Senate confirms next Secretary of Ag

January 31st, 2008 Other News

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate confirmed former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer as the country’s next secretary of agriculture Jan. 28.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Schafer’s experience with grain and livestock import issues, as well as his understanding of ethanol and biodiesel, are among his many strengths.
“As trade negotiations on farm goods continue, we offer our support for his efforts to open important new markets,” Stallman said.
Experience. Schafer gained experience with agriculture issues during two terms as North Dakota’s governor from 1992-2000.
In 1999, he served as the co-lead on agriculture for the National Governors Association, and in 2000 led an agricultural trade mission from North Dakota to China to help open new markets for his state’s farm products.
Schafer, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of North Dakota and an master of business administration from the University of Denver, most recently was CEO of Extend America, a start-up wireless communications firm.
He also was president of the Gold Seal Co., a household products company founded by his father, and he founded Fish ‘N Dakota, a fish farming business near Beulah, N.D.
One of Schafer’s first tasks as the secretary of agriculture will be to help get a farm bill through a House-Senate conference committee that’s trying to work out differences in competing bills.
Showing support. The National Pork Producers Council has expressed strong support for the new secretary of agriculture.
“America’s pork producers will strongly support Secretary Schafer as he tackles issues of importance to the U.S. hog industry, including trade agreements, animal identification and the farm bill,” said Jill Appell, National Pork Producers Council president.
R-CALF USA members were also enthusiastic about the new secretary of agriculture.
“We’re hoping he’ll help independent cattle producers help their communities by making the necessary reforms in the farm bill that would restore competition and transparency to the marketplace,” said Max Thornsberry, President/Region VI director.
Tom Buis, National Farmers Union president, said Schafer worked closely with North Dakota Farmers Union during his tenure as governor.
“His time as governor of North Dakota, a state with a large agriculture economy, has given him an understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing family farmers, ranchers and consumers in the countryside,” Buis said.

Ohio farmland preservation in limbo

January 31st, 2008 Contributing Writers

REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio – The economy of Ohio depends on the $93.7 billion industry of agriculture with its employment of hundreds of thousands of workers. But, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio loses about 200 acres of farmland each day to roads, stores, factories and homes. While ideas and proposals abound on ways to preserve the disappearing open lands, the largest obstacle is paying for them.
The question of how to finance future farmland preservation efforts was the main topic of a meeting Jan. 25 at the ODA headquarters in Reynoldsburg, hosted by the Farmland Center of the Countryside Conservancy.
Approximately 45 people attended, including landowners and those representing soil and water conservation districts, county commissioners, the Farm Bureau, planning commissions, land trusts and farmland preservation offices.
History. The Clean Ohio bond issue passed by voters in 2000 provided some funding for efforts to preserve remaining open lands. Of the $400 million from that issue, farmland preservation received $25 million for a pilot project.
The first year, the Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, coordinated by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, used $6.25 million. With matching federal grants and lower granted amounts, the remaining funds were stretched out to seven years, with $3.125 million left for the 2008 grant round.
Kristen Jensen of the ODA’s Office of Farmland Preservation presented the “good news, bad news” situation of the program.
Despite its initial skeptics, the Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program has drawn 1,603 applications for 251,961 acres, with a potential easement value of $355 million. The bad news is that the limited dollars from the Clean Ohio bond issue or federal programs allowed only 117 applicants’ contracts to be approved, with a total of 23,615 acres and a value of $28.8 million, to date.
“The Clean Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program was established as a pilot program and has been successful in preserving portions of the state’s most valued resource,” said Mark Forni, executive director of the department’s Office of Farmland Preservation.
“Although the Clean Ohio funds are in their final year, we will have some federal funds to support preservation efforts in 2009,” Forni added.
Still planning. Jill Clark, director of the Ohio Center for Farmland Policy Innovation at Ohio State University, listed new options for the program.
Clark, who also serves on the ODA’s advisory board, said the board is seeking input on how to have farmland preservation efforts sustainable. The goal is to increase local involvement with programs, funding, and monitoring, using the state framework.
Back to ballot? Bill Demora, executive director of the Ohio League of Conservation Voters, discussed a measure being drafted to reissue some of the Clean Ohio bonds that have been repaid. If passed by the legislature, $5 million could be used for farmland preservation in 2009.
Efforts are also under way to have a proposal similar to the Clean Ohio issue on the ballot in November of 2008. If voters approve the issue, then the legislature would still have to authorize the funding, which would not be available before 2010.
Gene Krebs, former Ohio state representative, offered insight on how the legislature works and suggestions on getting the support of elected officials. Krebs currently is affiliated with Greater Ohio, a citizens’ network promoting the smart growth concept.
Brian Williams, Ohio state director for the American Farmland Trust, relayed that there is optimism for increased farmland preservation funding with the pending farm bill, but that the final details are very indefinite.
Williams also said there is a possibility of having a five- or six-year recoupment of CAUV taxes for land taken out of agriculture. The different beyond the current three years would be used for farmland preservation at local levels.
After the official meeting and lunch, many attendees stayed for an information discussion on funding and other related topics.

