The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal Media. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.
The AgriTalk broadcast is done for today, but the conversation continues. AgriTalk host Mike Adams shares his thoughts and opinions on the news of the week and invites your feedback.
If you subscribe to the theory that we are better off when Congress is not in session then you'll be happy with next year's schedule for the House of Representatives. House leadership has announced they plan to be in session a total of 115 days in 2014. For those who believe members of Congress should only be part time employees it seems you are getting your wish. Of course they get full time pay and benefits and if my math is correct 250 days vacation! Now I realize time spent back home with constituents also qualifies as work but my point is we elect these people to go to Washington and get the work of the country done. Based on recent results they can't seem to fit that work into their tight schedules. The farm bill was supposed to be done a year ago and the current extension is about to run out. Summer has turned to fall and winter is fast approaching. You would think there would be a sense of urgency to get something done. Instead we waited and waited for conference committee conferees to be named and then for them to get to work. One hearing later and they are back on break for 2 weeks. A break from what? Don't you have to be doing something before you can take a break from it? Most of the work that does get done during these breaks is often done by staff members, many of whom were laid off during the recent government shutdown while their bosses got paid. It might be too much to ask for Congress to get paid based on job performance and productivity but it shouldn't be too much to ask that they at least have to show up for work a little more often. If not, then just email the votes and save the travel expense. At least that would be some deficit reduction.
The debate over the Affordable Care Act seems to come down to who do you trust. There is a lot of speculation on both sides about the benefits and shortcomings of the program. Time will tell who is right. Given the widespread distrust and dissatisfaction people have for the government, I find it interesting that so many people think government involvement in healthcare will make it better. I just don't see a track record that warrants that kind of trust and optimism. I also find it interesting that so many people criticize government subsidized crop insurance but support government subsidized health insurance. We know farmers pay premiums into crop insurance and we seem to be hoping enough people will pay to be part of the new healthcare program. Millions of Americans don't have health insurance. I have to believe a large percentage of them don't have insurance because they can't afford it. Giving them more insurance choices doesn't give them more money so eventually it will come down to who pays for it. Whether it is through higher premiums or taxpayer dollars for subsidies, those currently paying for insurance will pay for those who aren't or can't? Crop insurance became a target of budget cutters when last year's drought led to large payments being made even to farmers who had paid premiums for years without filing a claim. What happens when the bills come due on an even larger program backed by a government already partially shutdown and deep in debt?
Watching and enjoying the St. Louis Cardinals opening game victory in the playoffs against Pittsburgh reminded me of what is good about sports. For all of the negatives such as injuries, illegal substance use and high priced hot dogs both on the field and in the concession stands, there is something special when your team is doing well especially in post season. As I watched the game in a pizza place it was amazing to see the reaction as the Cardinals took the lead. People were yelling and clapping as if they were at the ballpark. Total strangers were high fiving each other and talking as if they had known each other for years. After the game I stopped for gas and the gal at the cash register, seeing my Cardinals attire, immediately asked if WE had won. After filling her in on the game, she started telling me all about her passion for baseball as well as her grandmother’s. This went on for some time as I waited to pay for my gas. The excitement of a winning sports team has the ability to break down barriers and bring people together. Something about a shared goal seems to create a bond between people. I couldn’t help but think about how divided our country is over so many issues these days to the point our government has shut down. Too bad we can’t put our differences aside for the good of the country and come together to seek solutions to our problems. Major league baseball is a kids game played by adults. Politics is an adult game played by adults acting like kids. I realize the nation’s issues are more complex and serious than a sporting event, but it should be easier to solve them if people are pulling together as a team instead of pulling each other apart as enemies. It’s certainly working in Cardinals nation.
Depending on which opinion poll you believe, the Republicans are taking the brunt of the blame for the current government shutdown. While they deserve their share, I think there is plenty of blame to be passed around. Neither party has shown much leadership. Instead they take an our way or no way approach as they deny doing it while accusing the other side of it. The White House is part of the finger pointing game being played as our leaders seem willing to fiddle around while our country burns. The partisan media doesn't help with their stories speculating on which party will win. Meanwhile the country loses. There is no high moral ground here. Both sides gave that up long ago when they refused to even consider compromise. At one time compromise was applauded as an effective and sensible way to resolve differences. Now it is considered giving in and a sign of weakness. Both parties play to their extreme political bases to protect their jobs and keep contributions coming in. Voters must share part of the blame as well. Not only do we keep sending a lot of these people back to Washington but we do so with instructions to not give in to the other side. It's time to stop the madness and realize we are (or should be) on the same side. That doesn't mean always getting everything you want and shutting down the government when you don't. We used to criticize smoke filled back room deals of the past but the air doesn't seem any clearer in this new day of media driven transparency. Maybe it's time to lock the politicians back up in those smoke filled rooms and not let them out until they work things out.
The recent announcement by ADM that they were creating a new world headquarters in another city must have been quite a shock to people in Decatur, Illinois. Anyone living in a community that has lost businesses and jobs knows that feeling. The ripple effect on other businesses, school districts and community morale is significant. I live in a community near Decatur that is still dealing with those kinds of losses. While I could feel their pain a closer look seems to indicate the news isn't all bad for Decatur. While losing 100 jobs, 4400 remain. ADM has announced it will establish a new intermodal transportation facility that could attract new businesses and create more jobs. Also, ADM announced it will maintain its current level of charitable contributions at a minimum level of $ 1 million a year for the next 10 years and $ 500,000 a year for 5 years to Decatur public schools. In addition ADM pledged $ 250,000 a year for 3 years to help economic development efforts. While no town wants to lose jobs, I'm sure a lot of communities around the country that have, wish their bad news was as good as Decatur's.
