Ag conference builds bridges

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

In this era marked by greater and greater partisanship, the Minnesota Ag Leadership Conference brought together representatives from across the breadth of commercial agriculture—from cotton growers to livestock processors to corn and soybean growers.

“We put together this conference because we saw the need to build bridges among all the different producers and industries out there,” said DeVonna Zeug, a farmer in Walnut Grover, Minnesota, and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

“This was a unique opportunity for agricultural leaders to forge relationships and discover common ground,” said Jerry Ploehn, a farmer in Alpha, Minnesota, and chairman of Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

The success of this initial effort may result in the establishment of an annual or bi-annual gathering to foster and deepen this cooperative spirit among the variety of farm groups.

From policy wonks, to top elected officials—federal and Minnesota government representatives made appearances, in order to hear from farmers and to share their perceptions of the current situation in Washington.  Representatives Collin Peterson and Tim Walz attended, as did U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Miller, who oversees the Farm Services Administration. 

Senators Blanche Lincoln (Senate Agriculture chairman), Saxby Chambliss (ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee), and Al Franken (D-MN, and a member of the Senate Ag Committee) all offered messages by teleconference. Senator Franken was represented at the conference by aide Charlie Poster. Senator Amy Klobuchar (also on Senate Ag) sent senior aide, Dave Frederickson, to speak and observe on the senator’s behalf.  Representative Frank Lucas (Texas), the ranking Republican on the House Agriculture committee addressed the group by teleconference.

Staff from Combest Sell and Associates assisted MCGA staff in facilitating this meeting of agricultural leaders.

Peterson, the current House Agriculture Committee Chairman, presented a number of ideas that amounted to a battle strategy for agriculture to succeed against some very strong forces arrayed in opposition to it. He advocated creating and passing the next Farm Bill in 2011, a full year before the current farm bill lapses, in order to assure the current level of funding.

Peterson warned that the farm-based energy industries are at a critical juncture. For farm-based energy to survive it must get a message out from the farm sector to the general public, that America needs to get national energy policy back on track. Renewable energy could supply up to a third of our motor fuel and provide a critical component in a larger plan to shrug off the chains of our Middle East oil connection. He said environmental extremists are intent on derailing farm-based energy, regardless of the damage to the economy, national security or any of the other areas where farm-based energy provides a significant benefit.

The ag chairman made proposals that offered food for thought—for instance the idea that the farm program ought to reconfigure the direct payment made to farm operators (one of the provisions that has become increasingly difficult to maintain politically) into other structures that might strengthen the safety net or the farm economy as a whole. For instance, making crop insurance more affordable. Likewise, he said the support for an ethanol blender’s credit could be rebuilt by linking it to getting an E85 pump installed in every gas station, and increasing the number of flex fuel vehicles and models offered to US consumers.

The chairman’s most controversial statement came in his briefing on the situation of animal agriculture and its opponents, both outside and within the federal government.

“We should cut EPA’s funding in half,” Peterson offered in his typical no-nonsense style, to the murmured approval of the crowd.  Peterson described EPA as a bureaucracy that is out of control, ready to pull apart livestock agriculture in the name of its extreme, political and unscientific approach to water regulation. He said a draconian cut to its budget would reduce its staff and therefore limit the agency’s ability to create ever more unsupportable regulation.

Rep. Tim Walz observed that Washington politics had gone beyond partisanship to a state he liked to “Balkanization”—smaller and smaller fractions practicing a bitter and divisive form of politics. This is true not only inside the Beltway, but in the increasing divide between rural and urban people, he said.

“We need to come together—that’s how we get good policy that broadly benefits the nation,” said Walz.

He noted that he has lived in rural Minnesota for many years, but he also had the opportunity to live in the Pearl River delta, in the city of Shanghai, China—one of the strongest regional economies in the world. From these different experiences he has arrived that the opinion that urban people in America need to recognize the general good that proceeds from investing in rural infrastructure, whether its road and bridge upgrades or broadband internet connections. By strengthening the rural economy, urban residents will strengthen the economy as a whole and see a benefit to themselves as well, he said.

“China spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure and America spends one percent,” Walz reported.

Livestock agriculture faces dire threats from the well-funded lobbying groups like Humane Society of the United States. Both Walz and Peterson noted that HSUS is operating under cover of a general impression that it supports local animal shelters, when in fact more than 98 percent of its $100 million annual budget is devoted to a campaign to end the consumption of meat. Both representatives said HSUS should own up to its real agenda, and debate it openly in public and allow the democratic process to work the way it should.

But private groups aren’t the only ones with animal agriculture in their crosshairs.

Michael Formica, Counsel for National Pork Producers, and Josh Winegarner, director of government relations for Texas Cattle Feeders Association, shared their impression that the EPA’s current work-up of the 509 regulations of the Clean Water Act (Total Maximum Daily Loadings of a variety of chemicals and compounds), and their focus on the Chesapeake Bay watershed was going to severely  impact the poultry industry in Maryland and the dairy industry in Eastern Pennsylvania, among other facets of animal agriculture practiced in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They agreed that EPA officials’ intent was to develop the model in Chesapeake Bay, and once fully deployed, to replicate the model in the Upper Mississippi watershed—to the detriment of all farmers in the Midwest.

“Building Bridges” was the theme of the conference, and it was far from being a “gloom and doom” symposium. The conference, held over three days in Brainerd, Minnesota, at the north woods lakeside resort, Madden’s on Gull Lake, offered lots of opportunities for these leaders to follow up the information presentations in the informal setting of group meals, golf and boat outings, and socializing at the Madden’s Pub and over shared meals.

“I really hope it leads to shared messages on more topics, because it seems like more recently there have been too many different, conflicting messages coming out of ag,” said Elizabeth Hamilton, advocacy and strategic partnerships director for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. She said, “I hope this leads to shared comments and highlights some areas where we can be more effective that way. By sheer force of coming together and hearing these presentations, all these folks end up talking about issues that they haven’t talked about, with people they assumed felt differently from themselves. We know we won’t agree on every issue, but the ability to work together on common issues despite that will be critical to everyone’s success, ultimately.”

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