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Commodity presidents: Agriculture is relevant

By Kylene Scott

Leaders of the major commodity groups in attendance at the annual Commodity Classic event spoke during the general session March 1 in Orlando, Fla. From left moderator Mark Mayfield questions Terry Swanson, chairman of the National Sorghum Producers from Walsh, Colo.; Danny Murphy, president American Soybean Association, from Canton, Miss.; Pam Johnson, president of National Corn Growers Association from Floyd, Iowa; and Erik Younggren, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers from Hallock, Minn. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

Sustainability, relevance and telling the agriculture story were all discussed by the presidents of the major commodity organizations at the annual Commodity Classic held in Orlando, Fla., during the event’s general session March 1.

Leaders from the National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers and the National Sorghum Producers each took a turn sharing what affects their association.

Danny Murphy of the ASA led off the discussion explaining protocols ASA has put in place for sustainability. The group calls it their Soybean Sustainability Protocol, and it’s a joint effort between ASA, the United Soybean Board and the United States Soybean Export Council.

“We really, due to requests from consumers and our customers mainly from other parts of the world, really have asked for sustainably produced products,” Murphy said. “We know that U.S. soybeans are the most sustainably produced soybean in the world, so we wanted to document that in a label. We benchmarked it against other sustainability protocols from other nations and we match very favorably.”

Murphy thinks that the United States now and moving forward, soybeans will remain on top and will provide an opportunity for ASA to share its message of improved sustainability. As the most exported crop in the U.S., soybean groups are starting to feel the pressure.

“As we look at other nations, they are making demands on our sustainability—that our products are sustainably sourced,” Murphy said.

On a personal level, sustainability means something more to Murphy, one that is generational.

“Most farmers, probably 95 percent of all U.S. farms, are family farms and most of them have been multiple generations,” Murphy said. “So it’s really, when we make decisions on what we do on the farm, we want to make sure we’re making a decision for today but we’re also making it for the future too. We want our children and grandchildren to inherit those farms or one day join us on the farm.”

Now farming with his brother on a farm his grandfather started in 1944, Murphy is moving to new technologies and hoping it will help the farm remain productive.

“To me that’s really the definition of sustainability—is we’ve taken a piece of land that was not productive 70 years ago and made it more productive today and be ready to feed those 9 billion people who we’re going to have on earth in a few years,” Murphy said.

Pam Johnson, president of the NCGA, said for corn growers, sustainability means not only having continuous improvements on farms but also on the way corn is grown.

“So that means producing more grain with less inputs and it means that we have access to the best seed genetics, technology, agronomic practices so we can grow a corn plant that can maximize water and nutrients and sunlight—and I think bottom line for us—you know we talked about our grandchildren is sustainability for us is leaving the land in a better shape and a better place for the next generation,” Johnson said.

Even with sustainable production practices, if the story of how corn is grown is not communicated and shared, it will be all for not.

“We have a great story to tell and I think that the sad part is that we don’t have very many farmers—and especially I’d like to call to action everybody that’s in the audience today—we don’t have a lot of people that are out there actually telling their story and it’s hurting us,” Johnson said. “It’s hurting us in Washington, D.C., with our policy. It’s hurting us on all the issues with consumers because they want to know who we are and what we do and that their food is safe.”

The commodity group presidents were briefed by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack prior to speaking at Commodity Classic, and Johnson was sobered by his remarks. She described it as looking dismal in Washington because of the sequesters going through. She reminded the audience they need to be active and called them to action.

“We were frustrated last summer when we didn’t get the farm bill done, but the farm bill is like the small flea on the back of an elephant because I think everybody out there that as an American and a farmer needs to call their congressman and tell them, ‘We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this any more. Quit pointing fingers, quit having blame and let’s get something responsibly done in Washington.’”

Johnson’s comment received a round of applause and she continued, stating hope only can come from getting people in rural communities engaged.