During our recent RFS debate between Bob Dinneen of the Renewable Fuels Association and Kristina Butts with the National Cattlemens Beef Association, it was interesting to note how often the two sides agreed. To be sure there were definite areas of disagreement especially on the waiver process and whether it needs to be changed or not. Both sides made good points and did so in a civil, friendly manner. It was refreshing to see, especially in Washington D.C., people on opposites sides of an issue willing to sit down face to face and discuss their differences while seeking a workable solution. Whether that solution is reached remains to be seen but both sides seem closer for being willing to talk and more importantly listen to each other. We can only hope members of Congress will try the same approach. Maybe then we'll see progress rather than gridlock on important issues facing our country.
Global warming is heating up and I'm not talking about temperatures. A new report putting a 95% probability of humans causing global warming will spark more calls for action. Those potential actions and over reactions worry me a lot more than global warming itself. There's no doubt global changing is taking place and a growing world population probably has something to do with it. How much and what if anything should be done about it are the big questions. I'm afraid the answers policy makers come up with will do more harm than good. Politicians, with the backing of environmental groups, often push for unrealistic changes that other countries aren't willing to do, lessening their impact. Making things worse, some of those same policy makers and groups stand to profit from the changes. Protecting the environment is important but so to is how you go about it. Those wanting changes claim any weather event, good or bad, is because of global warming. Others say global cooling is a bigger threat than global warming. The government's track track record on fixing problems isn't exactly stellar. Hopefully this won't be a case of the cure being worse than the illness.
Beauty is not the only thing in the eye of the beholder. So too is a corn and bean crop and this year's crops have lots of eyes on them as we head toward harvest. Earlier this month many farmers felt USDA's crop estimates were too high while many traders felt they were too low. As numbers come in this week from the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour some see the bin half empty while others see it half full. The crops are certainly considerably larger than last year but perhaps not as large as many had hoped for. Lots of questions remain. Will there be enough moisture down the stretch and will the stretch be long enough before the first frost? Meanwhile farmers are closely watching some other numbers and many don't like what they see. Grain prices are trending lower as exports have slowed and traders believe a big crop will get bigger. While that's good news for livestock producers it may finally create some urgency in the countryside to put pressure on Congress to get a farm bill done. It might also change some marketing plans this fall. No matter what the projections are, farmers will tell you nothing is for sure until the crop is in the bin and that's where a lot of it may wind up if prices continue to drop.
The development of meat in a laboratory from animal cells may be a glimpse into a future that some will welcome and others will find hard to accept. Obviously the price of over $300,000 for a hamburger is prohibitive and the taste may not be to a lot of people's liking but those things will probably be addressed. If so the bigger question will be whether consumers will embrace such technology. Those opposed to current meat production will welcome the new product as an animal free food. They will promote it as a safer, more environmentally friendly and more humane food source. Whether true or not, this will have an appeal to some. If advancements such as longer shelf life are developed then the appeal will grow even more. For many of us this may seem hard to imagine. We are used to meat production as it is and the thought of eating something from a test tube doesn't seem right. The "yuck" factor is too great for us. Perhaps we should have seen this coming and been better prepared for its arrival. Agriculture has embraced technology as a way to more efficiently provide food for a growing world population. Perhaps this is the next step. Of course this won't happen overnight if at all. Time will tell. Still we would be making a mistake to think it couldn't happen. Future generations may accept lab produced meat the same way many of us accept current meat production. Predicting the "yuck" factor of future generations is tricky business.
While the biofuels and livestock industries battle over the Renewable Fuels Standard, perhaps both should stop and see the possible bigger fight looming. Many are already wondering how we will feed a growing world population, and a report from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota offers an answer that should concern both industries. The report suggests that the world's billions could be fed if we eliminate crop use for BOTH biofuels and livestock production. While not making the recommendation, the report will no doubt be used by opponents of both industries. Agriculture has spent too much time fighting civil wars and not focusing on the world war being waged against them. Time and resources should be combined by ag groups to get their message out instead of attacking each other. Sometimes it is hard to see the big picture while focusing on the smaller ones. Differences between the two sides pale in comparison to the potential pitfalls both could face from an uninformed and misled public. The livestock industry is already fighting that battle. No need to take on another one especially with someone who can be a valuable ally in the bigger struggle. Both sides have good stories to tell. It makes no sense to drown out their own voices by shouting at each other.
The addition of cellulosic production at an ethanol plant in Galva, Iowa is another example of the evolution taking place in biofuels production. Traditional corn to ethanol plants serve as bridges to second generation ethanol production that will use multiple raw materials and help diversify our fuel supply. While critics try to dismantle and discredit the Renewable Fuels Standard, the evidence supporting its success continues to mount. Not only is our dependence on foreign oil being reduced but so too is our dependence on corn alone to make ethanol. Along with corn stalks we are also seeing development of fuel production from wood chips to garbage. No wonder Big Oil is fighting so hard to stop E 15 and the RFS. They can see the threat to their monopoly and are trying to cut it off before the public realizes what's possible. Without the threat of a reduced food supply the oil industry will have trouble convincing people to buy only their products. Already seeing corn prices drop with the RFS still in place, no wonder Big Oil and Big Food are getting desperate. Their cries of wolf and the sky is falling are starting to sound more and more hollow. Gas and food prices continue to rise regardless of corn prices or ethanol. While trying to protect an empire we are starting to see the emperor has no clothes!
