No easy answers for ag secretary

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The impossibly improbable has occurred and you’re now secretary of agriculture. What you think or say about farm and rural policy matters as much — and, often, more — than what other political and farm “leaders” think or say.

So what do you think about U.S. agriculture today? You’re entering office with major grain markets on a bull run. Indeed, corn, soybeans and wheat prices are above $5-, $13-, and $6-per-bushel, respectively, for the first time in almost a decade. But worries loom.

Market seers suspect U.S. farmers will plant enormous acres of both corn and soybeans — 90 million-plus each — to send 2021-22 prices lower. Fall futures markets already reflect that concern.

New crop corn prices are a solid $1 per bushel lower than current cash prices and new crop soybean prices are $2 per bushel lower. Both remain profitable, but each is poised to drop should record acres bring record crops.

So what do you do — and, equally important, not do — to keep prices high and government payments low? And, yes, private prayer is permitted in public offices but what will you pray for: poor crops and good prices or good crops and poor prices?

Carbon neutral

Meanwhile, your White House boss (who’s ridden the Amtrak more than a tractor) has given you 150 days to recommend a plan to make U.S. agriculture carbon neutral by 2050. Oh, and he started that clock two weeks ago.

Sure, that puts you under the gun, but if you really want to worry, consider that no one really knows if carbon can be stored effectively in working farmland. So far, the evidence isn’t good. Right, that’s a problem.

Additionally, the ethanol industry has been through four years of big talk, bad faith and red ink. President Joe Biden, however, thinks ethanol will be a key element in his carbon reduction scheme. Fine, but we’re going to need to see the math on that.

Commodity Credit Corp

It’s also been reported that the Biden Administration’s carbon plan will tap some or all of the $30 billion credit line at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC), a sleepy agency awakened by the Trump White House to prop up farm income after its tariff war with China sent commodity prices deep into the red.

This sounds more like a way to change the CCC from its historical role of propping up farm markets and income into a $30-billion-per-year, White House slush fund to underwrite more vote buying. Worse, do you think this is still good policy if, like many in Congress have already suggested, its annual funding increases to $60 billion?

Confronting China

Speaking of China, recent news reports claim its leaders are hotly pursuing a White House meeting “to ease the tensions” that grew between the world’s two leading economies during the previous administration.

The Biden White House, though, has said it will only talk with China after it confers with its allies on how all will “jointly confront” China over its aggressive moves on the Pacific Rim. As ominous as that sounds, China is lighting up U.S. commodity markets with a buying spree not seen since 2017.

As such, the very last thing any American farmer or rancher wants is a big stick confrontation with their best cash-and-carry customer, China. Will you as secretary firmly remind the White House that muscling China right now would slap the overall ag economy?

Also, do you think you should order the Economic Research Service back to Washington, D.C., from Kansas City? Then, will you order hearings on how to fix the pandemic-exposed dysfunction in the nation’s livestock, poultry, dairy, and meatpacking sectors? How about hearings on the ownership concentration of ag input suppliers, livestock and poultry slaughterers and food processors?

Also, how much longer must America wait before USDA effectively addresses racial and gender discrimination within the department and tackle immigrant labor reform?

One final question: Do you still want this job?

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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