Agricultural Leaders Look Forward To Busy Export Year

Whatever else happens with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, farmers and agricultural producers are looking forward to another great export year for key American agricultural commodities. Exports of American corn, soybeans, sorghum, cattle and pork are all up, and world demand continues to boom. Most of the grain exports will be carried by barge at some point. 

The leaders of major agricultural advocacy groups spoke at the opening session of the Commodity Classic, the U.S.’s largest annual farm event and trade show. This year’s event, which marks its 25th anniversary, was its first virtual one. Last year’s Commodity Classic ended just as the COVID-19 virus broke out. 

Speakers included Dave Milligan, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers; Kevin Scott, president of the American Soybean Association; John Linder, president of the corn board of the National Corn Growers Association; Kody Carson, chairman of the National Sorghum Producers; and Todd Stucke, the ag chair for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and senior vice president, product support and strategic projects for Kubota Tractor Corporation.

Home Cooking

Asked about major consumer trends in wheat, Milligan said the COVID-19 lockdowns have caused spikes in demand for flour as families did more cooking and baking at home. “We have worked with millers and retailers to increase reliability of flour supplies,” he said. Empty shelves early in the pandemic also made consumers appreciate a reliable food supply.

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He sees educating the new administration as the top challenge for wheat producers in the coming year.  The group normally conducts a “Wheat 105” event to show members of Congress and their staff what happens during a wheat harvest, but this year they have had to make virtual contact with them. “Fewer and fewer members of Congress and government officials have an ag history or background,” Milligan said.

Carson named the 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program (WHIP) as one of the most helpful to growers and cheered the rise in both domestic and export demand for U.S. sorghum. Sorghum exports are approaching pre-trade-dispute levels, he said, and are increasing not just in China, but also in Vietnam, India and sub-Saharan Africa. Within the U.S., too, domestic demand is growing for both food-grade and feed-grade sorghum. “Sorghum has been treated as something of a stepchild, so this is an exciting time” for sorghum growers, he said. One plus for environment-conscious consumers is its stingy water use compared to other grains. 

Telling Agriculture’s Story

Linder also named working with the new administration as a top challenge, but said there were many positive opportunities for agriculture to tell its story. New trade agreements will be key to the continued prosperity of U.S. farmers, with Southeast Asia a key focus as well as the United Kingdom and Africa. Linder sees ethanol exports as an increasing focus for U.S. ag exporters.

Scott, too, spoke of “lane closures” in connecting with folks in Washington, D.C., due to the pandemic’s restrictions, but he mentioned that his staff has produced videos that have been viewed by more than 2,000 congressional staffers. The price outlook for soy growers is much better than a year ago, with prices around $13 a bushel and possibly going higher. Exports take up to 60 percent of the U.S. soybean crop. 

Sustainability was a word that cropped up repeatedly among the presenters, with several saying that farmers have been using practices now called sustainable for years. “It bothers me a little bit to hear this word,” said host Mark Mayfield, “because it’s something our grandfathers have always done.” Presenters agreed that existing carbon-fixing practices need to be included in carbon calculations for U.S. agriculture. 

Milligan expressed the consensus when he said, “Sustainability isn’t just about the environment; it has to be about economics [for farmers] as well.”