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Panelists: Farmers still have influence

by Glen Chase | February 12, 2015 at 2:17 a.m.

JONESBORO -- U.S. agriculture needs to build more coalitions as it works to influence national politics on issues such as the farm bill even as the number of farms and farmers continues to shrink, panelists told a conference on the business of agriculture Wednesday.

While agricultural interests may prefer a Congress embroiled in partisan politics, resulting in fewer votes that result in action, they still need the House and Senate to pass programs needed by farmers, said David Schweikhardt, a Michigan State University agriculture economist.

"If Congress is dysfunctional, you can't get it to do the stuff you want, either," Schweikhardt told those attending the 2015 Agribusiness Conference at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. More than 500 farmers, industry representatives, suppliers and agriculture students from several colleges and universities attended the event.

Sara Wyant, editor and publisher of Agri-Pulse Communications, said that while the political clout of agriculture is weaker than in years past, it is still strong enough to get Congress to pass a new farm bill that in 2014 was complicated by competing farm and industry interests.

The number of U.S. farms has dwindled to about 2 million today from 6.8 million in 1935, Wyant said, and the average age of farmers is now older than 58, but advances in technology have resulted in farm production steadily climbing. With every census, the number of congressmen representing farm districts has declined.

With an increasingly urban population, legislation such as the farm bill is subject to far more criticism from nonfarm groups than ever before, she said.

Months passed between when the Senate passed a farm bill in June 2012 and when the House stopped an attempt to separate commodity support and crop insurance programs in the bill from nutrition assistance. Nutritional assistance, commonly known as Food Stamps, was initially incorporated into the farm bill as a way to draw more urban support for it.

Schweikhardt said farmers, with their willingness to reach out to their representatives, still wield influence, especially in the U.S. Senate where senators from rural states wield the same clout as those from more populous states such as Florida or California.

But he said no matter what they grow or raise, farmers need to work together. He said the 2014 farm bill became complicated because diverse interests were unable to reach a compromise.

"In the end, Congress gave up and gave everyone what they wanted," Schweikhardt said. That, he said, could mean agriculture could find itself worse off in the end. "When farmers specialize, their interests become very different."

Speaking at a forum on commodities later in the day, Jody Lefcourt of Bunge North America said farmers need to pay attention to issues beyond current crop prices to plan for the future.

Lefcourt said commodity prices tend to run in three- to five-year cycles, given the time needed to see the effects of events around the world.

Before drought hit most of the U.S. in 2012, a drought had already affected places like Australia and South America. Other countries have seen their economies slow, reducing demand for commodities ranging from raw metals to grains to petroleum products. The strong U.S. dollar makes U.S. exports more costly at a time when some countries, such as China and India, are buying up cotton and rice grown domestically, which can artificially inflate prices temporarily.

"The real price of commodities have been coming down for a real long time," Robert Johansson, acting chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in a talk about the outlook for U.S. agriculture.

While Johnson said he expects more soybeans, wheat and coarse grains to be sold on the open market, demand from China will be key as long as that country maintains the same level of animal-feed purchases as in past years.

"These kinds of issues leave growers with the difficult choices as they decide what to plant this year," said Carl Brothers, senior vice president for marketing at Riceland Foods in Stuttgart.

"Farmers might be preparing their fields, but I don't think they've quite decided what to put in them," Brothers said.

Brothers said rice farmers are looking to trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership now being negotiated, to open new markets for U.S. rice. In addition, he's hoping opportunities in other countries, including Iraq and Colombia, will result in new markets, even as rice is increasingly popular among U.S. consumers.

Business on 02/12/2015

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