By Matt Reese
Maybe it was the harsh winter weather around the country and the welcoming sun of Tampa. Maybe it was the spectacular crop prices and volatile markets. Maybe it was the increasing global politics driving what happens on U.S. farms. Whatever the reason, this year’s joint meeting of the nation’s top corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum organizations at the Commodity Classic set attendance records. There were more than 4,600 in attendance at the event, up from the previous record of 4,532.
This 16th Annual Commodity Classic was packed full of educational sessions on topics such as the new pesticide application permits, crop insurance and sustainability drawing interest from around the country. In addition to the extensive educational opportunities, attendees enjoyed exhibits from more than 220 companies in 870 booths at the trade show amid the busy schedule of meetings, banquets and networking opportunities with other growers. The National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, National Sorghum Producers and National Association of Wheat Growers once again put on quite a show.
While everything from yields to politics was discussed at the recent Commodity Classic, one major underlying theme for the event was the farm bill debate.
“How does ag respond to the issues at hand with a federal deficit that is escalating every day?” said Jeff Wuebker, Ohio Soybean Association president. “How do we come up with a farm bill that is truly a safety net that is workable for producers in the Midwest, east, south, north and west?”
The Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association (OCWGA) made some waves and inspired extensive debate concerning the farm bill discussion by presenting their guiding principles for policy development covering the farm bill.
“We offered a new position for the National Corn Growers Association to take with regard to direct payments. They’re the talk of Washington and we all know that they are probably going to be cut,” said Anthony Bush, an Ohio delegate at Commodity Classic. “OCWGA offered language that would have been put into our policy book that said: ‘NCGA will actively pursue the transition of direct payments into a revenue-based safety net that triggers only when a loss occurs.’ This is a very bold statement that tells Congress we want to be part of the solution and not the problem.”
The vote on including the language in the official NCGA policy did not pass initially, but it was close. In response, numerous states met with OCWGA leaders and found language that they could agree upon regarding a position on direct payments.
“All of the states began to come together and take ownership of this issue. It passed overwhelmingly,” Bush said. “The language that came out says: ‘NCGA should investigate transitioning direct payments into programs that allow producers the ability to manage risk while assuring food security.’ I am really proud of what OWCGA accomplished at Commodity Classic. I really feel like what we did was good for our country.”
In addition, all four crop commodity groups did release a joint statement about the farm bill debate and the tough budget decisions ahead.
From the joint statement: ”We recognize that reducing federal deficits and the national debt is critical to putting the American economy, including U.S. agriculture, on a sound course for future growth and prosperity.
“We note that agriculture made a down payment in cutting spending when the Department of Agriculture directed $4 billion in savings under the Standard Reinsurance Agreement for federal crop insurance toward deficit reduction. We believe any further reduction in discretionary spending should recognize and reflect this contribution. We would also note that agriculture-related programs represent less than one-half of 1% of the federal budget.
“Looking forward, we believe any meaningful approach to deficit and debt reduction in the FY2012 budget must encompass all entitlement programs and all discretionary spending. We look forward to working with Congress and the Administration to develop a budget that successfully addresses the need for federal deficit and debt reduction balanced with the need of ensuring a successful agricultural economy.”
Along with debating amongst themselves, the growers at the Commodity Classic got to hear from a number of experts on the intricacies of the farm bill debate, including Ohio State University agricultural economist Carl Zulauf who wrote the original plan for ACRE that was included in the last farm bill. Attendees also got to hear from lawmakers on the issue.
“These are the good days. This is not the average, and we have to construct farm policy that reflects that,” said Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Ag Committee. “At the same time we need to double our production using less land and less water. That will require those of us in Washington, D.C., to create policy that allows you to succeed.”
But, with a $14 trillion national dept and battles over every federal program, funding will be a major issue.
“Even keeping what we have is not possible in this farm bill. Everything is on the table,” Lucas said. “We in agriculture will do our part, but we only want to do our part and it is not going to be easy.”
Another important topic of discussion was the increase in regulation of agriculture by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Lucas discussed the upcoming meetings between the House Ag Committee and the EPA to determine if the recent regulatory efforts of the EPA are legal, if they are conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the regulations and if they are based on sound science.
“The EPA’s regulatory assault on production agriculture must stop,” Lucas said. “We’re going to present them with these three questions, and my guess is that their actions will be hard to defend.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave the keynote address during the General Session and touched on a number of other important topics.
“We are all fortunate to be living through one of the most productive eras in history for U.S. agriculture,” Vilsack said. “American farmers and ranchers are seeing record sales of farm goods abroad and looking forward to some of the best net incomes in decades. U.S. agricultural exports for fiscal 2011 are on course to shatter previous records and enjoy a record $47.5 billion trade surplus. This record productivity is creating employment across a variety of sectors, including transportation and storage.”
Vilsack also told the crowd that in calendar year 2010, U.S. exports of corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum and related products, including animal feed, garnered sales of $44.7 billion. Total exports for calendar year 2010 were $115.8 billion. he said the trade agreements now before the U.S. Congress would help to further increase farm exports, support job creation and bolster the American economy. Work on U.S. trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia is ongoing, and just the U.S.-Korea Trade Agreement would expand U.S. agricultural exports by $1.9 billion, bringing about 15,000 new jobs to agriculture-related industries.
“We are very interested in getting the free trade agreements approved by Congress,” he said.
And — from yields to politics — Vilsack summed up all of the aspects of Commodity Classic in some of his remarks. He pointed to how farm debt management, wise investment, hard work and embracing new technology to improve productivity have gotten agriculture where it is today.
“The farmers in this room have provided the prescription that this country needs to get completely back on its feet. You have set the table for the rest of this country, now all we have to do is follow,” Vilsack said. “Do not bet against the American farmer, because if you do, it’s a losing bet.”
Dale Minyo traveled to Tampa to cover what is most certainly the nation’s biggest gathering of corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum growers. Our exclusive coverage is brought to you by Leist Mercantile and Seed Consultants.