A conversation with Tadd Nicholson, the new executive director of the Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Association (OCWGA).
A conversation with Tadd Nicholson, executive director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association
OCJ: How do you see OCWGA evolving in the next few years to better serve Ohio’s grain farmers?
Tadd: As the industry organization for corn and wheat farmers, OCWGA is counted on to head off problems and create new opportunities for grain farmers. To accomplish this we will need to become even more proactive and visionary in our work. We will need to become creative in the ways we arm our members with information and tools to better represent themselves and our industry as a whole on very complex issues.
OCJ: Ohio’s grain farmers are facing a number of crucial challenges right now, including the battle over ethanol and the RFS. What are the key points corn growers need to remember on this issue and how will OCWGA be involved in this debate moving forward?
Tadd: Over 20 years ago the leaders of the Ohio Corn Checkoff board began investing in what would be a large market for corn — ethanol. They hit a grand slam home run. The positive effects for agriculture and rural communities are quite evident, as we’ve come through the recession with little damage. Today we’re focused on not letting 20 years of work come undone. It’s not surprising that the success of ethanol has created some opponents. But we’re talking about a product that is renewable, American made, cleaner burning and cheaper than gasoline. It’s pretty easy to defend. The Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) is the target of our opponents. It’s the commitment that Congress made saying the U.S. will use 36 billion gallons of alternative fuel by the year 2022, fifteen billion of which can be corn ethanol. It’s the directive given to the petroleum dominated motor fuels industry to allow cleaner fuels such as ethanol into the mix. What farmers need to know is ethanol would not be a part of our fuel supply today without the RFS, even though it’s renewable, American made, cleaner burning and cheaper. And for those questioning if farmers can supply enough corn, just look around. When the market signals farmers to plant more corn, they plant more corn. Recent history speaks for itself. Farmers have increased production to meet the growing demand from ethanol without reducing the corn going to livestock, exports and food production. Defending the Renewable Fuels Standard is the number one legislative priority of the OCWGA.
OCJ: What is the current outlook for ethanol and the future of ethanol production? Has there been any real progress in cellulosic production?
Tadd: Corn ethanol is the first generation alternative fuel and it is here for the long haul. It’s efficient, proven and sustainable, but second generation fuels need to be added to corn ethanol to meet the demands of the RFS. While it is true that cellulosic ethanol has been slow to develop, this is understandable when you think of the political battles surrounding ethanol. Private investment in cellulosic ethanol development has slowed to watch and see if Congress is willing to keep its word and commit to the promise made with the RFS. The U.S. has all the innovation needed to develop cellulosic ethanol if the government allows access to the U.S. motor fuels market by protecting the RFS.
OCJ: Water quality is also a crucial challenge for all of Ohio agriculture right now. What role do you see OCWGA playing with this challenge?
Tadd: As long as farmers are managing a large portion of Ohio’s landmass, we will be a target for water quality issues. So first, we’ve got to be more vocal about our success in using fewer nutrients today than even a decade ago. And even though we recognize there are many sources contributing to water quality issues, we will play a proactive role in limiting agriculture’s contribution. But the benefits are not just environmental. Farmers purchase nutrients to grow a crop. If those nutrients are finding ways to leave our farms, it’s an economic loss. Investments from Ohio Corn and Small Grains checkoffs have already been made for research and to better define what practices will limit phosphorus runoff. It will be on our agenda for years to come.
OCJ: From disappointing yields to challenging planting conditions, wheat growers have faced a frustrating few years. How do you see wheat fitting in to the future of Ohio agriculture and what genetic or technological advances will be needed to keep wheat competitive with other crops?
Tadd: To understand the future demand for wheat you must understand the future of world population growth. Wheat is a food crop and is a staple in U.S. diets and diets across the globe. The supplies of wheat today may seem ample but there are very real projections of a time when demand could exceed supply. The responsible introduction of biotechnology in wheat will play a major role in meeting future demand. The simultaneous introduction of biotech wheat with Canada and Australia will help keep countries from making baseless political points about biotechnology. It’s a long-term strategy to head off a long-term problem. In the near term, Ohio has the ability and climate to produce the highest quality Soft Red Winter Wheat in the country. We do battle with a few diseases though that negatively impact quality and profitability. Head scab is a primary target of the Ohio Small Grains Marketing Program (OSGMP) and research is currently underway to deal with this disease. But tools are available now in resistant varieties that yield well. Ohio is blessed with a three crop rotation and while wheat faced many challenges getting planted this season, it plays an important role in Ohio grain farming.
OCJ: What other key challenges do you see for the future of OCWGA?
Tadd: With each passing year the general public becomes more and more disconnected from farming. With only 1% of the U.S. population involved in production agriculture, the limited voices available to tell our story becomes a major challenge. Farmers still enjoy a great deal of trust by consumers, but the production practices we find so familiar are foreign to the non-farming public. This causes questions and without answers they lose trust. And since we’re producing their food, those questions won’t stop coming. To make matters worse, they often find incorrect answers through social media and then the damage is done. Finding ways for the 1% to reach the 99% is a long-term challenge.
OCJ: What opportunities are there?
Tadd: When Corn and Wheat combined forces a little over a year ago, we knew we were creating something very efficient and unique in the U.S. Ohio is a policy oriented mid-sized corn state within the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and one of the only Midwest states within the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG). OCWGA has a unique opportunity to carry Ohio’s ag policy positions to two national commodity organizations. We benefit from information and resources from both organizations then mold it together to best represent Ohio grain farmers. Bringing Corn and Wheat together was an innovative move to strengthen two Ohio commodities and we are just beginning to realize the many opportunities.
OCJ: What are some noteworthy highlights for the future of the Ohio Corn Marketing Program (OCMP)?
Tadd: A good checkoff program is forward looking, knows an opportunity when it sees one, is bold enough to take a few calculated risks and can recognize problems before they occur. There was a day when OCMP was concerned with getting rid of a large pile of overstock corn in a very stagnant corn market. Today we operate in a volatile market with some saying we could be one bumper crop away from prices at or below the cost of production. So, building demand is still a priority and it’s not unreasonable to believe that demand could be outside the U.S. borders. There’s no doubt that the growing middle class of China and India are game changers for U.S. ag commodities. Whether it’s shipping more corn abroad or feeding more livestock domestically and shipping meat, the OCMP has a role to play in foreign trade. And work on ethanol isn’t done. Looking ahead to sustaining higher blends of ethanol depends on engine technology, cooperation with the auto industry and continuing to increase corn yields to meet demand. Ethanol as a demand driver will be a focus of OCMP well into the future.
OCJ: What are you most excited about in your new role?
Tadd: Being a part of a very dynamic industry. Farming is an old profession but the technology and innovation of modern agriculture have created a rapidly changing industry committed not just to domestic food, feed and fuel, but to supplying a world market. Managing that change, celebrating the successes and working through the challenges — that’s exciting to me!