Asked Wednesday about the challenges of getting grain down the Mississippi River to export, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he's more concerned about moving fertilizer up the river to farmers than load limits on grain moving out of the river into export channels.
"The thing I'm most concerned about isn't so much exports as it is the ability to get fertilizer to producers upriver," Vilsack said during an event at Greater Omaha Packing Co. "There is still barge traffic taking place on the Mississippi, but the barges may not be loaded as much as they would traditionally be."
On exports, "Any time there is a disruption, it is obviously a concern," he said.
Farmers have options for taking USDA farm storage loans if they are struggling to get their grain loaded at a river terminal, the secretary said.
Fertilizer access, however, remains a concern. USDA is expected to soon announce some form of initiative on domestic fertilizer access that Vilsack said would ideally expand supplies for the 2023-24 crop year. If the program can get launched quickly enough then that would ease the reliance on foreign fertilizers, Vilsacks aid.
"So that's my concern right now is whether or not we can get that fertilizer initiative going to the point where we can relief some of the stress that folks are feeling about next year's crop," Vilsack said. "In the meantime, farmers obviously are going to have to make a tough choice."
As DTN reported Wednesday, mayors along the lower Mississippi River are raising more concerns about the river levels, especially with forecasts that drought will continue. Mayors are calling for federal aid for both communities and farmers on the river.
For more on fertilizer, see DTN Retail Fertilizer Trends, https://www.dtnpf.com/…
PACKING PLANT EXPANSION
Vilsack met Wednesday with leaders at Greater Omaha Packing Co., an independent meatpacking company in south-central Omaha. USDA had awarded Greater Omaha a $19.9 million grant under the "Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program" announced on Wednesday. Overall, USDA gave out $73 million in grants to 21 projects. Vilsack had said more grants will be issued under the program later this year or in early 2023.
"This is going to continue throughout 2023 because the need out there is great," Vilsack said.
Executives at Greater Omaha said the grant will be part of a $100 million expansion plan for its packing and processing that will increase the size of the plant nearly 30%, increase automation at the plant, improve waste-water management and expand more value-added retail elements to its meat-processing capacity. The plant will also add roughly 275 jobs as well.
Henry Davis, owner of Greater Omaha Packing Co., was asked about the labor market and ability to hire right now. He said his packing plant has workers from 30 different countries with as many as 15 different native languages for workers. Labor, though, remains a challenge and he called on Congress to address immigration.
"What really needs to be done is we need to solve the immigration problem," Davis said. "We have 12 (million) to 15 million illegal immigrants in this country. We don't know where they are. We don't know who they are. And we need to give them a path to citizenship, and then we need to have a reasonable and regulated system that lets others immigrate into our country to facilitate all of the industries that are short-handed and need more workers."
Following Davis, Vilsack pointed to negotiations on the Farmworker Modernization Act, which is right now stuck in the Senate. The bill passed the House with a bi-partisan vote and Vilsack said he's "reasonably confident" the Senate could get to 60 votes. Vilsack said Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mike Bennet, D-Colo., "are working feverishly" to potentially get a vote during the lame-duck session of Congress.
"If they were to do that, you're talking about a significant expansion of the workforce, so that's one way of dealing with this," Vilsack said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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