The wheels of the legal process grind slowly on the issue of resumption of horse processing. Meanwhile thousands of unwanted horses are either being abandoned and left to starve to death or shipped to Mexico or Canada for slaughter under less than humane conditions. HSUS continues to throw up legal roadblocks to keep horse processing plants in the U.S. from opening. State and federal agencies seem to look for ways to delay the process while hoping Congress will change its mind again and prohibit horse processing. It seems even when the government says yes it means no. While lawyers argue, activists propagandize and politicians do nothing, horses continue to suffer and die. Last year more than 166,000 U.S. horses were trucked to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. More are slowly starving to death. Now the Yakama Indian nation has intervened in the lawsuit because of the negative consequences of an overpopulation of horses. Ironically they are supporting a reluctant USDA in this suit. Secretary Vilsack has expressed his displeasure with the resumption of horse processing and hopes Congress will move to keep it shut down. Supposedly those opposing horse processing want what's best for horses. Based on the results so far, they have a strange way of showing it. The money spent on legal fees would be much better spent on feed and shelters. As that seems unlikely, regulated processing provides a much better end of life option than what currently exists.
I had hoped that the passage of a separated farm bill by the House would move the stalled process forward and get a bill to committee where it could be put back together. While that could still happen it still looks like we are a long ways from getting a new five year bill done. It remains to be seen if and when House leadership will name conference conferees. They may first try to pass a separate nutrition bill that would probably not be acceptable to Democrats. Even if a farm bill got to and out of committee it would probably have a hard time getting final passage. After all these months of debate the same issue remains unresolved. How much will be cut from nutrition spending? A conference bill would likely lean towards the smaller cut proposed in the Senate bill making it unlikely to pass in the House. Bigger cuts won't likely pass the Senate or get by the White House. Of course Congress could take the path of least resistance and do nothing. Nutrition programs could continue through the appropriations process and some type of extension of the commodity title could be passed. Those wanting reform may have missed their chance with an all or nothing approach. While we wait for a bill that helps feed us we continue to starve for political leadership.
Passage of the House Farm Bill minus a nutrition title was both historic and controversial. While an important step the process of course is far from complete. While some choose to criticize the move others see it as a necessary means to a hoped for end. Count me in the latter category. I know I've been in the minority on this (although I seem to have more company now) but after two failures it seemed like a chance worth taking. At least now there is a bill to send to conference committee where hopefully improvements will be made. Despite conventional thinking to the contrary, the nutrition title was not the ticket to passage it had been in the past. Also the threat of returning to so called permanent law has proven to be no deterrent at all to inaction. Some are already saying this bill is not really a farm bill. I disagree! The bill that passed the Senate was not really a farm bill but rather a nutrition bill with agriculture's 20% attached. Ironically those in the House who wanted bigger cuts in nutrition spending should have voted for the bill that came out of the House ag committee. The Senate's 4 billion in nutrition cuts would seem closer now to reality than the House ag committee's 20 billion. Of course that has been a big part of the problem in this whole process. Too many parties (agriculture included) took an all or nothing position. It's time for people to stop working on defeating the bill and work to get it passed. The House, though not in a conventional manner, took a step in that direction. Hopefully others will now do something unconventional. Work together to get a final bill passed!
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack once created a stir by talking about agriculture's loss of influence in Washington D.C. While some disagree with that assessment, the current farm bill impasse seems to support his position. Even though the nutrition program has twice helped keep this farm bill from passing most ag groups feel a farm bill can't stand on its own. 352 groups recently sent a letter to House Speaker Boehner urging him to bring a unified bill back for a vote. Conventional wisdom seems to call for this all or nothing approach. Obviously the ag community doesn't believe it has the influence to get a bill passed on its own. Unfortunately that is the political reality of our times as politicians see where the most votes are. We can't trust our elected officials or the public to support producers who provide the commodities used in the nutrition programs. While passing a stand alone farm bill would go a long ways to proving agriculture's influence, the risk of failure may be too great. Agriculture's best chance of success now seems as part of a nutrition bill and the influence of others.
For those who have been anxiously awaiting the return of horse processing in this country the announcement last week of government approval was long overdue. For those opposed to resumption of horse processing the news was alarming. In reality, nothing much has changed as the plant in New Mexico is still not open and it’s unclear when or if it will be. USDA says it could take up to three weeks to send inspectors to New Mexico. That’s a long time even with flight delays! Obviously USDA isn’t in any hurry to resume horse processing. They’ve known this was coming and have had plenty of time to train and prepare inspectors and budgets. Litigation, real and threatened, continues to slow the process and even plant representatives seem less than optimistic they will be open for business very soon. I recently heard a representative of PETA complain this would cause horses to be trucked hundreds of miles in poor conditions to destinations where they would be inhumanely treated. Actually that sounds like a description of what is happening now as unwanted horses are shipped to Mexico or Canada for slaughter without USDA inspectors or regulations. I can understand people not wanting to eat horse meat or that can’t bear the thought of horses being slaughtered but to allow these animals to starve to death seems much worse. It’s bad enough that our government won’t do its job and pass needed legislation now they seem unwilling to enforce the ones they already have.
Farming in any state is challenging but right now agriculture finds itself in perhaps the most challenging state of all….LIMBO! The failure of the farm bill in the House leaves many unanswered questions. It’s certainly hard to make plans not knowing what the rules will be. Attempts to pass the Senate bill in the House won’t be easy and perhaps impossible. Meanwhile the White House, which had already expressed their dislike of the House ag committee’s bill, now threatens to veto the ag appropriations bill. Also caught in limbo is the proposed horse processing plant in New Mexico. While Congress still says it is ok to have horse processing they at the same time seem to be trying to cut funding for inspectors. As we have seen in many other cases, passage of a bill means little without the money to fund it. Representatives of the company in New Mexico continue to be optimistic they will get their plant open. While that seems to be a long shot at this point they may have one thing in their favor. Until Congress passes an appropriations bills without money for horse plant inspectors then the funding remains. In other words, doing nothing might be the best chance of opening the plant and with this Congress that’s a strong possibility.
