Improved Infrastructure is a Competitive Advantage
Feb 23, 2017
By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota
I’ve always known that moving food from farm to fork depends on excellent infrastructure—but until about fifteen years ago, I took a lot of it for granted.
I was at a seminar in Chicago. Farmers from around the world were there. We did what farmers do: We talked about opportunities, markets, discussed challenges, and grumbled about the weather.
When a panel of Brazilian farmers described their soybean operation, I started to worry.
They described low land prices, cheap labor costs, and impressive economies of scale. In each of these areas, they enjoyed tremendous advantages over soybean growers in the United States.
Many of us, US producers, grew anxious: How can we possibly compete in a global market against farmers who can benefit from such incredible efficiencies? There were looks of panic around the room: Maybe I’d have to shift away from soybeans and return to wheat or another kind of crop.
Finally, though, I heard some relief: As the Brazilians continued their presentation, it became clear that they in fact envied us. Although they could grow soybeans inexpensively, they faced major obstacles moving their harvests to market. Their transportation costs, at that time, nearly doubled their total cost to grow soybeans and deliver to markets.
Their country lacked a modern transportation infrastructure.
I came to appreciate that infrastructure is the secret weapon of the American farmer: We may not think about it very much, but our roads, rails, and rivers keep us competitive. We can get food to customers like nobody else.
Yet we can’t sit still. You know what Brazil has been doing ever since I attended that conference in Chicago? It’s been pouring resources into its infrastructure, in a bid to catch up to us.
We need to stay ahead.
That’s why I’m encouraged by President Trump’s call for new investments. He brought up the problem in his inaugural address: “America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay,” he warned.
Those gloomy words certainly apply to certain parts of our national infrastructure. Others are in better condition. The bottom line, however, is that we’ll all benefit from an upgrade.
President Trump already has turned his words into action. On his second working day in the Oval Office, he signed executive commands to push ahead with the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects. President Obama had stalled them, even though they promise to create jobs and keep fuel costs in check.
As a North Dakotan, I’ve kept close tabs on the Dakota Access pipeline, which travels a little over a hundred miles from my farm. I’m eager to see it finished because this piece of critical infrastructure will create long-term benefits for people in my state and elsewhere.
The media has obsessed on the protestors, who are overwhelmingly from California and other places—and not enough on local opinion, which strongly supports the pipeline. For us, this isn’t a partisan issue. Both of our senators—one a Democrat, the other a Republican—favor the project. So do the vast majority of North Dakotans.
We ought to complete this project as soon as possible.
Other needs haven’t attracted nearly the same level of attention, at least outside of North Dakota. Protests may be newsier than water infrastructure projects, but we have to make sure water can move from where it is plentiful in the state to where it is needed. This will help us in not only growing more crops but also to process more of our commodities into an added value product, creating opportunity and jobs—a vital part of both national food security and environmental stewardship.
It will help in other ways as well. North Dakota recently lost a major proposed fertilizer plant project. State and local governments had provided tax incentives and regulatory approvals. Everything was set for success: Until the doubts about water access surfaced. It may not have been the sole reason the plant did not get built, but it was a major hurdle.
Better infrastructure would solve this problem as well as many others. Farmers in my state and throughout the Midwest would benefit from improvements to the locks and dams in the Mississippi River and to the ports along our coasts.
We’re not asking for a senseless spending spree whose chief purpose is to score political points. Instead, we seek a series of targeted investments that not only will create jobs now, but also make farmers, ranchers and Americans everywhere more competitive in the years ahead.
The alternative is to let one of our best advantages slip away. If that happens, we’ll have only ourselves to blame—and we won’t even be able to complain that we didn’t see it coming.
Terry Wanzek grows wheat, corn, soybean and pinto beans on a family farm in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).
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