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May 2014 Archive for John Block Reports from Washington

RSS By: John Block, AgWeb.com

John Block has dedicated his professional career to the fields of agriculture, food and health.

A Look at Farming Today

May 29, 2014

This week, I’ve been walking the fields of corn and soybeans on our Illinois farm. Those little seeds germinated, and the plants are pushing through the soil and heading skyward. Look down those green rows stretching across the black land. What a beautiful sight.

When I look at my farm and my neighbors’ farms today, I can’t help but think about the dramatic change we have seen and lived through in my farming lifetime.

Most farms, when I was a boy, were not specialized as they are today. We milked 8 or 10 cows – by hand. We raised purebred Duroc pigs – 200 or 300 head. Every spring, my dad would get about 50 baby chickens. We raised them and saved the hens to lay eggs. The rest, we ate. Fried chicken almost every Sunday. My grandfather lived with us and he had 6 or 8 turkeys. I hated the turkeys. They were mean. We pulled our 2-row corn planter with 2 horses – Burt and Bill. Our corn couldn’t even yield 100 bushels per acre. Today, we expect 200 bushels.

Farms today are more specialized. We don’t have milk cows or chickens or turkeys or any beef cows either. We do have a lot of soy beans and corn – close to 4,000 acres and 5,000 pigs. Farmers today utilize all kinds of new technology. It’s precision farming.

We have a new report out which details how this business is changing. Just in the last 5 years, the footprint of U.S. agriculture has shrunk by 95,000 farms. That’s a 3% reduction. The land being farmed has also declined by a little over 7 million acres, which is less than 1%.

We have seen a huge increase in total production, even as the acres farmed have declined. We product more with less – less labor, less energy, less chemicals. One important thing that is still the heart and soul of American agriculture is the family farm. Drive from East Coast to West Coast and 87% of our farms are still family farms. They are just bigger. Average size – 434 acres.

Our crops are off to a good start this year. We hope for timely rains and a good growing season. They’re in God’s hands now.

Our Export Advantage

May 22, 2014

 U.S. agriculture has a global competitive advantage. We have access to, and use the best production technologies available. We have creative, educated, smart farmers and ranchers tilling the land and managing the livestock. But perhaps more important, we have a very efficient transportation infra structure that can deliver our products more cheaply to customers around the world. And we need to keep it that way.

There is a water resources bill in Congress now that is expected to pass, providing the foundation to support our competitive advantage.

Here is what AgriPulse has to say about the bill. "After months of negotiations, House and Senate negotiators, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (Cal) and Rep. Bill Shuster (PA) announced a deal to advance the $8.2 billion Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which could fix ailing locks and dams, restore waterways, renew ports, provide for flood control and create 500,000 new jobs."
We need to get this done to stay ahead of our global competition.

We export at least 30% of the food we produce. We still have a competitive advantage. Take a look at Brazil, perhaps our toughest competition. Consider soy beans from Iowa or Illinois down the Mississippi, over the ocean to Shanghai, China. We have a customer cost advantage of about $40 per metric ton over Brazil. That’s huge. Our water system with locks and dams is where we get ahead. In Brazil, since they don’t have our water system, their trucking costs are almost $100 per metric ton more than ours.

Getting political agreement with the gridlock that has tied our Congress in knots was not easy.

As I am sure you may be aware, the House will not allow "ear marks." Little special deals written into legislation to buy some Members votes. Well, the Committee found a way to satisfy those Members. They got the Chief of Engineers to put those special projects in his work report and that closed the deal. Like it or not, sometimes that’s how it is done. "You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours."

At any rate – so far, so good. Keep the pressure on the Congress to get this done. And, the next challenge will be to get the money to fund the project.

Loud Disputes Over Federal Land

May 15, 2014

The federal government doesn’t have many fans in rural America, and we can’t blame everything on EPA. Now, the Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Land Management both have decided to tighten control over public land. That has resulted in a loud dispute.

First, the BLM confiscated the Bundy Ranch cattle in Nevada because Bundy was not paying his land rent. I’m not here to blame the BLM for demanding payment, but taking a rancher’s cattle doesn’t sound like a reasonable approach.

Now, we have another confrontation in New Mexico where the Forest Service has fenced off a creek denying cattle access to water. Local ranchers are livid. They argue that they own the water rights inside the Lincoln National Forest. Their cattle have been drinking from that stream for years but, not now. Forest Service argues that they are trying to protect the habitat for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse. The mouse is expected to be listed on the Endangered Species List in June. Are they suggesting that cattle drinking out of that stream will be sure death to the mouse?

