Lobbying farmers searching for a 'win'

Leaders to Washington group gets little good news in D.C. on trade, ethanol waivers

A lobbying group of Illinois farmers brought back little good news from a trip to the U.S. Capitol. (Shutterstock)

A lobbying group of Illinois farmers brought back little good news from a trip to the U.S. Capitol. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

A lobbying group of Illinois farmers returned home largely thwarted in their attempts to push for free trade and more ethanol in Washington, D.C.

The Illinois Farm Bureau reported Tuesday on the lobbying efforts of Leaders to Washington, a group of more than a dozen Illinois farmers who visited Illinois senators, representatives, and other federal officials last week.

The group pushed for the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to be ratified by Congress, but according to the IFB “the group overall felt discouraged about the likelihood of USMCA being passed after meeting with the senators’ offices.”

The problem, though, is in the U.S. House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last month on a visit to Illinois that it’s “not ready” for passage. U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Channahon and other Republicans in the Illinois congressional delegation have urged approval, and farmers want it to formally replace the North American Free Trade Agreement scuttled by President Trump in order to provide some certainty on trade.

Trump’s trade war with China has cut into global demand for Illinois crops, and FarmWeekNow.com reported Tuesday that things are not looking up on prices for corn and soybeans. The story reported that “demand remains fairly weak due in part to the tariff war, the African swine fever outbreak that decimated hog numbers in China, and stiff competition from other crop-producing regions around the world, according to Dan Basse, president of AgResource Company.”

“We’ve still got ag markets caught in political and weather crosscurrents,” Basse said in Morris. “We just don’t have the demand driver to keep things going.”

We’re hearing more and more about farmers just emotionally and mentally breaking down.
— Julie Newhouse of the Winnebago-Boone County Farm Bureau

Soybean farmers also fear the long-term loss of markets to South American competitors in Argentina and Brazil — that if Chinese importers shift, and they already have, they may not readily shift back even when a resolution is finally reached.

Not only does Trump’s trade war with China persist with no resolution in sight, but Chinese hogs were recently hit with an outbreak of African swine fever that wiped out more than a third of the nation’s herd — and thus the need for feed crops for those animals.

“That demand (from 550 million hogs) is now lost,” Basse said. “Even if we get a trade deal with China, it’s not going to replace that demand.”

Farmers are hoping to crack the $4 threshold for corn and $9 for soybeans in the farm markets, but the outlook isn’t good.

That’s in part because corn farmers are also facing less demand from ethanol producers thanks to waivers passed out by the Trump administration allowing major refineries to de-emphasize ethanol production along with small, start-up refineries. That too has been a key issue for farmers, and they brought their concerns to Washington. Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have said they share those concerns, but there has been no movement yet to reduce or withdraw those waivers, which U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth has charged benefit big-oil behemoths like Exxon and Chevron to the detriment of Illinois farmers.

“With the waivers granted here recently to the defined small refineries, there has been a significant decrease in the demand for corn for ethanol production,” Robert Benson, Peoria County Farm Bureau member, told FarmWeek. "It has taken since the early 2000s to get that demand level up to what we have been using for ethanol, and the loss of those gallons from the ethanol market has been reflected in a drop in corn price. When we look at our producers and a break-even point … it’s going to be tough for these producers at the current levels to be able to project a profit.”

The Illinois Farm Bureau reported that all this comes as farmers anxiously await the harvest, delayed by slowed spring planting due to heavy rains and flooding, at a time when they’re usually already in the fields harvesting their crops.

“Checking fields right now, I’m thinking we’re still probably three weeks away from combines rolling,” said Matthew Herberling, Christian County Farm Bureau president. “So, there is a little bit of concern we aren’t going to be able to have tillage windows this fall to help us correct the fields and get them prepped for the 2020 growing season either.”

The lobbying group also pressed for the Wet Weather Variance to be extended into next year to ease that transition from season to season.

All these worries, and the lack of constructive answers, are wearing on farmers.

“We’re hearing more and more about farmers just emotionally and mentally breaking down,” said Julie Newhouse, Winnebago-Boone County Farm Bureau member. “I mean, I can’t really change a frost, I can’t change a rain, I can’t change a disease pressure … If the market is flat and below our cost of production, we can’t fix that.”

And apparently they can’t change the political logjam in Washington either.

The Farm Bureau reported: “While farmers are searching for a ‘win’ and reprieve from this year of unexpected challenges, they are not giving up hope.”