Kansas Farmers Union meets in Hutchinson
A mixture of optimism and anxiety was exhibited by delegates to the 2009 Kansas Farmers Union Convention held at the Hutchinson Grand Prairie Convention Center Jan. 9 and 10.
With the theme of "It's the Economy ******" setting the convention's tone, delegates adopted policy that and heard speakers who addressed the economic challenges currently facing both rural Kansas and the nation. While there was a great deal of optimism about the new Obama administration--which Farmers Union believes is sympathetic to many of the positions taken by the organization--the results of the fall Congressional elections and opportunities for alternative energy development, uncertainties about implementation of the farm bill, health care issues, volatile farm commodity prices and input costs, and the general economic malaise of the country tempered delegate enthusiasm.
Speakers addressing these issues included Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Adrian Polanksy; Dr. Daryll E. Ray, director and founder of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee; John Hanson, Nebraska Farmers Union president; Larry Mitchell, American Corn Growers Association director of government affairs; Kim Moore, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund; Farmers Union President Tom Buis; and Sarah Gallo, Farmers Union government affairs.
Energy-related issues and their impact on the farm economy and rural quality of life were woven throughout the conference. The Kansas Farmers Union and the national Farmers Union organization both support exploration of alternative forms of energy and efforts to address factors which may contribute to global warming as part of their state and national level policy.
Delegates heard an update from Polansky on the current status and potential future development of biofuels in the state. Polansky said that ethanol development has already had a positive economic impact on communities such as Russell, where it has created 235 jobs in the community and $18.27 million in economic activity. With new technologies providing more efficient use of water in the manufacture of ethanol and improved yields in corn, he stated that many concerns raised about ethanol production are being addressed.
Hanson also spoke to the energy issue in his presentation on development of wind energy. Using as examples models being utilized in Nebraska and Minnesota that focus on community-owned wind or corporate-community partnerships such as the "Minnesota flip" model--in which corporate entities claim the tax credits to develop a wind plant and then flip the ownership to the partnering community when those credits expire--Hanson outlined ways that wind energy could be successfully developed and benefit local farmers and rural communities. Hanson drew on his own experience in Nebraska to provide some guidelines about how to approach wind development and the legislative framework that can make it more economically feasible.
Economic factors affecting family farms were the focus of a panel discussion featuring Ray and Hanson, moderated by Hutchinson News reporter Amy Bickel. Ray stated that, while the current economic crisis has impacted farmers, it would have had a much greater impact if it had happened in the late 1990s. However, if agriculture is not prepared for what could be coming if predicted world-wide production increases materialize, this crisis will pale compared to the next one, he said. Stating that farmers and policy makers need to leave 1970s thinking behind them, Ray suggested that studies have shown that just increasing the export market will not provide long-term price stimulus for commodities and that farm programs in general have not been the answer.
"Expecting trade to deliver the United States to the promised land is asking too much," he said. This is true because agriculture has little control over the forces--whether natural or man-made--that control world-wide supply and demand.
According to Ray, American farmers are too focused on demand (trade) and fail to see that supply is rising. The WTO also doesn't understand the unique nature of food and agriculture. For the most part, agriculture does not respond to supply and demand cycles as other business sectors do, Ray said. People will eat what they need, and a smart government will ensure that those needs are met. That may mean increasing production in the country or, as China is doing, purchasing property internationally targeted for food production to be sent back directly to its people.
The biggest challenge to American production agriculture will continue to be increasing production world-wide and the value of the dollar, Ray predicted.
Hanson concurred with Ray's analysis of the situation as he continued the discussion on trade and farm policy and the impact on farmers. Trade policy is set in a nontransparent, non-democratic fashion by participants with their own economic agenda, he said. While the 2008 farm bill is not perfect, it does include several provisions which Farmers Union members fought hard to have included, such as: permanent disaster relief, mandatory country-of-origin labeling, payment limit reform, continuation of dairy support programs, funding of the specialty crop industry, increasing conservation funding, additional investments in nutrition programs, the first-ever livestock title and provisions to accelerate advanced biofuels. The next task is to make sure the bill is implemented favorably to rural priorities.
Mitchell also expressed some confidence that the change in the administration and balance of power in the Congress--which he described as a seismic shift--would be positive in addressing the issues now facing rural America. Many of the changes which Farmers Union has been advocating for a number of years, which had been considered out of the mainstream, now appear to be right on target, Mitchell said. In addition to economic issues, he also is calling for attention to such basic infrastructure issues as broadband access in rural areas. He encouraged those in attendance to keep working for change.
"Here is our challenge and our opportunity. Since the political shift, you will be recognized by many more people as the speaker for rural America," he said.
Buis and Gallo presented their perspectives of the current economic and governmental situation and how it will affect family farmers.
Buis was blunt in stating that the 2008 farm bill was written at the worst time possible for farmers--as commodity prices soared and many Americans were led by the media to believe that farmers no longer needed support, that the increase in food prices was directly related to ethanol, and that farmers were doing very well and were just being greedy in asking for a farm bill.
No sooner was the deal signed than commodity prices collapsed. Buis held out some hope that adjustments to the bill could be made to reflect the current circumstances rather than being bound by the bill for the entire five years.
"Anyone who thinks we're going to sit back and stick with this (bill) doesn't know the Farmers Union," Buis told KFU members. "No one could have predicted this and the reasons why prices collapsed. It had nothing to do with market fundamentals, but they got caught up in the back lash of Wall Street greed."
Gallo expressed confidence that the new administration would be sympathetic to the Farmers Union agenda, though the current economic situation made it unclear where inroads in accomplishing that agenda would be made. Farmers Union will be doing what it can to influence writing of the farm bill rules in the upcoming months and keeping a close eye on how it impacts key issues such as conservation and the environment--including water, nutrition and international food aid, payment caps, rural development and infrastructure, and energy.
In a break from the weighty issues facing the family farm, delegates were treated to a tour of the Hutchinson Salt Mine Museum, which also was the site of the Friday night banquet--a barbecue supper catered by the Grand Prairie Convention Center. Delegates also learned the importance of taking time for themselves as a way to better health. Kim Moore, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund and a frequent presenter at KFU conventions on health care issues, shared his own personal experiences with healthy life-style choices during the Saturday luncheon.