Big Questions 2019

JEFFERSON — Questions surrounding agriculture were answered by state Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig last week during a Big Questions event in Jefferson.

Big Questions was hosted by Home State Bank, of Jefferson, and featured Naig as well as Market to Market host Delaney Howell.

During a question and answer session, which featured Howell interviewing Naig, the duo touched on topics that are setting the course for agriculture next year.

“Probably the one word that best exemplifies what is going on right now in agriculture is ‘uncertainty,'” said Naig during his opening comments prior to the Q and A session. “We see that across the board with trade, the farm bill and Mother Nature. With all of those things, we are experiencing uncertainty right now.”

Trade

Naig said tariffs are necessarily his “cup of tea” and while he disagrees with some of the ways trade is being handled with China, he said there are indeed some major trade issues between the U.S. and China that must be addressed.

“I’m not sure that I would have chosen the strategy we are taking right now, especially with China,” Naig said. “But the fact is, there are real problems that need to be addressed with China.”

One of the major issues is the way the U.S. and the world views China.

“I think one of the things is we have treated China like a developing country and the fact is, they’re not,” he said. “They are the No. 2 economy in the world. They’ve joined the WTO (World Trade Organization). It’s time for them to start acting like the economy that they are.”

During the Iowa State Fair, Naig said he had the opportunity to visit with former Gov. and current U.S. Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad.

That conversation gave Naig reason to be hopeful producers will be going down a pathway to getting to where they need to go with China.

“It does not hurt for us to have someone like Terry Branstad in Beijing representing U.S. interests and to have somebody in Beijing who’s communicating with the White House,” said Naig.

Although he couldn’t give specific details of his conversation with Branstad, Naig did say he walked away from the conversation “knowing there is activity.”

“I think that’s a question we have all had; is there progress? Are there talks ongoing?” Naig said. “That is the case and I think there is reason to be hopeful that we will see some progress here.”

Trade assistance package

At the time of the event, the details of the trade assistance package for farmers had not yet been announced.

Naig said what he is hearing from folks is they want “trade not aid.” But with the package it is definitely a sign the administration sees the harm tariffs are making upon the agricultural industry and its producers.

“This is recognition on the part of the administration that the tariffs are having an impact on the markets which are impacting our producers,” he said. “No farmer is going to get rich based on a payment from this assistance. This is short term assistance at best. It’s a bridge, at best, into 2019 to help.”

Naig added NAFTA is also an integral part of trade with Canada and Mexico, who he said are our No. 1 and No. 2 trading partners.

“I think indications are we are getting closer to where we will have a NAFTA conclusion here and that is very important to agriculture. No doubt about that,” he said. “We’re thinking about and hearing about China, but we also need to make sure we keep the pressure up and we are certainly working with administration officials. We need to see progress on that sooner versus later.”

When Howell asked Naig what he has been hearing from farmers across the state in regards to trade, he said they are obviously concerned, but he does continue to hear that producers are trying to keep their patience at this point.

“We get it, right? There are real things that need to be resolved. Real issues,” he said. “But the impact on us is real. I continue to hear folks have an understanding what the administration is attempting to do and maybe even an appreciation on what they’re trying to do.”

Naig said most producers have the bigger view and that is looking at the growing middle class in China. It’s that population that likes to eat protein, and has been eating more of it.

“Their diet is changing and it is not going to go backwards,” he said. “The global demographics continue to be positive for us, especially in Iowa. We have the ultimate value added agriculture with our pork, egg, beef, poultry, turkey production. We’re in a position to benefit from that surge in population and change in demographics.”

RFS

Trade talk aside, Howell addressed the issues going on with the keeping the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Naig said he was fortunate to sit down with Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, during the Iowa State Fair.

During the visit, Naig and Gov. Kim Reynolds talked with Wheeler both individually and together, adding he feels positive their voices were heard.

“We didn’t get all of the answers we wanted, but it is positive he was here,” said Naig. “Our message was very clear. Enforce the RFS, follow congressional intent. Quit allowing small refinery exemptions. Give us access to higher blends of ethanol year-round. Let’s start with E15, but let’s go beyond that. Those are the points. Those are the things we will be working on.”

He added his meeting with Wheeler went beyond the RFS and they also hit on topics such as the Waters of the U.S., livestock production, manure and Iowa’s efforts through the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“We talked about a lot of things, but renewable energy was definitely the top issue,” Naig said.

Farm bill

Naig said there has been some progress with the farm bill this month and that there has been a conference scheduled for next week, which he considers a “good sign.”

“If we end up with an extension, it’s not the end of the world. We have seen that before,” he said. “(U.S.) Sen. (Joni) Ernst is on the committee and that’s a great thing. I think we could very well end up with something. I am probably more hopeful today than I was a month ago.”

Robust conservation and a crop insurance program that is both strong and well-funded are at the top of the farm bill, according to Naig, but he is also hopeful there will be something added that can help the beginning of a vaccine bank to help combat foot and mouth disease if there would ever be an outbreak.

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