Happy cotton pickin’ New Year

January 10th, 2008 Alan Guebert

While other prophets and forecasters fill the first week of January – and endless inches of newspaper space – with predictions of what will happen this year, permit me 600 or so words to predict what won’t happen in 2008.
First, let’s get the tough calls out the way. The Chicago Bears will not win the Super Bowl.
Sure, both forecasts are blindingly obvious today, but neither was a month or so ago when I offered them to my very smart office mate, Maggie the Aggie Dog.
Second, I will not embark on another two-week binge of butter, beef and beverage like the one just (successfully) completed until, oh, a week or so before Christmas 2008.
Farm bill. Third, the 2007 farm bill, when completed 2008, will be the last commodity-based, farm group-driven farm bill.
Indeed, the ever-narrowing coalition of big farm groups-big agbiz barely beat back the ever-broadening trinity of food, faith and consumer groups in 2007, which demanded more reform and more accountability in farm policy.
The reformers, not farmers, will drive the next farm bill fight.
Also, the Senate’s inclusion of a meatpacker ban on cattle feeding prior to slaughter in its farm bill likely will not be in the final version Senate and House conferees will hammer out when they return from their four-week winter nap.
Bold prediction, eh? Not really. In 26 years of reporting on agriculture, I’ve yet to see the packer-lackey (to quote Iowa’s Republican Sen. Charles Grassley) lobby – livestock groups whose nests are well-feathered with meatpacker cash – get beaten in the Washington influence game.
Cowboys. While the giant meatpackers uniformly hate the ban, Congress won’t toss it for that reason alone. So, enter the vote-roping, packer-owned cowboys of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association who will – are, in fact – arguing that the ban will be costly (“billions, sir”) to the current market-strangling “alliances” between packers and cattlemen.
Costly to packers and their lackeys, yes; fair to hundreds of thousands of nonlackey cattlemen, no.
Similarly, slam-dunk predictions of Democrats adding to their congressional majorities while waltzing to an easy White House win in 2008 should be balanced against the party’s dismal performance in 2007.
Congress, under the Dems, saw its approval ratings skydive nearly 50 percent, from 70 percent to just 20 percent, in but 10 months last year.
On the other hand, if a chicken can learn to type, perhaps Democrats can yet learn that stepping on their collective tongue is a poor way to inform a badly split nation on ways all might unite to face a very uncertain future.
Then again, it just could be that some chickens are innately smarter than most Democrats. (That’s an observation, not a prediction. I reserve the right, however, to convert it into a prediction sometime in, say, mid- to late October.)
Best for last. And now for my boldest prediction for the coming year: Energy prices, unlike home prices, will not go down in 2008.
There are a dozens of reasons for this unparalleled gutsiness, but one, seldom-cited fact should scare the carbon out of all Americans: the two most populous nations in the world, China and India, currently posses the fastest-growing economies as well as the fewest cars per thousand drivers in the world.
That means that when enriched (by us) Chinese consumers boost their car ownership from today’s eight cars per 1,000 eligible drivers – India has 11 per thousand; America an incredible 1,020 per thousand – to, maybe, 10 or 12 or 16, there will never be enough ethanol anywhere to ease your and my pain at the pump.
Happy cotton pickin’ New Year.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

2007 top stories in review

January 3rd, 2008 Other News

Egg farm
Ohio Fresh Egg farm owners were slapped with fines for drinking water violations at the farm’s Croton facility in February.
The operation also continued its fight with the state department of agriculture, which revoked the farm’s permits earlier in the year. In August, the state’s review board sided with the egg farm, and by the end of September, ODA had filed an appeal to keep the farm from getting the permits back.
In November, the unrelated Hi-Q egg farm filed with ODA for permits to build and operate an egg farm in Union County.

