SAN ANTONIO, Texas (DTN) -- An opening issues forum for members of the National Corn Growers Association on Wednesday was largely a listening session about productivity and the challenges of operating in Washington, D.C., with the new Trump administration.
Farm policy topics are just part of the draw for corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum producers at the Commodity Classic gathering this week in San Antonio, but farmers have a lot at stake with policy shifts in D.C. as they look to trade and renewable fuels for consumption and the prospects of a new farm bill on the horizon.
Jon Doggett, vice president of government affairs for NCGA, told growers he recognized they might want to be relying on the support of farm programs right now, but commodity markets at the moment reflect the importance of a safety net.
"Until things turn around, we're going to have to have a farm bill that rebuilds your industry," Doggett said.
With a 2.3-billion-bushel carryover at the end of this crop year, demand is the number-one challenge corn growers are facing for their crop. Yet Doggett talked about the need to increase overseas markets. But he explained that the Trump administration strategy of negotiating bi-lateral trade deals will likely take multiple years to reach new trade agreements. "It takes a long time," Doggett added.
Further, newly confirmed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has pegged the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement as his top priority. That risks disrupting the largest customer for U.S. corn -- Mexico.
Doggett pointed out that in the last few months, NCGA has signed on to five separate letters with agricultural groups stressing how important trade is to farmers. "I'm not a big believer in lobbying by letter, but it's a start," he said.
In some cases, letters to the president are the only viable option because there are so many empty positions in federal departments such as USDA. Not only has Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue not yet had a confirmation hearing, but a deputy secretary has not been nominated, either. "It's hard to have a discussion in Washington with an empty chair," Doggett noted.
Also high on the corn growers' list right now are goals to reduce regulations and protect the Renewable Fuels Standard. In that light, this week has been mixed. Corn growers applauded President Donald Trump's move to begin reviewing and likely withdrawing the controversial waters of the U.S. rule by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. However, Doggett explained that the executive order doesn't mean efforts to define waters of the U.S. just go away.
"There will be a new rule on the Clean Water Act at some point," he said.
Further, keeping with a tough anti-regulatory push, the president's budget proposal is expected to recommend significant cuts for EPA. Doggett said farmers need EPA's regulatory team in areas such as pesticides and biotechnology to approve new products. If those areas face significant cuts, then it could take longer to review new pesticides or biotech traits.
"Some regulations you absolutely have to have," he said.
And yet there is concern that the Renewable Fuel Standard could be undermined by a push among Trump's advisers to move the point of obligation for blending ethanol from refiners to retailers.
"There has been a lot of craziness in the past couple of days," Doggett said.
NCGA also would like EPA to equalize the Reid vapor pressure, or RVP, regulations for E10 and E15. Because of those vapor point restrictions, E15 has largely not been available to some wholesale suppliers and retailers who receive only E10 blends. The impact of such a change "could mean a couple hundred million bushels of additional demand," Doggett said.
Regarding the farm bill, farmers are going to be tasked with dealing with a Congress that is being asked by the president to increase spending for the military and border security while also cutting taxes. Such efforts are going to stress other areas of the federal budget. But farm groups and others want to see increased spending in several different areas at USDA, whether it is research, international marketing or reconfiguring farm programs for dairy and cotton producers.
Inside the D.C. beltway, farm groups are ready and planning their strategies to build coalitions. "We have been in more meetings on the farm bill, to date, than we were in the last two years of the previous farm bill," Doggett said.
Still, Doggett noted that, outside of D.C., farmers are getting their voices heard in town-hall meetings with congressmen and senators. Lawmakers have been getting berated over plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but few farmers are making it to meetings to talk about agricultural challenges. Doggett challenged NCGA members to go to meetings and get their point across to lawmakers.
"People aren't showing up at these meetings to talk about agriculture," Doggett said. He explained a conversation he had with a congressman who told him, "I know things are tough out there, but I'm not hearing from your guys."
NCGA's voting delegates meet Thursday and Saturday to spell out changes in the group's policy book. Few specific proposals have been detailed, but it's expected farmers will have a debate on whether to support increasing the acreage cap in the Conservation Reserve Program as part of the farm bill.
The Iowa Corn Growers Association has some agenda items it will bring to the table, such as resolutions to support the use of high-compression engines using high-octane renewable fuels to meet higher fuel economy standards. The Iowa delegation would also like to see an "American Ethanol" branding campaign and label, as well as allowing for noxious weed control and ditch maintenance on CRP land.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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