves telling. Though neither glamorous nor sensational, U.S. corn farmers can provide a dependable abundance that Americans can count on for food, feed, fuel and fiber. Maybe this does not make a headline, but it does provide for a secure tomorrow. That’s an expectation farmers are proud to meet.
2012 marked the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States with the year consisting of a record warm spring, second warmest summer, fourth warmest winter and a warmer-than-average autumn. The average temperature for 2012 was 55.3°F, 3.2°F above the 20th century average, and 1.0°F above 1998, the previous warmest year.
According to NOAA, 2012 was record setting for 19 states, including several in the corn belt such as Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.
While it was the hottest year on record, it was only the 15th driest year, with an average of 26.57 inches of precipitation nationwide. “At its peak in July, the drought of 2012 engulfed 61 percent of the nation with the Mountain West, Great Plains, and Midwest experiencing the most intense drought conditions.”
The drought is continuing over into the new year, with USDA this week designating nearly 600 counties in 14 states as primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. In 2012, USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states as disaster areas due to drought, or 71 percent of the United States.
Bottom line – we still need lots of rain and some cooler temps would be nice too.
This Friday, January 11, marks the start of a new release time for some USDA agricultural statistics reports.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and World Agricultural Outlook Board (WAOB) will begin this year issuing several major reports at noon Eastern time, including World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE), Acreage, Crop Production, Grain Stocks, Prospective Plantings, and Small Grains Summary.
“That’s at the request of data users across the country and the world,” said Bob Bass, Director of National Operations for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). “It’s a global economy now in the trading of commodities and everybody thought that noon would be a better time in order for people to get access to the information, digest it, understand what it says and then be on a level playing field.”
Bass says it is the first time in a while since the release time for these market-sensitive reports was changed. “Everything used to be at 3 pm Eastern, but many years ago just the crop and the crop products were moved to 8:30 am so traders could see the report and trade that day,” he said. “But anymore, trading is non-stop.”
The first reports of the new year to be released at the new time on Friday include the annual crop production report and the grain stocks report.
Pretty much every farm organization has expressed disappointment over the nine-month farm bill extension included in the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff package, with the hope that Congress will do better in 2013.
“We don’t support an extension of the 2008 farm bill, we worked very hard to see reform,” said National Corn Growers Association president Pam Johnson, noting that the farm bill passed by the Senate in 2012 would have helped to reduce federal spending. “It would have saved $23 billion,” she said. “That’s what makes it so disappointing for us.”
While it was the prospect of the so-called “dairy cliff” that led lawmakers to even think about a farm bill, it’s ironic that the National Milk Producers Federation is among the most unhappy with the outcome. National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) President and CEO Jerry Kozak called the extension a “devastating blow to the nation’s dairy farmers” that amounts to “shoving farmers over the dairy cliff without providing any safety net below.” He says that the dairy industry will continue to push the 113th Congress to pass a five year farm bill that includes the Dairy Security Act, which eliminates the dairy product price support program, direct payments, and export subsidies, and establishes a voluntary risk management tool for farmers which would cost taxpayers less.
Other groups including the American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union, and American Soybean Association had similar “disappointed but optimistic” statements. Even Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he was “disappointed Congress has been unable to pass a multi-year reauthorization of the Food, Farm and Jobs bill to give rural America the long-term certainty they need and deserve” and that he will continue to work with Congress to pass a new bill.
At the same time, ag groups are pleased with some other parts of the fiscal cliff package, like the estate tax provisions and extension of alternative energy tax incentives. The estate tax was permanently set through the legislation at a rate of 40 percent on estates valued at $5 million, or $10 million per couple – better than the 55% on $1 million or more that was scheduled to become law.
The theme set by all is to continue working with the new Congress and hope that the nine month extension doesn’t mean it will be delayed and down to the wire – or past it – again at the end of 2013.