SNAP! That was the sound as the House voted down the Farm Bill Thursday. A shorter than expected debate led many to predict the bill's passage. Passage of a dairy amendment favored by Speaker Boehner seemed to be a positive sign for passage too but in the end the deal breaker was the same issue that kept the bill from even coming to the House floor for a vote last year. The nutrition program, which makes up about 80% of the bill's spending, proved to again be the deal breaker. Some wanted bigger cuts, others none at all and an employment amendment seemed to be the final straw. No one was going to get everything they wanted but passage would have at least allowed a conference committee to improve the bill even more. Conventional thinking says the nutrition program is needed to get a farm bill passed. So how's that working out? Maybe agriculture needs to rethink that position. As we have seen with numerous other issues, extreme views in both parties have produced gridlock. While the chance to pass two major bills in the same year (farm & immigration) remains, the chances seem a lot slimmer now. Instead we get more of the same finger pointing and political pontificating that Congress has become infamous for.
Not satisfied with the removal of subsidies for renewable fuels, critics have launched an all out effort to repeal the Renewable Fuels Standard and prevent E 15 from reaching the market place. Despite studies to the contrary, ethanol in particular continues to be blamed for rising food costs, engine damage and environmental problems. I'm surprised critics haven't found a way to blame ethanol for the IRS scandal too. While I understand concerns about mandates, where is the outcry against the big oil mandate and subsidies? We keep hearing about the domestic oil boom that is underway but still we see high prices at the pump. Not a bad deal for the oil industry. They have more product to sell at higher prices and still get people to blame ethanol. Obviously addictions are hard to break and our oil addiction is no exception. However that is no excuse for not trying. We need more fuel supply diversity not less. Are we really to believe that if the RFS is repealed food prices will drop, engines won't break down and the environment will be pristine? No doubt other excuses would be offered to explain why those things didn't happen but until then the RFS remains a convenient scapegoat.
The move to Meatless Mondays by some schools on the East Coast and now San Diego in the west is troubling for several reasons. It's bad enough that students are deprived of the chance to choose whether they want to eat meat or not but it also deprives them of a nutritious protein source. Price and quality are important but separate issues. The bigger concern is the influence animal activists have to promote their vegan agenda. These groups won't be satisfied with eliminating meat from school meals one day a week. Each victory, whether real or perceived, emboldens these groups to push for more. While it's hard to imagine a school district in rural America making such a decision, it can't be taken for granted. These decisions should be a red flag to others. Also of concern is the message Meatless Mondays sends to kids. Animal rights groups would love to have a generation of kids not eating meat grow up to be a generation of adults not eating meat. While I acknowledge local school boards' authority to make these decisions I do question their reasoning for doing so. Even if their intentions are good they have opened the door and allowed a dangerous precedent to be set.
While I make the transition to 1% milk, surprisingly there are people who seem to really want to consume raw milk. Personally I can’t imagine why anyone would prefer a non- pasteurized product and the health risks that go with it. However I do understand the reluctance to give up the right to make your own decisions. Each state decides whether to allow the sale of raw milk and I suspect much of the support of the idea has more to do with preserving the right to choose rather than how to best preserve milk. That' s fine as long as you are willing to accept the risks that go with raw milk consumption. Today’s consumers, not used to raw milk, may be getting more than they bargain for. If a problem occurs, are they going to blame someone else and not take responsibility for their choice? Many in today’s society are quick to blame and litigate. Personal responsibility is in short supply these days. No wonder many dairy producers don’t support the sale of raw milk. They realize the potential problems and negative publicity. While I respect the right for consumer choice, in this case the risk seems greater than the reward. While it is fashionable these days to want to go old school, it is also wise to remember that not everything in the "good old days" was good. I would put lack of pasteurization in that category.
The recent discovery of bio tech wheat in Oregon has raised concerns both here and with some of our global customers. Opponents of GMO's continue to question the safety and testing of these products. They claim there hasn't been enough testing done and what has been done is tainted by influence of bio tech companies. Although these products have now been used and tested for several years we are still in the early stages of this technological evolution. Skepticism and criticism aren't unusual during a period of change such as this but there is a major difference this time. In the past independent research, often done on college campuses, helped answer questions and concerns. Now that research and those researchers face a credibility crisis. Funding is needed to do the research and university budgets, already tight, no longer provide researchers the luxury of working without new revenue sources. Often that funding now comes from the companies making the products being tested. A researcher now has to be a fund raiser at the risk of losing credibility. In today's society people often tend to believe the negative so they assume a researcher will not reach a conclusion that jeopardizes future funding. While I have no doubt that sometimes happens, I still believe that if there is a major health risk in these products it will be found and reported. I just don't believe all these researchers are on the take. However people on both sides have become so entrenched in their positions they won't listen to any evidence they don't agree with. Issues such as crop segregation and seed ownership still need to be addressed so we can move forward. Feeding a growing population will be hard enough even with this technology and maybe impossible without it.