Court cases
Wayne County hog farmer Ken Wiles, his son and an employee were cleared of all but one of 10 animal cruelty charges in June. National attention was drawn to the farm after an undercover animal rights investigator videotaped farm conditions, including employees euthanizing hogs.
Esbenshade Egg Farms in Mount Joy, Pa., was found not guilty of the animal cruelty charges filed against it in 2006.
The state dismissed 13 counts of animal cruelty against Tom Skelton in June and returned horses taken from his Mahoning County farm. Skelton pleaded no contest to two other charges.

Dairy labeling/rbST
Many U.S. dairy farmers faced a dilemma when they were asked to sign affidavits binding them to the production of rbST-free milk.
In Pennsylvania, the department of agriculture said rbST-free and other similar labels were “misleading.” The state announced a ban on those labels in October, but later postponed the ban.
Pennsylvania’s move prompted Ohio to examine its dairy labeling laws, but officials have not made any official ruling yet.

Raw milk
After six months in court, the Ohio Department of Agriculture dropped its case against Darke County dairy farmer Carol Schmitmeyer.
Schmitmeyer had been providing raw milk through herd share agreements when the department took her Grade A milk producer license. The ODA dropped the case after Gov. Ted Strickland said herd shares are not problematic.

Horse slaughter
There was a lot of arguing about legislation to ban horse slaughter in the U.S. Although the legislation never left Congress, the last U.S. horse slaughter facility closed in September.

MWCD
Less than four months after a controversial assessment fee was approved in the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, Ohio lawmakers voted to stop collection of the fee until 2009.

Record corn
U.S. farmers were expected to produce the largest corn crop in history, according to USDA. Corn production was forecast at 13.1 billion bushels, 10.6 percent above the previous record of 11.8 billion bushels set in 2004.

New leaders in ag
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland appointed Ashtabula County’s Robert Boggs as the new director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Strickland also appointed Columbiana County’s Sean Logan as the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Farm bill
Though both the House and Senate each approved a version of the farm bill, no new national program was approved before year’s end. Negotiations between the two will carry over into the 2008 session.

Johanns resigns
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns resigned his post abruptly Sept. 19 and revealed plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate. President George Bush appointed Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner as acting secretary, then nominated North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer as the next secretary. Schafer has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.

Deer disease
An outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease killed hundreds – or perhaps thousands – of deer in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In Greene Township in Beaver County, Pa., there were more than 200 deer carcasses decaying throughout the area in September.

Renewable energy
Renewable energy was a regular topic in news reports this year.
In April, Tyson Foods and ConocoPhillips announced a new alliance to use beef, pork and poultry byproducts to create a renewable diesel.
At Farm Science Review in September, visitors saw the first public demonstration of a solid oxide fuel cell system operating on vegetable oil made from soybeans.
Fairview Swiss Cheese Plant broke ground in October on a $2.2 million anaerobic digester that will convert cheese whey and ice cream cone batter waste into renewable energy.

Agriculture to see huge impacts from energy bill

December 27th, 2007 Other News

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – President Bush signed into law Dec. 19 an energy bill that will have larger long-term impacts on U.S. agriculture than the pending farm bill, said a Purdue University expert.
The bill increases the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) to 36 billion gallons by 2022, paving the way for increased production of renewable fuels from farms and forests.
Chris Hurt, a Purdue Extension agricultural economist, highlights the most important facts and potential implications from the new energy bill.

