Agriculture Sector Eyes Farm Bill, Trade

By Heather Ervin

May 15, 2017

Bobby Frederick of the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) presented alongside Aaron Harries from the Kansas Wheat Commission on agriculture commodities at this year’s Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals’ 2017 conference in Kansas City, Mo., on April 27.

Phil Wilzbacher, director of the Port of Indiana-Mount Vernon, moderated the agricultural panel, which touched on the current challenges to the ag sector, new technology impacting the industry, legislative activities proposed by the new administration, global trade policies and how the inland river system can better assist the agriculture sector.

According to Frederick, a current challenge to the agriculture segment includes the fact that farming income is down for the fourth straight year in a row. “This makes the issue of trade and expanding markets even more paramount,” he said. “Exports are responsible for 20 percent of farm income and support a million jobs. We can’t lose ground here.”

Another major challenge, said Frederick, is that the industry’s competitiveness is at stake, amid calls for the next farm bill to increase conservation by millions of acres. “With limited farm bill resources, we should not be idling more productive farmland; but rather focusing on working land conservation programs that help achieve sustainability and environmental benefits while still allowing for a crop to be grown,” he added. “Strategically, why would we do something to make our competition happy? Russian wheat farmers and Brazilian producers will gladly step in and seize this market share should America idle 40 million acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, as some have proposed.”

Frederick also spoke on modern technology and its impact on the agriculture industry. “This is the era of data, and farmers have a greater ability to benchmark their operations against other operations to fine-tune their approach and input application,” he said. “Every year, the Farm Progress Show continues to amaze and show the advances in precision agriculture for the betterment of our industry. Also, not necessarily new technology, but when it comes to advocacy, you have some newer media avenues to get messages in front of your elected representatives.”

Legislative activities proposed by the new administration could also impact the industry, said Frederick. “NGFA is focused on advocating for preserving our current trading markets and expanding new ones,” he said. “We can’t afford to go backwards when it comes to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which has been an outright bonanza for agricultural exports. NAFTA is not a four-letter word, but it is a four-times force multiplier when it comes to agriculture exports.”

Frederick said agriculture exports were $8.9 billion in 1993 and $38.6 billion in 2015. “We also believe that short of a trans-Pacific partnership, our country needs to negotiate and enact agreements in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

Frederick added that NGFA is also looking out for the inland waterway system and ports, especially when it comes to President Trump’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure package. “An amount of $8.75 billion would take care of the existing 25-project backlog on the inland waterway system, with special focus on the locks and dams along the Upper Mississippi River,” he said. “We are rolling the dice on locks and dams built in the 1920s and 1930s, and investing in our inland system is among the smartest money that can be spent when it comes to infrastructure.”

Speaking on behalf of NGFA, Frederick said the association is focused on protecting agriculture markets and building new ones. “Investing in our infrastructure—our inland waterways and ports— and pursuing competitive policies in the next farm bill are priorities,” he said.

When asked how the inland river system can better assist the agriculture sector, Frederick answered that the industry’s relationship with the agriculture sector has been a good one. “The inland rivers provide jobs, spark economic activity in rural America, keep the price of goods low and make us more competitive,” he said. “We can’t afford not to tell this story and position ourselves for a place at the debate table on these ideas. As an advocate, we have to keep showing up and finding even more effective ways to tell our story and promote the importance of the inland river system. If we keep showing up, good things can and will happen.”