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Wheat growers look at future of the industry

By Jennifer M. Latzke

NAWG—NAWG Past President Erik Younggren (right) speaks with Mark Mayfield on a panel during the General Session of Commodity Classic in Kissimmee, Fla., at the end of February. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

The staff of life isn't the iconic farm product it used to be in consumers' and legislators' minds.

But the National Association of Wheat Growers is creating a strategic plan to make sure that wheat has a seat at the table for future policy and dietary concerns the next several decades to come.

NAWG members gathered at the 2013 Commodity Classic in Kissimmee, Fla., at the end of February to talk about the issues that the crop and growers face and how they might overcome those challenges.

First on the plate, wheat growers need a farm bill--and soon.

"It's still our No. 1 priority to get a farm bill this year," said newly elected NAWG President Bing Von Bergen, who took office during the NAWG Board of Directors meeting during Commodity Classic.

NAWG's policy supports federal crop insurance at the level it is now, and Von Bergen said he thinks members of Congress should be proud that the program works as it should in times of disaster.

"I think members of Congress should be shouting from the rooftops that federal crop insurance works," he said. "We had the worst drought since the Dirty 30s last year. A terrible drought in the breadbasket of the United States, and thus the breadbasket of the world, and yet we don't have anyone crying for an ad hoc disaster bill.

"Congress should be proud it created a system that helps, that keeps farmers on their places in times of disaster," he added. "It should be a model for other programs and they should be just tickled it works like it does."

Von Bergen cautioned against those who don't understand the complexity of federally backed crop insurance from tinkering with the program.

"We don't know how fragile a system it is, and the people who say it doesn't need federal government dollars in the mix don't understand the complexity of the federal crop insurance mix," he said. In a time of volatile weather patterns, farmers rely on crop insurance to help them stay on the farm and farm the next year, he said.

For incoming First Vice President Paul Penner, the focus on innovation in research into wheat will require NAWG and its members to continue discussions with consumers and media about wheat's role in a healthy diet and our economy. He said the NAWG strategic planning that began a year ago continues to sharpen focus on the issues that wheat farmers will face in the future. More collaborations between public and private research entities will surely find traits that will be beneficial to many parts across the United States, he said. Explaining the need for these traits to consumers and the rest of the wheat chain will be vital.

"Some of these issues will call for us to be more proactive in the public arena, to communicate more with consumers and media," Penner said. This will become more important as the first commercial biotech wheat varieties come closer to release.

He added that reaching politicians that are further removed from farming and ag interests will be key to policy making for wheat farmers. "How do we reach an urban Congress that is more distant from the wheat field or the farm?" he asked. "It may require us to change our approach to consumers."

Past President Erik Younggren said that looking at the future of agriculture is exciting. "When you look at where ag is going to be in 10 or 10 years, we were just walking around the trade show and looking at drones and GPS and all these new tools that we didn't have 10 years ago and you don't know what they'll think up in the next 10 years," he said. "For sure, farming will be a far different prospect than what it is today. But, the role of the farmer will stay much the same. We still need to advocate for ourselves, we still have a role to play in Washington, D.C., and with the public and our peers."

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or

Date: 3/25/2013


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