“You know, we just came through one of the worst droughts in history. A lot of us really had a hard summer looking out the window every day and seeing our equity start draining away,” Johnson said. “What kind of story is that to tell? And if you aren’t telling it, shame on you, and they really do need to hear from you.”

Johnson said legislators count phone calls, and if voices aren’t heard, the blame can be placed on those who don’t speak up.

“There’s some really serious things coming down the pike and we want to make sure we can position corn growers in the best place because once we start production, get back producing again, which hopefully is this year,” Johnson said. “We want to be competitive in a global market place where we are the producers in the world that can help feed and fuel a population of nine billion by 2050.”

The youngest leader on the panel, Erik Younggren, president of the NAWG, said for wheat, sustainability means telling the story. When Younggren’s dad farmed he had to deal with water and other issues, but as time has progressed public questions have raised other issues.

“As time has gone by the public has gotten involved and started asking questions as to how our product is being grown—where their food comes from and how we do the things that we do,” Younggren said. “So it’s important to us to go out and say, this is what we do, and this is how we do it and why we do it. It all ends up being food on your grocery store shelves.”

Younggren said wheat producers need to be telling their story.

“We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years in some cases, and we are a sustainable business,” he said. “We are producing more and more with less and less all the time.”

The moderator of the discussion questioned how wheat producers can communicate to a younger generation and/or get others interested. Younggren is interested because it affects him and his community.

“As soon as I got involved with this I started hearing people who wanted to protect the farm for their kids. I thought well, I don’t have kids and I’m in the middle of my farming career, so I want to be involved directly and the policies and the things are going to shape the next 20 years of my farming career personally,” Younggren said. “When we talk to my classmates that are no longer on the farm as we move another generation away from the farm, we need to find out how we can contact those people and go on their turf.”

Younggren said social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or any number of the outlets and tell the story.

“We can show our story better now than we ever could,” Younggren said.

National Sorghum Producers ChairmanTerry Swanson said he’s learned a lot from his family’s history. His grandfather moved from a wet area to right into the center of the Dust Bowl, and in turn, he believes they have become better conservationists because of it.

“We’ve been in a survivability mode for a long time, and so, as these other folks have alluded to, we have generations that are going to succeed us and so we are charged with moving from survivability to sustainability,” Swanson said.

Sorghum thrives under stress and has a lot of advantages, he said.

“One of the big things that sorghum has going for it in our area because we just don’t have very much water to start with and a lot of where our crop is grown with aquifers that are in depletion mode or already depleted,” Swanson said. “A sorghum crop actually saves water, and it’s probably well adapted naturally to the heat stress that we’ve all seen in the last year or two years especially. It naturally is a sustainable one.”

When Swanson’s farm started raising two crops in three years in a crop rotation using no-till in the 80s, they found a good fit with sorghum.

“In fact, we like that in the mix, and the new thing that’s came about that’s making us more sustainable,” Swanson said.

At the NSP booth prior to the general session, Swanson said a sustainability expert came by and he questioned her about the definition of sustainability, and she said it comes down to profit. And that is pretty important in any farming operation, he said.

Swanson lives in an area that he describes as “where they write documentaries about us and you can tell the soil type in the air,” and it makes conservation imperative. He also believes farmers need to work with regulatory agencies to help encourage a transition to more sustainable crops and methods to grow those crops.

“We can be proactive in that,” Swanson said. “We can also make our sustainable crops more profitable, which makes our second generation more profitable.”

In the end, the panelists wrapped up with their final thoughts. Murphy stressed the relevance of agriculture.

“I think it’s a real challenge for our organizations to really talk about—to tell our story to make the consumer aware that we’re relevant,” Murphy said. “To remind Congress that we’re relevant and how much we contribute to this economy, and it’s important that each of you out there take that message home and talk to your neighbors. Talk to your local Lion’s Club or Rotary Club. Call your congressman and tell them how important that agriculture is to the nation, to the economy.”

Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at kscott@hpj.com.

Date: 4/1/2013

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