Carroll FSA office to be consolidated

December 13th, 2007 Janelle Skrinjar

SALEM, Ohio – Carroll County farmers will be driving farther to visit their Farm Service Agency next year.
The USDA has approved a plan to close the Carroll County FSA office and move its operations to the Tuscarawas County FSA office in New Philadelphia, Ohio.
John Stevenson, Ohio FSA executive director, said the consolidation will “provide us an opportunity to give the producers better service.”
Factors. The director said Carroll County was chosen for consolidation based on several factors. One factor was the office’s average total workload, which Stevenson said was the second or third lowest in the state.
Another important factor was the office’s shared management structure, with other key elements being the number of farms represented, distance from other FSA offices and administrative costs.
The two technicians employed in the Carroll County office will be transferred, possibly to Tuscarawas County. However, Stevenson said the location of the transfers depends on where Carroll County farmers go for their FSA services.
Farmers in the area are not obligated to transfer to the Tuscarawas County office and may go to the office closest to them.
Employees at the Carroll County FSA office, which works with about 320 operators, declined to comment on the consolidation.
Summer meeting. During a public meeting Aug. 27 in Carrollton, county residents gave emotional testimonies regarding why their FSA office should remain open. About 160 residents attended the meeting and dozens spoke to state office state and state committee members about the importance of a locally based FSA office.
“If we’re going to keep our family farms, we’ve got to take care of our young farmers, as well as old farmers,” said County Commissioner Bob Herron at the August meeting.
Farm bill. The farm bill could play a role in stopping the consolidation, although the legislation would have to be passed very soon.
Current versions of the bill include a law that would prevent the closure or consolidation of agricultural offices for one year after a new farm bill is implemented. If Congress approves the farm bill before the office closes, the process would come to a halt.
“If we haven’t already arrived at closure time, we’ll just stop,” Stevenson said.
Affected offices. Carroll County is not alone in the consolidation. Erie, Montgomery, Perry and Warren county FSA offices will also be closed and moved to nearby counties. Lorain County was also on the original list for consolidation, although it was later removed.
The consolidation of these offices will begin in mid-March.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

USDA: No counter-cyclical payments

December 6th, 2007 Other News

WASHINGTON – According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because market prices are high, producers with wheat, barley or oats base acres who are enrolled in USDA’s Direct and Counter-cyclical Payment Program will not receive partial 2007-crop year counter-cyclical payments.
Producers enrolled in the program may receive counter-cyclical payments when effective prices for eligible commodities are less than their respective target prices specified in the 2002 farm bill.
USDA calculates these program payments based on historical base acreage and payment yields, not current production. USDA used the November World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report, which was released Nov. 9, to project these rates and determined that the effective prices exceed their respective target prices.
Partial payments. Any partial payments for producers with upland cotton, rice or peanut base acres will be announced on or after Feb. 1. Any partial payments for producers with corn, grain sorghum or soybean base acres will be announced on or after March 1.
By statute, the 2007 crop counter-cyclical payments can be made in only two installments, a change from prior crop years when counter-cyclical payments were made in three installments.
For 2007, if partial payments are made, the first installment will equal 40 percent of the projected total payment and will be made after the first six months of the beginning of the marketing year. The final payment is made after the end of the marketing year.
The 2002 farm bill requires that any overpayments to producers must be repaid. If not repaid, USDA may deduct overpayments from any future USDA payments.
More information on this program is available at local Farm Service Agency offices.

Conservation comes with the territory

November 29th, 2007 Contributing Writers

WALNUT CREEK, Ohio – For the Bob Hunter family, conservation is a heritage that has been passed down from generation to generation, just like the 150-acre farm, known as Ancestor Acres, that has been in the family since 1875.
The farm is a certified tree farm with an intensive woodland management plan including practices such as crop tree release projects on 80 acres of woodlands and planting about 50,000 trees over the years, beginning with a reforestation project in the 1930s.
As a teacher, Hunter uses his farm as a site for conservation field trips for students in grades three through six.
The Hunters have also remodeled Bob’s aunt’s house into a bed and breakfast and have constructed a log cabin from pines salvaged from a major ice storm that hit the county three years ago.
For these reasons, the Holmes Soil and Water Conservation District named the Hunters and Ancestor Acres the 2007 Conservation Farm Family Cooperator of the Year.
Farm tour. Another highlight of the Holmes annual meeting is the recognition of the winners of the Tom Graham Fifth Grade Conservation Farm Tour.
This year, the winners were Alison Sprang, Luke Hochstetler and Christopher Sprang.
Jerry and Gloria Miller and family hosted the tour this year. The Millers operate an organic dairy farm.
The district presented their Friend of Conservation Award to board member David Woodring. Woodring is retiring from the Holmes County Soil and Water Conservation District board of supervisors after serving since 1996.
He has also served as the fiscal agent as well as a forestry resource person, assisting with the fifth-grade farm tour, Arbor Day tree plantings, forestry field days, forestry camps and forestry training programs.
Following a career as a service forester, Woodring has been a natural resources teacher in East Holmes school district for 22 years.
He also manages his own tree farm and has hosted forestry classes for the district.
Programs. During the meeting, district cooperators learned about the various programs the district has completed during the year. One of the highlights of the year is the Alpine Cheese Nutrient Trading project.
The Alpine Cheese Company has committed $500,000 over the next five years to fund conservation practices and staff in the district to benefit the Sugar Creek Watershed. The result is 5,500 credits toward the reduction of nutrients in the Sugar Creek Watershed by 2011.
As part of the project, farmers have completed feedlot improvements, stream crossings, installed heavy use pads and milk house discharge tanks.
Speaker. Gary Mast, USDA deputy under secretary, Natural Resources and Environment, was the featured speaker.
Mast highlighted some features of the farm bill including better crop insurance provisions, help for new farmers and increases in funding for conservation and rural development.
Elected to the board of supervisors were Harold Neuenschwander and Jason Schuch. Neuenschwander is the owner of Harold’s Equipment. Schuch is the farm manager at Sweet Breeze Farms and Excavating.

