Ask Sonny Perdue
What do Iowa ag leaders want to know from the USDA secretary?
AMES — Get a roomful of farmers together and it’s not uncommon to hear some differences of opinion on key issues.
But when a group of Iowa farmers and agribusiness professionals met with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at Landus Cooperative’s headquarters last week, some key messages came through loud and clear.
Here’s part of what they said: Soybean and corn exports are essential to Iowa farmers. The preliminary trade agreement with Mexico announced on Aug. 27 is a good start. Keep trade negotiations moving forward with China — quickly.
“All I can say is hurry,” said Gary Lynch, of Lynch Livestock, who participated in a farmer roundtable with Perdue hosted by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in Ames on Thursday.
April Hemmes, a Hampton-area farmer who serves on the United Soybean Association board, agreed.
“China has been a bad actor when it comes to fair trade. Unfortunately, the American farmer is bearing a lot of the burden with these retaliatory tariffs. A swift conclusion to these China tariffs is essential.”
Purdue acknowledged that while President Donald Trump’s negotiating style might be different that what many people are used to, he has a track record of keeping his campaign promises.
“He’s following through on what he said he’d do, and he’s making a difference,” said Perdue, who was joined by Reynolds, Lieutenant Gov. Adam Gregg, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Mike Naig, and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Julie Kenney.
During Perdue’s 90-minute visit at Landus Cooperative, Iowa ag leaders conveyed a sense of urgency about completing a trade deal with China and creating clarity around the newly-announced U.S.-Mexico agreement.
“Landus Cooperative ships a 110-car train of grain to Mexico about every six days,” said Brett Bell, chief operating officer of Landus Cooperative. “In the last year, we’ve shipped almost 23 million bushels of corn direct to Mexico. Having access to that market is key to our Iowa producers.”
Grain sales from Landus Cooperative, which has access to all seven Iowa railroads, account for 16 percent of Iowa’s soybean exports and 11 percent of Iowa’s corn exports.
Corn-based ethanol was also on top of the minds gathered around the table. At issue were the waivers the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has granted to refineries in recent months. Under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA exempted an unprecedented number of refineries from Renewable Fuel Standard biofuel blending obligations.
Nick Bowdish, president and chief executive officer of Elite Octane, which operates an ethanol plant near Atlantic, shared his concerns.
“The blend rate of ethanol into the U.S. gasoline supply hit a record 10.8 percent in January 2018. Now the blend rate has dropped to 9.8 percent. That doesn’t sound like much, but it equates to 230 million bushels of corn per year nationwide.”
Bowdish said the EPA must address this demand destruction. He also stressed the importance of approving year-round E15. At issue is a regulation known as Reid Vapor Pressure. Ethanol supporters like Bowdish say the RVP is preventing drivers from accessing more affordable, cleaner-burning biofuel blends year-round.
RVP is the measure of how quickly fuel evaporates. The federal government holds 15 percent ethanol blends — E15 — to tougher standards than standard gasoline during the summer months. Between June 1 and Sept. 15 consumer access to E15 is restricted because E15 was not around when the regulation was written in the early 1990s, according to Growth Energy, a trade association working to advance pro-biofuel policies and expand consumer access to higher blends of ethanol.
It’s time to remove these unnecessary restrictions, Bowdish said.
“It’s just regulatory red tape” standing in the way of open markets for more homegrown ethanol throughout the year, he said.
Perdue responded by saying the Trump administration is committed to making year-round E15 ethanol sales a reality soon.
“When I arrived at the Farm Progress Show, the president called to talk about E15 and told me, ‘Let’s get it done,'” Perdue said.
Perdue said he hopes the government will resolve international trade disputes in a way that doesn’t cause irreparable economic damage to agriculture.
In addition, he agreed with farmers at the roundtable who highlighted the importance of maintaining and improving roads, dams and ports to maintain American agriculture’s competitive advantage in the global marketplace.
Moving grain from farm to market is like a relay race, Perdue aidd, since it takes a network of modernized infrastructure.
“Good infrastructure is a huge component of ag productivity,” Perdue added.
In February 2018, Trump called for $200 billion in federal funds to spur at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments, including many improvements for rural America, he said.
“Trump was going to let USDA manage 25 percent of this,” Perdue said. “I hope Congress will come around and look at this infrastructure issue.”
While global market access is key, a good defense is also vital, livestock producers said during the roundtable.
Katie Holtz, director of sales and marketing for PigEasy, in Templeton, shared her concern about news of the African swine flu growing in Asia and its potential impact on the U.S. pork industry.
“The threat is real,” said Perdue, who agreed it would be devastating if African swine fever infected the U.S. swine herd. “We have to remain vigilant, and this issue is important to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.”
Livestock and grain farmers who participated in the roundtable said they were glad Perdue came to Iowa to visit with farmers.
“I appreciate that he’s willing to listen to us,” Hemmes said. “He has the ear of the president.”