My colleague Holly Spangler has been blogging lately about her experiences at the recent American Farm Bureau annual convention in San Antonio. Since I helped her cover that meeting, I thought I'd touch on some of the highlights as well.
First, it was the 95th annual convention for AFBF and about 7,000 members from across the country attended. That in itself is worth seeing if you are like me and wonder about the logistics of organizing and feeding a crowd that size. But, it always seems to come off without a hitch.
The AFBF president always kicks off the convention with a keynote speech highlighting Farm Bureau activities for the past year and policy priorities for the coming year. Texas cattleman and rice producer Bob Stallman has served in that role since 2000 and was reelected for a seventh term. "This very gathering is about people from different regions and backgrounds coming together to develop policy that benefits all of American agriculture," he noted.
Stallman said farmers and ranchers are focused on the opportunities and challenges of the present while keeping their eyes on the road ahead. "If we keep our commitment to learn from the past, look forward to the future and never let go of the wheel, I know that Farm Bureau will have a bright future."
Naturally, he spoke of the need for Congress to finish action on a farm bill and how Farm Bureau has been working through the courts to stop the Environmental Protection Agency's attempts to broaden its regulatory reach. "Once again, we are saddled up for the long ride in our fight for rational regulations that allow farmers to continue to feed America."
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also was a keynote speaker at a general session. To no one's surprise, he also reiterated his hope that Congress will pass the farm bill yet in January. He also underscored the fact that the farm bill isn't just for farmers and ranchers.
"All producers understand the importance and benefits of the farm bill for agriculture but it's up to us to explain that to a broader audience. Americans spend less for their food than any other developed country in the world.
"Everyone across America should be concerned that we have a farm bill and they should be contacting their senators and representatives. It has a huge impact on our economy."
Add to that the consequences of not having a farm bill, he said. "In lieu of a farm bill, permanent law would have to be enacted and that would have a negative impact on all Americans."
He also noted resources for trade promotions expire at the end of January. "It (passage of a farm bill) has to get done and it has to get done now."
But Vilsack said he has instructed his staff to plan as if the bill will be passed. "As soon as the ink is dry, we will begin implementing," he declared.
Crop growers prepare for low prices
Besides the general sessions there are always plenty of workshops to learn about price outlooks and new technology. In the crop price outlook workshop, Ohio State University associate professor Matthew Roberts told the audience, "We are entering a four-to-five year period of lower costs and profitability. I think we'll see some farms (that expanded aggressively) in the Corn Belt go bankrupt," he predicted. "Put one year's worth of land charges (above normal working capital) in the bank as soon as possible," he advised.
Record prices for livestock producers
On the other hand, improved weather conditions and moderation in feed prices bodes well for continued improvement in livestock markets in 2014. "Depending on the market and weather conditions, we have the potential to be in an expansion mode for the rest of decade," said Derrell Peel, Extension livestock marketing specialist and professor at Oklahoma State University. With cattle numbers at record lows since the 1950s, Peel said farmers and ranchers need to focus on expanding herds and responding to current markets.
"The incentives are there. We are at record prices and will move higher still. But how profitable producers will be is a function of managing costs and production."
Since I'm running out of space, here is a quick list of other news from the convention:
- Federal Crop Insurance is expected to row in 2014 as USDA plans to expand the program by focusing on production history enhancements, created a limited irrigation contract and prevented planting contract and making nursery program enhancements.
- Small, unmanned aircraft systems (drones) hold promise for agriculture in areas such as data collection on crop health, vigor and yields, tracking the spread of invasive plant species and monitoring cattle feedlots. Data collection of field images by cameras mounted on drones is extremely accurate – to within one inch.
- Apps are currently being developed for all corners of agriculture, turning a farmer's phone or tablet in to a portable office. But farmers and ranchers need to be careful before buying. Check out what others are using and make sure no additional equipment or subscription is required.
- Distinguished Service Awards, the AFBF's highest honor were presented to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Dr. Abner Womak, professor emeritus and research professor of agriculture economics at the University of Missouri.