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Commodity groups promote stewardship, trade deals

Farmer leaders tout conservation, infrastructure investments in post trade war world.

The National Corn Growers Association has partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to launch a program to accelerate the adoption of conservation practices.

The initiative, called Success in Stewardship Network, was announced at this week’s Commodity Classic held in San Antonio, TX.

The network will showcase success stories from individuals and the many state-level programs putting stewardship into practice, with the goal of building a network of corn farmers who are also conservation leaders.

“We feel this is critical for protecting our land and water for future generations,” says Callie Eideberg, director of ag policy and special projects at EDF. “We must break down the notion that only an elite group of farmers can improve environmental results. We want these practices to be adopted across all lands.”

Adopting such practices also helps farmers validate sustainability practices that more retailers like Walmart and Pepsi tout in their supply chains.

Profit matters

NCGA and EDF might seem strange bedfellows, but both groups find themselves working toward similar goals: helping farmers become more sustainable while maintaining profitability.  

“What we’ve learned is that it really is all about the economics and making sure it all pencils out,” says Eideberg. “If it can work financially on a farm, if a farmer can recognize they are more profitable by say, spending less on inputs, less time in the field through no-till -- that is a big savings at the end of the day. Then we see that these types of practices are really good for the environment, and good for the farmer’s bottom line.”

Adds Iowa farmer and NCGA president Kevin Ross: “Sustainability for farmers is nothing without the profit aspect.”

Trade wins

The national commodity group leaders praised the current administration for trade pacts with leading importers Japan, Canada, Mexico and China. And despite concerns over coronavirus, association leaders were confident these deals would eventually boost profitability.

“We’re feeling very good about these trade pacts,” says Ross. “When it comes to USMCA as well as Japan and China, it is long-term security. They are all good steps for us going forward. Coronavirus is certainly a concern and there are good people working on these issues right now, but people have to eat every day.”

American Soybean Association president Bill Gordon, Worthington, Minn., echoed those sentiments.

“We’re not seeing results yet, but in the long term (trade) is a key driver to success for the American soybean farmer,” he says. “You can look up and down main street and belts are tightening; it’s affecting rural economies. But trade deals have made farmers more optimistic.”

ASA leaders also touted WISHH (World Initiative for Soy in Human Health) as a success story.

“Look at what they did in Ghana, a country barely able to feed itself, becoming self-sufficient,” says Gordon. “And now we’re in Cambodia, looking at aquaculture projects, Afghanistan, teaching people how to farm and be business people; we want to move them into USSEC (U.S. Soybean Export Council). Being involved with USSEC helped me realize we had to think beyond China. There are success stories all over for USSEC and WISHH.

Commodity leaders agreed that when it comes to trade deals, the key word was patience.

“When you talk about China, it’s our largest soy export market and what a market it is,” says Davie Stephens, Kentucky farmer and ASA chairman. “With phase 1 (trade agreement), it’s going to take a while before we can really enjoy the benefits. When you look at USMCA, (Mexico and Canada) are our number two and three trade partners.”

Farmer leaders also touted wins in other areas, such as biodiesel tax credits, revised WOTUS (Waters of The United States) rules and infrastructure investment.

“WOTUS is truly a win,” adds Stephens. “I farm in three different watersheds. Working with this administration, it was a very confusing ruling in how it would be implemented and how it would impact farm decisions every day; where WOTUS is now, it’s going to let us be farmers, hold us accountable in terms of conservation, but not have that wonky state patchwork of regulations.”

ASA noted that U.S. Army Corps of Engineer plans to dredge the 256-mile stretch of Mississippi River from Baton Route to the Gulf, a stretch of water that accounts for 60% of U.S. soybean exports and 59% of corn exports. Dredging the shipping channel to deepen current 45-ft. levels to 50 ft. depth would add $461 million in annual value to soybean exports.

“We’ve had an advantage in shipping in the United States,” says Stephens. “Dredging needed to be done in our lock and dam system. We need to keep an advantage over our competitors and infrastructure is one way to do that. Brazil will continue to improve and if we don’t keep up, we will be behind.”

Delays ahead?

Yet, this spring’s impeachment activities, along with the looming presidential election, could delay legislative progress on issues like immigration reform and infrastructure, notes Chandler Goule, CEO at National Association of Wheat Growers.

“If we had not had impeachment, by around March or April both parties would start working on legislation to position themselves for the election,” he says. “The Democrats need to get some things through the House to the president to maintain their majority, and the same with Republicans in the Senate. This will be a major roadblock for important legislation that we’ve already seen move through both chambers.”

Another roadblock is cost.

“Every time we run the infrastructure bill through Congress it comes through very large, so now they are talking about splitting them up - roads and rail in one, and rivers and ports in another, then piecemeal it through the house so it’s easy to digest,” Goule says. “What we’ve seen over the decades is, when you try to pass a large bill, it’s too hard for Congress to handle.”

Even so, “If we don’t make significant headway on infrastructure or immigration between now and May, I don’t see it happening until after election.”

Dave Milligan, newly elected NAWG president from Michigan, noted that crop insurance will be an issue his group monitors closely this year.

“It’s been very valuable for wheat growers along with all of agriculture,” he says. “We want to be sure it continues to be a valuable tool. Last year we were not able to plant all our crops for the first time in 40 years I’ve been farming, so it was very valuable to have that crop insurance.”

Pushing sustainability

Like NCGA, both ASA and NAWG will focus more on sustainability in 2020.

“A lot of our end users want to be able to say the crops they use are grown sustainabiy, so we’re working toward that – reduced chemicals and no-till, for example,” says Milligan. “Cover crops are now widely touted, keeping biological organisms in the soil year-round.”

Sustainability has been a buzzword in agriculture for years, notes Dan Atkinson, National Sorghum Producers chairman. “Unfortunately, everyone has a different definition for sustainability. The message we need to unite behind is, ag is the only industry that stores carbon in the earth every day,” he says. “I hope we can take our sustainability message to our customers and retailers.”

Commodity organizations are also watching carbon market development, but most leaders agree the concept needs work.

“I don’t think too many people are ready to buy in to this,” says Milligan. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions. You want to make sure it’s reputable and that you get paid. There’s interest in setting up standards, but I think we’re quite a ways away from this being effective.

“If you’re really serious about climate change and all you’re doing is selling what we already do to someone else, it’s almost like paying to pollute. It’s not solving the problem.”

Farm leaders also noted concern over sound science to write regulations.

“We have always relied on science-based facts and not just assumptions,” says Stephens. “We hope this goes forward. Glyphosate is very valuable to farmers across the United States. We want to make sure we keep that out there and are able to use it, in people’s everyday life, not just farmers.”

Milligan agrees.

“We have concern that consumer preferences are not in line with sound science,” he says. “Glyphosate is a very valuable tool in wheat, important in soil health and sustainability; sound science says there is nothing wrong with it, yet a lot of people say it’s not safe. We’ve gone through this with GMOs.

“It’s hard to get the message across that we grow safe food.”

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