I live in West Central Illinois, a place that like most of the country experienced a devastating drought last year. What a difference a year makes! Last year we couldn’t get a rain and this year we can’t miss one it seems. A year ago a 30% chance of rain meant very little. This year a 30% chance mean a half inch or more. Most farmers I’ve talked to during this saturated spring were surprisingly calm. Perhaps knowing that no one else was in the fields helped. I guess misery does love company. Maybe the memories of last year’s drought were still fresh in their minds so moisture couldn’t be thought of as a negative. However we now have too much of a good thing. While a lot of acres in my area are still not planted (especially beans) fortunately a recent break in the rain allowed the majority of corn planting to be completed. That brief moment of relief however has now given way to more concern over steady and sometimes heavy rains. Good looking stands of emerged corn are now underwater and streams are cutting through fields doing even more damage. Tiling projects in recent years are certainly helping but ditches are full and it’s hard to find anywhere for the water to go. The forecast in my area calls for more rain the rest of the week so there will be no drying out anytime soon. As the calendar is about to turn to June, patience is quickly turning to frustration. Some big decisions are looming. Not to mention a hay crop that needs attention too. Meanwhile in Washington the farm bill debate continues with some suggesting farmers no longer need assistance. Really? Those people should spend some time standing in Midwest mud or Western dust to help them see things more clearly.
USDA's response to a WTO complaint to our Country of Origin Labeling program is getting a cool reception on both sides of the border. The change modifies the labeling provisions for muscle cut covered commodities to require the origin destinations to include information about where each of the production steps occurred and removes the allowance for commingling of muscle cuts. NCBA fears retaliatory tariffs and loss of markets. Canada says the changes make COOL worse rather than better. I understand and respect the opinion of those who believe consumers have the right to know what country their meat comes from. However the right to know seems to be outweighed by the want to know. While some consumers feel strongly about buying American and try to do so, it doesn't seem the majority is willing to put their money where their mouths are. I think most consumers assume that as long as the meat in their store's meat case is USDA inspected it is safe and price has more influence on their purchase than origin. So far COOL hasn't seemed to increase U.S.beef sales so why risk losing important export markets? I know many still question following WTO rules but as long as we are part of that group and enjoy the benefits that go with it, then we can't expect others to abide by rules we ignore. COOL seems to offer more downside risk than upside potential.
Well here we go again. The Senate and House ag committees have passed their versions of the next farm bill. Sound familiar? While both are significant accomplishments, as we saw last year, this is the easiest part of the farm bill process. While the Senate will probably pass its bill rather quickly, expect a real battle on the House floor. Of course just having that battle is progress over last year. Chairman Lucas and ranking member Peterson face quite a challenge to keep their bill intact as amendments will be coming from all directions. Perhaps the biggest challenge, both on the House floor and in conference committee, will be over cuts in nutrition spending. The Senate ag committee proposes 4 billion in cuts while the House ag committee proposes 20 billion. That's quite a difference. Some want even bigger cuts while others want no cuts at all. For all the debate over dairy reform, crop insurance and target prices, nutrition programs will once again take center stage. Many in agriculture still feel nutrition programs are needed to get a farm bill passed but last year they helped prevent passage. Hopefully this time will be different.
You've probably seen the ads on TV asking you to send money to the Humane Society of the United States. Supposedly that money helps save and protect abused animals but that depends on your point of view. In Tennessee HSUS helped defeat a bill that would require reporting of animal abuse within 48 hours. If you really care about the welfare of animals wouldn't you want to stop abuse as quickly as possible? HSUS is holding up the opening of a horse processing plant in New Mexico with the threat of lawsuits. Meanwhile the number of abandoned and starving horses increases. In New Jersey HSUS is pushing a bill to keep pork producers from using production systems proven to protect sows. The list goes on and on. Those monthly donations seem to be helping save and protect jobs and salaries more than they are animals. HSUS wants people to believe they know what's best for animals but they sure have a strange way of showing it.
It's often been said that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. The American Meat Institute hopes their " Glass Walls Project" will keep some people from throwing so many stones at them. AMI has released a video tour of a pork slaughter plant hosted by animal welfare expert Temple Grandin. There seems to be a lot of interest about what goes on in a packing plant. Along with a similar video released last year of a beef plant, thousands have already had a look inside the industry. Also used as a classroom teaching tool, these videos are another example of agriculture trying to educate consumers and respond to attacks by activist groups. One of agriculture's biggest challenges is negative public reaction to even the best practices but it's a chance worth taking. Activists, sometimes aided by some bad actors, have created an image of abuse in people's minds. Hopefully these videos will help take away the mystery and misperceptions that exist. Of course some people make a lot of money by throwing stones and these videos won't stop them but maybe this project will slow the avalanche. Check them out at www.AnimalHandling.org.
If the rest of Congress could work together as well as Frank Lucas and Collin Peterson do we might see a lot more accomplished in Washington D.C. As the House ag committee gets ready to take up the farm bill next week, the committee's chairman and ranking member seem on the same page and optimistic about the outcome. Both agree on reducing spending by about 38 billion dollars and feel the bill they get out of committee will get floor time. That of course would be an accomplishment in itself. Despite their shared optimism, both know there will be battles ahead. Cuts in nutrition spending, a deal breaker last year, will be a major hurdle again this year not only in the House but with the Senate as well. Other hurdles both from within as well as outside agriculture loom but the bipartisan leadership on the House ag committee is a refreshing approach missing from most political debates these days.
Insurance is once again in the news and I don’t mean Obamacare. The debate over federal crop insurance is heating up as Congress attempts to write a new farm bill. Criticism of crop insurance is certainly not new. Over the years several reforms have been implemented but opponents still aren’t satisfied. Last year’s drought and the money paid out have made the program a target of renewed attacks. No government program is perfect so no one should expect this one to be either. Differences of opinion on crop insurance exist even within the ag community itself. However lost in the debate (especially in the media coverage) is the fact that farmers pay a lot of money to be in the program. This is not a handout from the government as it is often portrayed. Farmers pay those premiums not knowing if they will need the coverage or not and before last year many had paid into the program for years without filing a claim. Yes, government support is a big part of the program and some say it’s too big a part. Others contend it is essential to the success of the program. Good arguments can be made by both sides. However, let’s make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose the key piece in the farm safety net. Some say it is hypocritical for farmers to want government to stay out of their business but want it to support crop insurance. That would be true perhaps if it was a straight handout but given the amount of farmer investment in the program it seems more like a business partnership. Government often proves to be a tricky partner for farmers but for the most part in this case it seems to be working. Given the current economic plight of the country and the makeup of an already dysfunctional Congress, I would hate to see us go back to the days of counting on the government for ad hoc disaster assistance. If it came down to a hurricane devastated city versus a drought stricken Midwest, I’m afraid agriculture would lose out. An investment in America’s farmers pays greater dividends than most people realize especially compared to the return on investment from many other government programs.
