The Bush Environmental Protection Agency “has been very good to work with, and we in agriculture appreciate it,” Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their 49th annual meeting at Hilton Head, S.C.
“When I went to Washington, environmental issues dominated the policy agenda, and it was almost guerilla warfare trying to work with the environmental community.”
Although resolving environmental issues continues to be a concern, Berry said, “It has been almost a relief the past few years working with Administrator Christie Whitman during her term of office. We are thankful for the way the EPA has been operated and hope it will continue under the new administrator.”
The new farm bill, he said, represented “the best job we knew how — it was the best bill we could write, given the circumstances and the money available. Had it not been for the great statesmanship and great concern of Reps. Larry Combest and Charles Stenholm, we'd never have had the bill we have now.”
He said Combest, who retired from Congress after chairing the House Agriculture Committee, and Stenholm, the ranking member on the committee, “are both great champions for American agriculture, and we all owe them a tremendous vote of thanks.”
The legislation, Berry said, “is working like we thought it would, and it won't cost as much this year as we expected” because of strong commodity prices. “I didn't think I'd live long enough to ever see 80-cent cotton again,” he laughed.
But with an increasingly urban Congress, he said, it will be increasingly a challenge to get meaningful farm legislation approved. “It's entirely possible that we'll one day reach the point we won't have farm bills any more. We need to be thinking about that possibility and be prepared for it.”
The breakdown of the recent World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, “didn't make me that unhappy,” Berry said. “It's awfully easy to trade away market access — but it's awfully hard to get it back.”
Trade issues “get more complex every day,” he said. “We need to enforce the agreements we already have on the books and demonstrate to the U.S. business community that we're willing to stand up for them.”
Carl Casale, vice president and managing director of North American agriculture for the Monsanto Co., told SCPA members that demographic changes and the economics of bringing new products to market will have a great impact on agriculture in the years ahead.
“These changes will create opportunities, or challenges, depending on how we view them and act on them.”
The average age of the American farmer is nearing 60 years, he noted. As those farmers leave the business, “it's a pretty safe bet most of this land will continue to be farmed.”
But, will most of it be farmed by heirs, or will there be an increasing transfer of land to non-operators?
An indication, Casale said, may be seen in Illinois, where 50 percent of the farm land is now in the hands of absentee owners. “Is this a marker for what will happen in other areas?”
The crop protection industry, and other agricultural service providers, will increasingly have to analyze and cater to the needs of those absentee owners, he said. “In Illinois, for example, this trend has spawned an entire farm management industry. As this transition takes place across the country, we will more and more have to ask, ‘What are the needs of these people? How can we help them to succeed?’”
Economics will continue to have a major impact on new crop protection products coming to market, Casale said.
A recent study projected that by 2008, an estimated 80 percent to 85 percent of currently-available crop protection materials will be off-patent.
“With the cost of bringing a new molecule to market now at $175 million, the industry is going to be a lot more selective about what it brings to market.”
That means, Casale said, “We need to be more protective of the tools we now have, to steward them, and keep them on the market, because there are going to be fewer materials coming along to replace them.”
Creating value for farmers in the products offered will be increasingly important, he said. “Understanding what farmers want and what they're willing to pay will be both a challenge and an opportunity.”
Members of the Southern Crop Production Association are manufacturers, distributors, and formulators of crop protection chemicals, as well as seed companies.