U.S. Wheat Associates meet in Rapid City for Summer Board Meeting
By Jennifer M. Latzke
American wheat farmers are weathering the summer of 2013. From record droughts in parts of the High Plains that have some farmers not even pulling combines out of sheds for the first time in generations, to the fallout from an investigation into an isolated incident of volunteer experimental genetically engineered wheat in Oregon, farmer representatives to the U.S. Wheat Associates board of directors had a lot on their minds during the 2013 Summer Board Meeting in Rapid City, S.D., June 29 to July 1.
As committees gathered June 29 to discuss issues, it was no surprise that the Joint Biotechnology Committee room was packed. This committee is a shared obligation with the National Association of Wheat Growers and is tasked with preserving and expanding traditional wheat markets as well as working with trait providers toward the eventual commercialization of any GE wheat varieties and wheat products into the marketplace.
The first hour and a half of the meeting was closed to media, but Committee Chairman Chris Tallman, a NAWG representative from Colorado, explained farmers in the room were able to get an overview of the entire investigation process from start to the current state from Monsanto representatives, NAWG representatives, and members from the Oregon Wheat Growers League.
“Some of the concern with farmers, obviously there was some concern for losing markets both domestic and overseas,” Tallman said. “U.S. Wheat is working hard to maintain those relationships we have with some of those overseas markets. We heard news that maybe there were some tenders that were put off for the immediate future, but that Japan is slowly exploring coming back with the U.S. wheat market and buying U.S. wheat again.”
Later in the general USW Board Meeting, Won Bang Koh, USW country director for Korea, spoke to the board members about the temperature of the Korean wheat buyers. He showed cautious optimism that purchases of U.S. soft white wheat would resume in time, especially considering the strong ties Korea has with the U.S. wheat market.
“Korea has been buying U.S. wheat since 1953, for 60 years,” Koh said. “It is the 13th largest economy in the world and the sixth largest U.S. wheat importer.” Half of the U.S. wheat the country imports is used in noodle production.
Alan Tracy, president of USW, said the relationships developed by USW and the lines of communication the organization have developed over 55 years were very helpful in weathering this incident.
“Once we were involved we were able to open up a great deal of communication with our customers, particularly with Japan,” Tracy said. As a governmental buyer, Japan really wanted to hear directly from our government on the specifics of the situation, he added. USDA responded at the highest levels and that cooperation and responsiveness were key, he said.
Another key element in dealing with the isolated incident in Oregon was the industry working together with a clear message and a common voice, Tracy said. Even after the May 29 announcement by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, wheat prices, in general, did not decline, he said. “There was a change in basis for some folks who grow soft white wheat, but they had good reason to be upset and nervous and still are,” Tracy said. “But, overall, the market reaction was just not too bad.”
“It’s important to note that we work in more than 100 countries,” he said. “And we currently have restrictions on purchasing one class of wheat by two customers.”
The Joint Biotechnology Committee also heard from U.S. Wheat Director of Communications Steve Mercer about the Wheat Innovation Alliance. This coalition brings together resources from all segments of the wheat industry to address concerns about research and the future commercialization of GE wheat.
The Oregon incident showed the WIA needs to be the public face of GE wheat, Mercer said. While NAWG and USW worked together to respond to the incident in media and with the public, there was a need to hire an outside firm to help the organizations’ staffs.
Moving forward from this incident, there need to be resources allocated to the WIA and priorities set so that experts and spokespeople are able to engage the public when GE wheat is commercialized, Mercer said.
Tracy agreed. “This incident clearly showed the value of being prepared, of having those connections across the industry and staying on message and using professionals to handle inquiries,” he said. “We exceeded 1,000 requests just on the first day of the announcement.” Clearly, he added, that the industry will have to discuss funding communications efforts as the timeline moves forward toward commercialization of a GE wheat.
Overall, biotechnology research into improving wheat is new ground for wheat in the United States, Tallman said. “We haven’t seen a lot of investment in wheat in the last 30 to 40 years, especially when we see the investment in corn and soy,” he said. “This is new ground for wheat. It has to be seen as an encouraging factor for farmers when we have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on wheat every year.
“It’s the product we grow and for many it’s the only product we are able to grow,” he continued. “It’s encouraging to see the investment and to have access to new technology. It’s good news when people start investing in making the products better you use as a farmer.”
The two-day board meeting also included updates from Greg Guthrie, director of ag products for BNSF Railway on transportation; Norm Dreger of Syngenta on wheat research advancements; and NAWG President Bing Von Bergen on the status of the farm bill and NAWG’s policy efforts. Shannon Schlect, USW vice president of policy and Shawn Campbell, USW assistant director, Portland, updated the board on the status of Canada’s wheat markets this first year after the end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly and how that plays into competition for world markets.
Previously, as Campbell explained, Canadian farmers were told by the CWB when to deliver their wheat, and they were only paid the partial amount on delivery. Now, though, the farmer has control of when he delivers his wheat, Campbell said, and he is paid in full on delivery. While one full year of data isn’t enough to show a trend, it does indicate that change is happening in Canada.
“It’s the first time in 70 years that Canadian wheat farmers have had to make a marketing decision,” Campbell said. “I think as time goes on, they’ll learn how to market their wheat.”
The last item of business for the board meeting was the installation of new officers. Dan Hughes, Venango, Neb., was installed as chairman, while Darrell Davis, Ipswich, S.D., transitioned into the past chairman’s seat. Roy Motter, Brawley, Calif., will serve as vice chairman and Brian O’Toole, Crystal, N.D., will serve as secretary-treasurer. Hughes and Davis said serving U.S. wheat farmers through USW is important to keep export markets open.
“Our overseas customers rely on us for the true story and they know we’ll tell them the good or the bad and be open with them and they appreciate that,” Davis said. “It’s that kind of trust we’ve built up over decades of working with these overseas customers.”
“The only thing we have is our credibility overseas and that is apparent in talking to our buyers,” Hughes added. “The staff from USW has credibility and it’s gratifying to be a part of an organization that has that much credibility around the world.
“The wheat industry has always had its challenges and we’ll build on what the people that came before us have done and we’ll carry on and do the best job we can for U.S. wheat producers,” he added.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.