When Wichita mayor Carl Brewer recently said that his city was sophisticated and maybe not the rural, farming industry and things of that nature, he quickly found out just how sophisticated and responsive the agriculture community is. Sedgwick County Farm Bureau President Kent Winter wrote a response to the mayor’s comments that was printed in the Wichita Eagle newspaper. Winter correctly pointed out that by using a sophisticated array of technology, equipment and infrastructure, one U.S. farmer now feeds 155 people and American households spend far less for food than people in other countries. Winter also pointed out that a farmer’s work includes engineering, manufacturing and agronomics as well as dealing with hedges, futures and insurance considerations. That sounds pretty sophisticated to me. The mayor’s comments, whether he meant them to be or not, were more stereotypical than sophisticated. Mayor Brewer has since admitted to a poor choice of words and has publicly stated his respect for farmers and their contributions. While I suspect he realized the political damage his comments might have, I hope he also realized the greater public image damage these types of comments have. The challenge of educating consumers about how their food is produced is hard enough without comments like these from a public official of a rural community. Thankfully Kent Winter did not stay silent. His response is a good example for the rest of agriculture on how to show its sophistication.
While Congress debates the latest immigration reform proposal, growers in states like California wonder how much longer they can wait. For them it is more than a debate, it is their livelihoods. An asparagus grower told me she has to leave part of her crop in the field because of a lack of workers. A vineyard owner told me that without significant improvement in immigration policy she isn't sure she can stay in business. Both say they can't find U.S. citizens willing to do the work. The debate has evolved over the years to where the United Farm Workers and growers are now on the same side but that may not be enough to push this bill through. Issues like amnesty and border security threaten the bill now moving through Congress and that worries many in the ag community. It should worry everyone because it could have a significant impact on our food availability and price. We have seen what happened when we became dependent on other countries for our oil and how difficult it is to break that dependence. We need to make sure that doesn't happen with our food. Ironically the first step in preventing a dependence on another country for our food may be to accept our dependence on them for our workers.
The challenge of telling agriculture’s story has gotten a lot harder for farmers in Iowa. For years, Iowa farmers had been protected from liability by a recreational use statute for injuries on their property unless willfully injuring someone. An Iowa Supreme Court ruling in February, stemming from an injury to a parent of a child on a school farm visit, changed that and states that unless the injury occurred under specific circumstances a farmer can be held liable. What’s an Iowa farmer to do? Faced with increasing criticisms and questions about food production, many farmers have opened their farms to visitors to help them understand where their food comes from. Farmers deal with risk on a daily basis but this puts them between a rock and a hard place. On one hand if they don’t allow visitors they risk losing in the court of public opinion while on the other hand if they do, they risk losing in the legal courts of the state. Common sense says if you go willingly to a place and are forewarned of possible dangers, then you assume the responsibility if an accident occurs. For many of us, the last thing on our minds in that situation would be to take someone to court. Unfortunately in today’s society, legal action is the first thing on some people’s minds. As we have seen in many other situations, personal responsibility is no longer expected or even encouraged. Instead we have become a society that blames others for our problems and expects to be rewarded for them. While this trend is not ag specific, this case alone has many repercussions. Children lose the opportunity to learn about their food, farmers lose income from recreational activities such as hunting and fishing, lack of deer hunting leads to more deer and damages including vehicle/deer collisions and insurance costs go up, just to name a few. Perhaps the state legislature will be able to resolve this matter but if not it looks like another case of a society biting the hands that feed it.
When Congress failed last year to pass a farm bill it led some(including Secretary of Agriculture) to question agriculture’s influence. While others disagreed it is a fair question to ask. Passage of a farm bill in the full Senate and the House Agriculture committee wasn’t enough to even get the bill to the House floor for a vote. As we wait to see what happens with the farm bill this year we have another test case that may help answer the question on agriculture’s influence. A group of Senators has reached an agreement on a framework for a farm worker program that would be part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. All of the details haven’t been worked out but the proposal would provide a path to legal status for undocumented workers and set a cap of 112,000 3 year visas each year while setting a formula by which wages would increase each year with a cap and floor. Several ag and labor groups are supporting the proposal as a way to keep and attract much needed farm workers. It remains to be seen if the farm worker proposal will be part of a comprehensive plan or a separate bill. The bigger question is whether agriculture still has the clout to influence the outcome of such a politically sensitive issue or will agriculture’s interests be ignored. The answer may be an indication of things to come.
Immigration reform continues to be both elusive and divisive. Emotion and politics are an explosive combination and this issue has plenty of both. Meanwhile lost in this struggle to a lot of people is how their food supply could be impacted. Of course, most people in this country don’t spend much time thinking about where their food comes from so it’s not much of a surprise they haven’t given this much thought even if they have strong feelings on immigration. Agriculture relies heavily on migrant labor and despite feelings by many to the contrary, U.S. citizens aren’t lining up to fill those jobs. Even with high unemployment, many Americans don’t want seasonal jobs harvesting crops or the long hours working on a dairy farm. In recent years some crops have rotted in the fields and dairy operations have had a difficult time finding workers. That not only threatens farmers’ operations but pressures food prices and in some cases availability. A good farm worker program needs to be part of any immigration reform legislation that is passed not only to attract needed workers but keep them as well. Instead of fighting about losing jobs Americans don’t want, we need to focus on keeping food American do want.
