As a new presidential administration prepares to take office following the most divisive election campaign in recent history and with a Congress whose members are increasingly distanced from the realities of common Americans, the National Farmers Union is strengthening its efforts to find solutions for climate change, farm support, trade agreements and corporate agricultural consolidations that promise fewer choices for farmers, less innovation in products and higher prices across the board, Zach Clark, NFU government relations representative, said.
"I don't have to tell you how difficult the farm economy is," Clark told members of the Kansas Farmers Union at their annual statewide convention. "My job is to tell Congress how difficult the farm economy is when fewer and fewer members of Congress come from rural America. Getting that message across hasn't exactly been easy."
Difficulty, uncertainty and not a little frustration were repetitive notes in topics addressed during the convention. Keynote speakers and roundtable discussions centered on gritty subjects such as managing change in turbulent times, which offered tips on maintaining family relationships, good management practices and mental and emotional well-being during financial downturns, determining whether the future of sustainable agriculture will come through advanced technologies or a return to holistic systems, and concerns of an impending farm crisis from those who were the front line of family farm defense in the 1980s.
Clark was joined by Rob Larew, NFU Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Communications, who spoke on the election and speculations on trade agreements, the farm bill and other topics.
Farm economies keep slipping from a combination of low commodity prices and high production costs, Clark said. In 2015, total farm expenditures were four percent higher than they were from 2011 to 2013. Net farm income for 2016 saw an 11 percent drop from the previous year and a 42 percent drop from 2013. A recent report from the Kansas City Federal Reserve said that 90 percent of bankers have seen operating credit deterioration in their lending areas.
"We look at that as a very alarming issue," he said. "We've seen a lot of organizations sit back and say, this is just the way farm ag economics works, there's no need to panic. We're not panicking, but we still need to be telling Congress our stories. NFU has been out front on this issue."
Thinking that there would be an omnibus appropriations to fund the government for another year, NFU worked to get assistance for producers, to make sure the USDA had the money it needed to fund its loan programs, and other items, only to see Congress pass a continuing resolution to straight fund the government into next April. "The election sort of turned that upside down," he said.
NFU has been asking the new Congress to start the farm bill process early in an effort to keep it on schedule. "A lot of our members have approached us saying that parts of the Title 1 program aren't working for them," Clark said. "In order to fix those problems, we need a longer lead time. We figure that if we start early, we'll at least finish on time, as opposed to starting on time and finishing late."
Larew agreed. "The last farm bill started early and finished late," he said. "We never know what's going to happen."
That uncertainty is even more apparent with the incoming administration, he said. He's been fielding numerous requests asking what he knows, what he doesn't know and, as a last resort, for predictions as a Beltway insider, but he chooses to focus on general certainties that remain fairly stable across administrations.
"We're not seeing a lot of change in the ag committees themselves," he said. "Those are the committees that do the actual drafting of the bills. I think that's a positive. The other thing to keep in mind is that it is extremely rare to see wholesale changes in a farm bill. My experience is that farm bills are truly evolutionary, not revolutionary."
In the lull before negotiations begin on a new farm bill, Larew said, numerous groups are receiving huge sums of money to discuss new ideas. While some of those ideas are worth exploring, much of the discussion will ultimately end up being just that. On the left are the reformers, aligned with environmental working groups who believe that everything needs to be tied back to conservation compliance, that farmers should be mandated to abide by the regulations, and that funding could be supplemented by lowering the subsidies for crop insurance. On the right is the Heritage Foundation, who would love to see government get out of agriculture altogether.
"On the surface, it sounds pretty good-who wouldn't like to get government off their back so they can do what they do best-but what that means is dismantling crop insurance and getting rid of the safety nets that support farmers every day," Larew said. "So you have different groups looking for wholesale changes in how we do farm bills, I would suggest that it's more important for an organization to focus on the things it is currently focused on. The biggest asset of the National Farmers Union when they are pushing for changes in a farm bill is the grassroots effort to bring up policy. It is that experience that gives us a lot of credibility to go up to the Hill and affect change."
Climate change is another hot topic, Clark said. Changes in agricultural practices such as reduced tillage, the use of cover crops, optimized nutrient applications and investment in renewable energy and energy efficient equipment could reduce annual ag emissions by up 25 percent.
"Ag could bring a lot to the table on greenhouse gas emissions," Clark said. "We want farmers to get credit and assistance for the good work they do."
National Farmers Union has always been supportive of the Renewable Fuel Standard as a way to ensure energy independence and to assist in climate goals by reducing reliance on petroleum products. President-elect Donald Trump has suggested that he is supportive of it as well. "We'll see how this plays out," Clark said.
Opposition to ag consolidation remains a major thrust of the organization, Clark said. The big six corporations-Bayer, BASF, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta-control 63 percent of the global seed market, 76 percent of the global agricultural chemical market, and 95 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton traits in the United States. A $66 billion merger between Bayer and Monsanto would create the world's largest biotech and seed firm. A proposed merger between Dow and DuPont, currently under review at the U.S. Department of Justice, would create the largest biotech and seed firm in the U.S. NFU has appealed to the Dept. of Justice to block both mergers.
"Some of the major blockbuster products on seeds and chemicals would now be owned by a single company," Clark said. "This would devastate the choice for producers who use this technology."
Proposed mergers also raise concerns over food security and competition, such as one between ChemChina, owned by the Chinese government, and Syngenta, Clark said. The $43 billion acquisition was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), but NFU has appealed.
Other mergers include Potash Corp. and Agrium, two of three global fertilizer producers that manufacture potash, nitrogen and phosphate, and a contested merger between John Deere and Precision Planting. The former merger would create the largest fertilizer company in the world, while the latter would dominate the global market for high-speed precision planting systems.
Concentration among beef, pork and poultry companies also remains a problem, he said.
"We've been active on this for a long, long time, and it's been so surprising to see that we're alone in this," Clark said.
As for the election, Larew said, change in Washington is inevitable, especially during the transition into a new administration. The National Farmers Union is already in communication with cabinet members seeking to find common ground and to express the interests of its members, and on some issues they align fairly closely. Ultimately, though, it's a mixed bag, he said. Uncertainty exists over who the next secretary of agriculture might be, but, like with other things, at this point it's just a guessing game. The Trump administration could announce its nominee at any time, or, as seems to be the case with the president-elect, maybe he'll fire off an early-morning Tweet.
"Which," Larew said, "is kind of the new thing."
Either way, he'll be watching it very closely.
The convention, held Dec. 7 and 8 in Wichita, was sponsored by Midwest Regional Agency, Kansas Farmers Union Insurance and the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops. Kansas Farmers Union is the state's oldest active general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities.