Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

Minnesota Well Represented at Commodity Classic 2013

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Thousands of farmers converged on Kissimmee, Florida (near Orlando) February 28 through March 2, for the unparalleled opportunities to network, to catch up on the latest technologies and tools of the trade and to forge a united political voice–all the benefits of Commodity Classic, one of the nation’s largest agricultural conferences. In addition to the tradeshow, exhibition and learning events, Commodity Classic includes the annual meetings of National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), as well as meetings of the soybean, wheat and sorghum growers organizations.

Minnesota’s Corn Organizations were amply represented by more than two dozen grower leaders and many others along for the learning and enjoyment.

“Commodity Classic brings so many of us farmers together, so we can learn, so we can understand what issues we need to take to the public and the lawmakers and policymakers so that we can keep farming strong, and be the best, most productive farmers we can be,” said Tom Haag, a farmer in Eden Valley, Minnesota, who serves as president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

A key element of the three-day gathering is consensus-building for the direction of the 34,000-plus member NCGA. By gathering with the other farmer groups, the common bond of farmers is strengthened, and a stronger voice for farmers develops.

“Having these discussions in a respectful, public way–that’s a big part of the reason for having our annual meeting and delegate sessions,” said Greg Schwarz, past MCGA president and current chairman of the MCGA government relations committee. Schwarz farms in LeSueur, Minnesota. He said, “Our grassroots determine what we do as an organization. Our farmers express their opinions and then our staff and our lobbyists carry that out.”

The number one concern for farmers across the country remains the passage of the long-delayed Farm Bill. For Minnesota’s corn organizations and many other groups, the public support that allows broad participation in crop insurance seems to be the most fundamental, strategic element in preserving independent family farms and assuring that the collective know-how they possess continues to give America the safe, abundant, economical food supply that is the envy of the world.

“There were many informal conversations going on about the Farm Bill, and the gist of the ones I took part in, is the need for unity and finding some kind of middle ground on issues that have divided some of the farm groups,” said Schwarz. “There is a recognition that, to pass a Farm Bill under regular order in Congress, we have to be unified, or Congress members may be confused on how to vote.”

Other key issues received discussion and resolutions, including support for keeping the current Renewable Fuels Standard and developing a single label for E15 fuel to be used everywhere, in order to prevent confusion among consumers. NCGA opposed single-state rules on GMO labeling in order to prevent having 50 different sets of regulations. The resolution supports the FDA’s power to pre-empt rules on agricultural biotechnology products, passed by individual states.

Another NCGA resolution opposes tying crop insurance eligibility to conservation compliance, arguing that the current farm program already provides a robust means to ensure conservation compliance by requiring farmers obey conservation rules in order to receive any form of federal farm support.

“We put a resolution together to say that ‘We support local ownership of corn processing, livestock and grain operations,'” Schwarz reported. He said, “The local ownership part is what really gets the value back to our rural communities and provides a good consistent tax base for rural communities. We wanted to put this down in black and white, so that when the next new thing comes along that makes use of farm products… whether it’s biochemicals, or nutriceuticals or energy–we are on record that we support local ownership so that we get some of those dollars back to local communities. We have seen that value with ethanol companies and livestock facilities in Minnesota and we want to support these industries and keep them strong. This is not just about farmer ownership, but also supporting our neighbors in town owning businesses that add value to agricultural commodities, as long as it’s local–if it’s an ethanol plant in a farming community or a biochemical company in a Minnesota suburb–whenever we can have some local ownership we get so much more out of it than if some large multinational company owns it.”

A number of first-timers to Commodity Classic joined the veterans, and saw for themselves that the three-day event deserves its reputation for being an incredibly valuable experience.

“I’ve heard it said how large Commodity Classic is, and how many people there are, and the number of displays, and the awesome scope of things…but seeing it for myself was still amazing,” said Chuck DeGrote, a grower leader on the MCGA board of directors, and a farmer in Clara City who raises corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cattle. He said, “The networking at the exhibition hall, talking to people from other states, people who are active in other commodity organizations, I got to hear what people are thinking about for the future, some of the projects we could be looking into. The people are what make Commodity Classic a special experience.”

DeGrote felt discussions about the Farm Bill and the Renewable Fuels Standard were interesting and gave reason for farmers to work together and to be optimistic about what can be done, even with today’s need for a fiscally constrained approach to the federal government.

Policy Director Anna Bellin joins MCGA staff

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Fresh from experience at the capital in Saint Paul, Anna Bellin has joined the staff of Minnesota Corn Growers Association as its new policy director.

Bellin has spent the past ten years working at the Minnesota Legislature in a series of roles, most recently working for Majority Leader Matt Dean (R-District 52B). She began at the legislature at age 18 as a student intern while she studied political science at Bethel University in Saint Paul. After graduation in 2006, she worked for the Minnesota Republican Caucus.

“I understand government, and the legislative process,” said Bellin. “The reason I took this job is that there has never been more opportunity for agriculture than there is today and I want to help farmers make the most of that. I respect farmers, and I appreciate the importance of food production, so I’m looking forward to this role, helping our policy makers understand the challenges of farming today and the opportunities, and how government can interact with agriculture to maximize those opportunities.”

Bellin, who grew up in the suburbs notes that her grandfather was a dairy farmer.

“As time goes on, fewer Minnesotans feel directly connected to agriculture–I think that’s where the challenge comes from when it comes to developing agriculture policy, and I want to approach advocacy from that angle of reestablishing connections,” Bellin said.

The role of policy director doesn’t slow down when the Minnesota Legislature is in recess. Right away, Bellin has become involved in planning the activities of MCGA’s grower leaders during their upcoming trip to Washington, DC. In July the grower leaders attend Corn Congress, one of two annual gatherings of all the member states of National Corn Growers Association. Not only does this meeting focus on national policy direction, but taking advantage of its location in the nation’s capital, corn grower leaders meet with legislators and staffers to offer their thoughts about the Farm Bill and other proposed laws that will impact farmers.

And then in August, MCGA organizes and hosts the annual Minnesota Agricultural Leadership Conference, which draws together lawmakers, experts from agribusiness and academia and grower leaders representing producers of a spectrum of commodities.

“Taking all the good things agriculture is doing with conservation, water quality, air quality–and recognizing the role agriculture plays in a strong economy–as policy director I want to help the grower leaders communicate about this proactive approach their taking, so that lawmakers and policy makers can work together cooperatively and help farmers succeed. Ag is not a partisan issue. I have never seen it become partisan in my years at the capital, and the fact that it is not partisan makes for a good opportunity to build those bridges and help everyone understand how they are connected to agriculture.”

April brings Senate defeat of a range of measures to limit EPA control of greenhouse gas emissions

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

In the first two weeks of April, Senators have soundly defeated a number of amendments to the Small Business bill that would have limited or ended the US Environmental Protection Agency’s role in regulating the emission of carbon dioxide, methane and other “CO2-equivalent” gases which have been found, according to US Supreme Court decision (2007) to be harmful to human health and the environment.

“We don’t want to debate the science of climate change, but we do want to assert that great care needs to be taken in whatever approach government does take to limit greenhouse gas emissions, so that we don’t endanger other equally important values–like assuring that our food supply remains abundant and affordable for all Americans,” said Greg Schwarz, a farmer in Le Sueur, Minnesota who serves as president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “We think that climate change may be too important an issue to leave in the hands of bureaucrats and instead should be handled by our elected officials, who are more directly answerable to the voters. Just coming out of the worst economic times since the Great Depression and with our country still slow to add jobs, we need to assure that whatever approach arises it won’t endanger jobs.”

Shots at EPAs role in GHG emissions regulations came from both sides of the aisle, though the biggest challenge came in an amendment from Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, which would have ended EPA regulation of GHGs altogether.

The McConnell amendment garnered a 50-50 vote, but needed 60 votes to pass. Four Democrats joined 46 Republicans voting in the affirmative. One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted against the amendment.

Earlier, an amendment that would have exempted farmers and small businesses from EPA greenhouse rules failed on a vote of 93-7. Max Baucus, D-Montana, authored the amendment, and the vote split the Minnesota delegation: Sen. Amy Klobuchar voting in favor, Sen. Al Franken voting against. Both are Democrats.

West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller offered an amendment that would suspend greenhouse rules for two years, to allow Congress to further study the issue, particularly its economic impact, before setting the 2009-approved GHG provisions of the Clean Air Act in motion.  Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, offered a similar amendment. Both were defeated.

The National Corn Growers Association favors an approach to greenhouse gas reductions that would be similar to other ‘green box’ USDA programs — voluntary, incentive-based programs that can reward farmers for engaging in agricultural practices that would increase carbon sequestration.

We can’t repeal the laws of nature

(letter blogposted to Brainerd Dispatch)

Not content with two budget busting measures — extensions of tax cuts and unemployment benefits — in its latest compromise bill, Congress has included billions for ethanol from corn and cellulose. 

Corn-based ethanol blenders will receive about $6 billion in 2011 for blending the 12.6 billion gallons mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007(EISA). This is more than the market can use which led to EPA’s unpopular permission for blending 15% ethanol in gasoline.  EISA also requires 250 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2011. That has been lowered to 6.6 million by the EPA, as there are no effective production facilities for that product.

We have a Congress that has mandated more of one biofuel, corn ethanol, than the market can consume, and it has mandated 35 times more of a second biofuel, cellulosic ethanol, than industry can supply.

The Minnesota Legislature has enacted a similar energy pipe dream, requiring Xcel Energy to get 25 percent of its energy from wind in 2020. Texas has three times the wind capacity of any other state. It is forecasting 1 percent of Texas electric grid power from wind through 2015.

Passing legislative laws is easy. Repealing the laws of nature and physics is not so easy.

Our Take:
There is no law of nature that says cars driven by Minnesotans have to operate on oil from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or even Canada.

While we would argue that free trade is often a great benefit in developing the global economy, and that it lifts up individual regions through participation in that competitive global economic environment, we think Americans are starting to wake up and realize we may have given away the store through this unrestrained approach to trade.

Energy is one of the worst areas of trade imbalance facing the United States and it’s one that not only puts our economy at risk, but our national security as well–the fact that every time we pull up to pump–even when we are buying Canadian-sourced gasoline, we are supporting the world oil market and enriching nations that are actively promoting our destruction.

Through incentives and EISA we are breaking the monopoly of oil and limiting the transfer of wealth to Russia, Iran, the Persian Gulf nations, and Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela.

We import nearly two thirds of our oil–that is dollars and jobs that are gushing out of our economy. By building ethanol and biodiesel we not only support two small industries, but we infuse the entire economy through the jobs and revenues in renewable energy production. Even more important we are building the intellectual and monetary capital to continue to invest in energy innovation.

Ethanol is the first building block in the foundation of a future of domestically produced, biomass-based renewable energy–sourced from the farm, from the forest and even from municipal waste streams. Not only does bioenergy obey the laws of nature, but it’s growing use and our decreasing dependence on fossil energy will continually reduce our adverse impact on nature, while creating jobs and economic activity that can’t be moved to Mexico or China.

Obama, republican leaders meet–no word on needed energy legislation

Washington (Platts)

Republican leaders in the US Congress said after a private meeting with President Barack Obama that they plan to focus on tax issues before legislators adjourn for the year, but did not mention plans for pending energy legislation.

Obama, McConnell and Boehner also said it was crucial for Congress to pass a spending bill to keep the government operating beyond this Friday, when a stop-gap spending measure is slated to expire.

But none of the men said anything about using the lame-duck session to pass several energy-related bills that renewable-energy advocates have long urged Congress to take up. One such program, administered by the Treasury and Energy departments, provides developers up-front cash grants in lieu of after-the-fact tax credits to build wind farms, solar facilities and other renewable-energy projects. The so-called 1603 program, which has been wildly popular with clean-energy developers, is slated to expire at the end of 2010.

Last Monday, more than two dozen senators from both sides of the aisle urged McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to use the lame-duck session to extend the 1603 program for two years.

Another key program set to expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts is the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, or VEETC, which provides fuel blenders with a 45-cent tax credit for every gallon of ethanol that they blend into gasoline. Earlier this month, a host of senators from corn-producing states urged Reid to find a way to extend the soon-to-expire tax credit. The senators, led by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Missouri Republican Christopher Bond, said the VEETC is crucial for weaning the US off of foreign oil.

“We cannot afford to continue to send billions of dollars every year to unstable oil-producing countries, not to spend additional billions to protect those investments,” they wrote in a letter to Reid.

Congress also appears poised to adjourn for the year without passing any significant legislation related to BP’s massive oil spill earlier this year in the Gulf of Mexico. The House passed a bill earlier this year that would bar BP from acquiring new leases in the Gulf of Mexico because of its safety record, but the measure has languished in the Senate. The Senate also failed to act on a House-passed measure that would make oil companies liable for unlimited spill-related economic damages, a huge shift from the current liability cap of $75 million per company.

–Brian Hansen, brian_hansen@platts.com

Our Take:
Washington appears to have blinders on, focusing too narrowly and missing an important opportunity.

Both 1603 and the VEETC are jobs bills. Plain and simple. We don’t have the figures for wind and solar development, but we know that national studies show 400,000 jobs depend on the ethanol industry and the VEETC credits that keep ethanol flowing to the consumer are crucial to keeping those people employed. Some 20,000 of those jobs are here in Minnesota, where ethanol generates an estimated $6 billion in annual economic activity.

The VEETC credit primes the pumps and encourages a vast amount of economic activity–the $4 billion in payments results in economic activity that brings $15 billion into federal, state and local government coffers.

This is not the time to pull the plug on a program that ensures so many jobs. Ethanol has proved itself a vital component of the farm economy and reductions in its production would impact the entire spectrum of jobs from finance industry, to transportation, agribusiness and manufacturing. The additional revenue seen on the farm, from stronger commodity prices and from returns on ethanol ownership, are dollars that go right back into purchasing farm equipment, and buying goods and services on Minnesota’s small town Main Streets.

Let’s keep rural America strong, by keeping the VEETC incentive in place.

State concludes special Atrazine review: concludes current regulations are doing the job

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The state of Minnesota conducted its first multi-agency review of the herbicide Atrazine, in a cooperative effort of Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The group of agencies announced their finding Tuesday that current regulations and oversight are adequately protecting public health and the environment–keeping levels of the chemical well below what federal guidance calls for.

This state level review was undertaken despite US EPA’s ongoing process of periodic, comprehensive reviews of the herbicide Atrazine–a process the federal government has undertaken numerous times in the 50-plus years that Atrazine has been used by US farmers.

“Atrazine may be the most carefully studied compound of all time–after all the work ups we’re getting the same answer as before–regulators tell us it’s safe and effective under current guidelines,” said Greg Schwarz, a farmer in Le Sueur, Minnesota, and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “We hope now that the state can let the US EPA do its job reviewing and regulating farm chemical inputs, and free up some of the time and resources of Minnesota state agencies for other ways to protect the environment and help farmers. We don’t need the MDA to duplicate research done by the federal government.”

Minnesota Department of Agriculture said in a statement that it plans to continue its current activities that reduce Atrazine impacts to the minimal possible level. In addition to expansion of water monitoring efforts, state agencies will continue to communicate with private well owners about the importance of testing well water.

Minnesota corn producers use Atrazine at a rate about half of the national average use and it appears that its use will continue to decline as more producers use a variety of herbicides, including RoundUp ™.

“What keeps each of these inputs effective at the lowest possible rate is the fact that we have a range of chemicals available,” said Schwarz. “When farmers, nursery and orchard producers start to rely on fewer products, the danger of weed resistance grows and the rate of application rises. Our goal at MCGA is to help farmers achieve long term success–that can’t happen without stewardship that keeps the soils fertile and water impacts to a minimum. One thing we try to help our customers–everyone who eats–to understand is that maximizing yields does not need to come at the expense of the environment. By growing our yield each year, we assure that there is enough grain to meet all needs–food, feed, fiber, energy. We do that without expanding the acreage that we farm. In this way we can conserve sensitive land and produce crops from the acres where that makes the most sense.”

More information about the review process, including the public comments that were gathered, can be found at www.mda.state.mn.us/atrazine/specialregreview.aspx

Coalition of farm, ethanol groups sends letter to congress: Extend biofuels tax credit

(excerpts from letter drafted by RFA, NCGA and others)

“The ethanol industry has been an essential component of our nation’s effort to achieve energy security and improve our environment. The volumes of ethanol produced domestically have been uniquely successful in reducing our dependence on foreign, imported oil, and have helped to reduce our nation’s emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. In addition, the ethanol industry has helped to revitalize our nation’s rural and farm economies by providing a value added market for agriculture, and supported the creation of hundreds of thousands of non-exportable, high-paying green jobs.”

On VEETC, the groups wrote: “Without VEETC, ethanol blending will become less economically attractive to refiners, resulting in a substantial decline in discretionary blending, and upward pressure on consumer gasoline prices. As a consequence of reduced demand, ethanol plants will close. One analysis concluded that as many as 118,000 jobs could be lost if Congress fails to extend this important incentive.”

On the Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Credit, which allows fuel station owners to write off 50%, or up to $50,000, of the cost of alternative fuel infrastructure upgrades, the groups wrote: “Today, there are approximately 160,000 retail fuel outlets around the nation; however, only 2,300 are fitted with equipment able to dispense E85, and just a few hundred that can offer mid-level blends. It is essential that there continue to be incentives to develop the infrastructure needed to make the ethanol blended fuels available to consumers.”

Our Take:
Why pay for someone else to make what we can make ourselves? Our approach to energy should recognize the disaster of lost jobs we’ve seen in electronics, textiles, and automobiles. We already import nearly two thirds of our transportation energy needs–all those dollars going overseas mean energy jobs we don’t have in the US. What’s next? Will we end up importing all our food? Will we import everything we need except for services–and how many of those can be done remotely? Diversification is the key to a vibrant economy. Growing the renewable farm-based fuels industry is a proven way to create jobs.