I remember all the fights when the government was protecting the kangaroo rat in California. To me, the only good rat is a dead rat. The same could be said for a mouse. A large number of citizens in the West are not happy about this government’s overreach.

That brings me to an issue that I would like to put on the table. Why is one-half the land in the west owned by the federal government anyway? 81% of Nevada, 66% of Utah, 62% of Alaska, 62% of Idaho, 53% of Oregon. The federal government owns 640 million acres. That is more than one-quarter of the land in the U.S. – most of it west of the Mississippi. That is more land than France, Poland, Italy, Spain, and the UK all together.

I’m not sure this is justified. Maybe some of it could be sold. I’m not suggesting the government sell our national parks. But there are millions and millions of acres that could be put to better use in private hands. I can’t think of any developed nation that has this much land under government control.

Perhaps the rancher disputes will spark a national debate on this subject.


My Take on GE Crops

May 09, 2014

Did you know that 80% of the food we eat here in the U.S. contains ingredients that have been genetically engineered? GE technology is not new. We have eaten our weight in GE foods. All of the corn and soy bean acres that we are planting this spring on my farm are GE.

GE technology makes it possible to use less labor. When I was a boy, we hired high school kids to hoe the weeds in our crop fields. Not anymore. GE solved that problem. In those days, corn bores and root worm took a heavy toll on corn yields. Not anymore. GE rejects the pests. With GE, we require less water and we get better yields.

Every serious scientific organization you can think of tells us that "these life-saving technologies pose no threat to human health." Listen to them – National Academy of Science, World Health Organization, the British Royal Society, American Medical Association, on and on. "GE foods are safe."

All of the economists and industry experts tell us that the world will need 70% more food by 2050 to feed 2 billion more people. How can we do that?

We have to be more efficient – use seeds that withstand crippling droughts, counter diseases and pests, and, at the same time, reduce our reliance on pesticides and chemicals. New technology is the only answer.

We are in a constant battle to hold our own against a loud chorus of uninformed, anti-science critics. Their strategy has been to pass labeling laws in the states. That would result in a complicated market with differing laws state by state. Their real objective is to suggest that there is something bad about GE food.

To provide some uniformity and common sense, Congressmen Mike Pompeo and G.K. Butterfield introduced a bipartisan bill (the Safe and Accurate Labeling Act) to establish a federal labeling standard for genetically modified ingredients. A long list of ag and food industry organizations stand in support of the bill.

They claim the bill will eliminate confusion of a 50-state patchwork of GMO laws. It will advance food safety, inform consumers, and provide consistency.

The time has arrived for the ag industry and responsible citizens to stand up and be counted.


What I’m Thinking About this Planting Season

May 01, 2014

I was on the farm in Illinois last week and part of this week. Of course, the first subject to talk about today is the farm. It’s time to plant corn. The weather cooperated, and watching that corn planter roll across that black land was so exciting. After all of the years we have put in a crop, you might think it would be routine boring. It is not. It is an inspiring experience. As of now, we have 2/3 of our corn planted – none of our soybeans. We still have a lot yet to do.

I’ve never seen the soil condition any more ideal – not too wet, not too dry. It’s a long season, but we have a good start.

I am so grateful that our pigs are still healthy. I can’t help but worry. It is reported that more than 5 million cases of PEDV (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus) have killed millions of baby pigs. The first confirmed case of this virus was reported 1 year ago. We are receiving record prices for market hogs, partly because of supply concerns. Our pigs, at least for now, are just happy to be healthy.

A lot has been written about the Bundy ranch in Nevada. Bureau of Land Management confiscated 400 head of Bundy’s cattle because he had not paid land rent to BLM. I’m not here to say the Bundy ranch is right and the federal government is all wrong. Maybe he will have to pay some rent, but at least now, BLM has returned the cattle and agreed to find a resolution to the stand-off.

The federal government in so many cases has become a bully, attacking individual farmers and small businesses.

My take away from this dispute is that the federal government owns too much land. Did you know that the government owns almost half the land west of the Mississippi River? And, they are always trying to grab more land. I think it would be a good idea for our government to sell some of this land to private companies or individuals. They could graze the pastures, farm the prairies, and drill for oil. Private enterprise is what drives our economy – not the government.

Finally, we have been reading a lot about Ukraine and Russian aggression. What should we do? Well, a new poll of our citizens (which I agree with 100%) says we should reduce our role in world affairs. We can’t manage the whole world. Let’s take care of our house here at home. I hope the politicians will listen to the American people.


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