It seems like some problems just won’t go away. Some may think cattle rustling only happens on those old black and white western movies and TV shows, but it is a reality in southwest Missouri. Cattlemen have seen an increase in the number of thefts in the last year and are looking at ways to stop it. Law enforcement officials can’t be everywhere all the time but they are working with cattlemen to encourage them to take all the steps they can to reduce or eliminate the thefts. Modern technology such as video surveillance and microchips can help but more and more cattlemen are going old school and returning to branding to identify their animals. Criticized by animal rights activists, some producers have cut back or stopped the practice altogether in recent years perhaps fearing consumer backlash. As we’ve seen in other livestock production debates, loss of proven practices are often costly both to producers and consumers. Current problems are often new versions of old ones. Branding won’t stop all cattle rustling but taking the option away from cattlemen could be the most costly theft of all. Sometimes the old ways are still the best.
The release of personal information on livestock and poultry producers earlier this year by EPA once again leaves agriculture in a defensive position. Responding to Freedom of Information Act requests by several activist groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts, EPA released information on livestock operations that included home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. It’s one thing to release public information but in this case EPA seemed to go beyond what was required. The agency had refrained from such detailed releases in the past so what changed this time? Evidently even some EPA officials now admit that errors were made. While it’s possible an honest mistake was made it seems hard to believe there wasn’t more to it. It wouldn’t be the first time a government agency employee took advantage of their position to purposely advance a personal agenda. (i.e. the recent USDA memo on promoting meatless days in cafeterias) These things are usually very difficult to prove and whether intentional or not, livestock producers are left dealing with the potential consequences. When your home and your business are the same, you become more vulnerable in situations like this. Time will tell what those activist groups will do with the information. Meanwhile agriculture groups will try to keep something similar from happening again. The challenge they face, much like the question with GMO labeling, is trying to educate an uninformed public while answering the question "if you don’t have anything to hide, what’s the problem"? Accurately communicating that answer may be agriculture’s biggest challenge especially when some in our own government seem to have a different answer.
It seems like it has happened to all of us. We are in the checkout line at the grocery store and the person in front of us is paying with food stamps. We look in their shopping cart and question the quality and/or amount of their purchases. When this happens we tend to judge the whole program by our limited sample size. There’s no doubt, as with any system, that people abuse SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Surprisingly USDA doesn’t tell recipients what products they can or cannot purchase. I find that interesting as more and more politicians seem to want to tell us what we shouldn’t drink(i.e. large sodas) or how much we should eat(i.e. school lunches). USDA says SNAP fraud is at a historically low level and trafficking(exchange of benefits for cash)is down to 1%. USDA is now working with states to try to lower those numbers even more. I’m sure they will never stop all fraud and abuse of the system but I’m glad they are trying. Congress is looking at possible reforms of the program but it remains to be seen if they will be passed as we have already seen the farm bill delayed to prevent any SNAP cuts. As more and more people truly need the assistance, I would hate to see them penalized for the misdeeds of a few so I’ll try to keep that in mind next time I’m looking at that cart in front of me at the grocery store.
Unthinkable for some and long overdue for others, it appears horse processing is about to resume in the U.S. for the first time since Congress ended it in 2007. Valley Meat Co. hopes to open a plant near Roswell, New Mexico by the end of April. Emotions and opinions on horse processing are strong and many as the debate rages on. Opponents can’t stand the idea of their beloved horses going to slaughter like cattle while supporters (including many horse owners) point to large numbers of abandoned and starving horses as proof of the need for processing as a humane end of life option. Even some who previously supported the end of processing now admit the unintended consequences of the ban. Sadly some who oppose the New Mexico plant, supposedly over concerns of treatment of the horses, have resorted to bomb and death threats at the plant site. Evidently they don’t believe in humane treatment for humans. Whether or not this plant opens remains to be seen. FSIS says it needs time to update its inspection process and the recent sequestration battle over meat inspectors may make it hard to add horse inspectors at this time. Still it seems the return to horse processing is more a question of when rather than if. The original ban, no matter how well intended by some, has failed to protect horses and in many cases made things worse. Resumption of processing doesn’t mandate anyone to send their horse to slaughter but it will provide a humane option that should not have been taken away in the first place.
The oil industry must really feel threatened by ethanol. So much so they are pulling out all the stops to keep E15 out of the market place. Even though E15 has been tested and approved by EPA, Big Oil and its allies have tried to convince people the fuel isn’t safe for engines. Now they seem to be trying to stop retailers from selling E15 by threatening to take away their franchises. Evidently the oil industry doesn’t want to let the market place work. There is no mandate for E15 use but keeping it out of the market would eliminate consumer choice and maintain a mandate to use the oil industry’s products. In other words, they want the market place to decide as long as they control the marketplace. Critics complained about ethanol subsidies until they were ended but were silent about the much larger subsidies received by the oil industry. Now they are after the Renewable Fuels Standard even though the oil industry uses more ethanol than they are required to under the RFS because they need the octane ethanol provides. Yes, last year’s drought put corn in tight supply but the ethanol industry reduced and in some cases stopped production. A surplus supply and ethanol credits (RINS) showed the flexibility provided by the industry and RFS. Even as the oil industry finds new sources of oil through technologies like fracking, they still seem threatened by ethanol. Of course more oil means more profits as they sell to the highest bidder so there’s no guarantee that oil stays in the U.S. Meanwhile the ethanol industry creates jobs and economic growth plus provides a less expensive product. No wonder the oil industry feels so threatened!