Outlook and policy program offered

November 1st, 2007 Other News

COLUMBUS – The farm bill, grain and biofuel markets, agricultural law and farm input costs are just some of the topics being covered during this year’s Ohio State University Agricultural Outlook and Policy Program.
The program features news and information from department experts on the status of food, farm and environmental policies and markets.
Meetings will be held at 11 Ohio locations this winter, beginning Nov. 6 and running through Jan. 29.
Schedule. The Agricultural Outlook and Policy Program schedule is:

Pork industry an illogical quagmire

November 1st, 2007 Alan Guebert

Before a months-long summer slips into a months-long winter, it’s time to use this week or two interlude – formerly called fall – to sweep my office.
First off, the October Successful Farming magazine, the annual issue listing the nation’s “Pork Powerhouses,” shows that the 20 largest pig producers in the U.S. now own 3,124,700 sows, or more than three times what the big pig boys had just 14 years ago when Successful Farming began tracking the industrialization of American pork production.
This unimaginable scale means that just 20 operations own more than half of the pork mommas nationwide and, according to Successful Farming, now “produce 55 percent to 60 percent of all U.S. pigs” each year.
Illogical. Given the corporatization of American hog production, can any independent hog grower tell me why they still pay the federally-mandated pork checkoff when over half the benefits gained by the tens of millions in annual checkoff spending flows to just 20 or so companies and their shareholders?
Surely these big boys are now big enough to pay for their own product research, market development and manure management strategies.
Another question: If 60 percent of all U.S. pork can be traced to producers whose number equals the number of your fingers and toes – fingers and toes, incidentally, which more than 130,000 hog farmers used to exit pig production since Successful Farming began compiling the “Powerhouse” database in 1994 – shouldn’t the National Pork Producers Council be renamed the National Pork Producers Club?
Tax exemption. Questions also arise why the brothers Salazar, U.S. Sen. Ken and U.S. Rep. John, both Colorado Democrats, are pushing for an unlimited federal estate tax exemption on farmland.
Each has a bill in their respective chamber that will cause more harm than good, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
First, cites the center, despite the brothers’ well intentions, the latest Internal Revenue Service statistics show that only 1,659 farmers nationwide owed any estate taxes in 2000 when the exemption was just one-third today’s level.
Second, and more important, an unlimited estate exemption for farmland “could easily be abused by wealthy individuals whose primary occupation is not farming,” explained the center, and “have a truly perverse effect: it could reduce the number of family farmers and make it more difficult to keep farms within families.”
Can you say Ted Turner?
Abuse measures. To be fair, the legislating Salazars include anti-abuse measures in their bills, like a recapture clause for tax-only investors. Such speed bumps, however, are unnecessary if Congress simply makes permanent some level of the currently rising exemptions – $4 million per couple in 2007, $7 million in 2009.
At $7 million per farming couple (make it $10 million, I don’t care), virtually no farming family would ever pay estate taxes after 2009 and few, if any, off-the-farm fat cats would compete with farmers to purchase farmland because of a cozy tax shelter on it.
Ah, but doing the simplest, and, often as not, the right, thing is an act this Congress seems incapable of performing. The Senate farm bill, hopefully out of the Ag Committee by the time you read this, is easily the handiest example of this worsening inability.
Crazy. Not doing the right thing was the one thing that drove A.V. “Al” Krebs crazy.
A journalist’s journalist, Al spent over 50 years getting the facts of farming and food on the record for numerous newspapers and magazines. The pictures his words painted were always accurate and often unflattering.
The culmination of his tireless reporting was the definitive Corporate Reapers: The Book on Agribusiness. Oct. 9, Al, at 75, died of liver cancer. His book, however, will live forever.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)