I guess it has come to this. It is now news when the Senate debates a budget on the floor for the first time in four years. Despite the fact that the law says they are supposed to have a budget passed each year, this chamber of Congress has chosen to ignore and defy the law repeatedly. It is another example of one set of rules for our politicians and another for the rest of us. Many officeholders run as candidates "of the people" who understand our issues and concerns. This is another example of the difference between reality and perception. From healthcare to retirement we have a different set of rules for those making the laws from the ones held to the laws. For all the negatives that go with holding public office (and there are several) there are also some very nice perks. Most of us don’t have jobs where we can give ourselves a raise and decide when we have to show up for work. We often hear how Congress can’t get an issue resolved (regardless of its importance) because of an upcoming break or election. Deadlines seem to have little meaning to our elected representatives even the ones they set for themselves. These are the same people who tell us we need to cut back while they preside over multi-trillion dollar deficits. Washington’s track record gives me no confidence that sending them more money will fix very many problems. While I don’t expect the police to show up at the Senate building and start arresting Senators for breaking the law, it shouldn’t be too much to expect them to obey the law. News is often defined as something out of the ordinary so sadly I guess a Senate passed budget would qualify as news.
The passage of continuing resolutions in both the House and Senate ends (for now) the concern over furloughing meat inspectors. It does not end the speculation that the Obama administration tried to use sequestration to get tax increases passed. Despite denials from administration officials, it is hard not to suspect a plan was in place to use the threat of sequestration for political purposes. In hindsight, the administration seemed to overplay its hand and was willing to play chicken (pardon the pun) with things like meat and poultry inspection. The plan seems to have been to paint the worst possible scenario and then trust Congress to pass the CR to avoid the predicted disaster. It seems trusting a dysfunctional Congress to save the day is a risky move but for now it worked. However the budget debate is far from over and we’ll no doubt be subjected to more of these political games by both parties. The furlough we need is on partisan politics but instead we have continuing dysfunction.
Despite the defeat of Proposition 37 in California that would have required labeling of food products with GMO ingredients, the debate is far from over. Hawaii and Washington are just a couple of states where the debate is heating up. Supporters of mandatory labeling, such as the Environmental Working Group, claim consumers want and deserve the information while opponents, such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization, claim there is no need or outcry for the labels. Personally, I’m not much of a label reader and I don’t see the need to call attention to something that has not been proven to have any negative health effect. Despite denials, I suspect this is more about trying to frighten people and get them to reject biotechnology in our food production. This issue is not going away and the question biotech supporters will have to answer is "if there is nothing to hide, then why oppose labeling"? It will take a lot of education to explain the benefits of biotechnology to consumers who may already be suspicious. Supporters of biotechnology have reason to be concerned the labels will be viewed as warnings. They have seen the negative reaction many people have to terms like genetically modified or genetically engineered. Easy to see why they fear the same thing would happen with labels.
Washington D.C. is a place I always enjoy visiting and always enjoy leaving. For all the wonderful sights and history to enjoy, the toxic political climate soon takes over and spoils the experience. However I recently enjoyed a breath of fresh air in a city of partisan hot air. I always look forward to my interviews with Collin Peterson, the ranking member of the House Agriculture committee because of his willingness to reach across the political aisle and work for the common good. My last conversation with him was both enjoyable and surprising even for him. Congressman Peterson was especially forthcoming as he told me he believed some in Washington were carrying out a "make it hurt" campaign with sequestration and that the administration was overplaying its hand trying to get higher taxes. He emphatically predicted that the House would not go for any higher taxes and that what was needed instead were cuts in spending. Of course he is not the only member of Congress saying that but he is one of the few Democrats taking that position. He went on to say that what is really needed is for House and Senate leaders to agree on a budget figure for agriculture and then let the ag committees craft a farm bill without the political games that stopped it last year. He also said that without major dairy reform he didn’t think a farm bill would pass (a task that may be harder now with a new CBO score). Peterson is a throwback to the days of Charlie Stenholm and the blue dog democrats and an era of bipartisanship that is hard to find today. It doesn’t make him a traitor to his party (i.e. he’s very critical of the House Republican budget proposal) but rather makes him a statesman willing to put principle before politics. I just wish more of his colleagues would do the same.
Sequestration has gone from an unlikely possibility to a probability and now to a reality. It also increasingly looks like it might be here to stay leaving everyone trying to figure out how to deal with it. No need to look to Washington D.C. for answers because none are coming. Our political leaders who came up with this concept now don’t seem to know what to do about it. Obviously we should never underestimate their ability to underperform their duties. So while the politicians point fingers of blame at each other, the rest of us are left to figure out how to deal with the mess. Some rightfully point out that the overall amount of cuts is not really that much compared to our overall spending. While that is true, it will certainly impact some areas more than others. Health care, aviation, meat inspection and research are just a few areas that will be hit hard which in turn will affect many others. These sectors don’t operate in a vacuum. Ironically these were areas creating jobs and economic growth helping us crawl out of a recession. No doubt cuts in spending are needed but what is lacking with sequestration is a well thought out plan of cuts that doesn’t hinder economic growth. Even more frightening is the situation created by those who predicted a doomsday scenario if sequestration occurred. Those same office holders now either have to admit they were wrong or make sure the pain they predicted comes true. If indeed sequestration is here to stay then we need bold, creative leadership to manage it with the least amount of harm. Unfortunately that kind of leadership is almost impossible to find these days and that is the cruelest cut of all.