By RACHEL LANE
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Approximately 2,000 people were at the annual USDA Agricultural Forum Feb. 21-22, and the majority were involved in the government side of agriculture, insurance or brokers – but there were farmers from around the world, as well.
John Robinson, owner of Robinson Farms in Monticello, Ill., said this was the sixth year he’s attended the forum and he has seen an increase in the number of farmers attending, but more need to show up.
“I think any farmer with more than 1,000 acres should attend,” he said. “It helps you make better decisions. You need to understand the policies, and this helps … You get information firsthand, see the players of the game and the policies they support.”
The benefit may not be immediately noticeable, but what he hears at the forum, months or even years later, he hears the same information from his typical sources – ag radio, the extension agents or brokers. By then he has already made the changes, adjusting to concerns or expected markets.
It is not just the speakers releasing marketing numbers that assist Robinson. He said speaking to the other attendees benefits him, too.
“I sat next to a farmer from Bolivia (this year), so that was interesting. He was farming … 700,000 U.S. acres,” he said. “He made the determination that he needed to come (to the forum) for the information.”
Everyone was focused on weather this year, Robinson said. He wished the theme of the forum, managing risk, had been explored more thoroughly in the breakout sessions, but overall he thought the conference was worth the money, time and effort he put forth in attending.
“I really enjoyed listening to (USDA Secretary) Tom Vilsack’s message, he seemed really thoughtful, sincere and well-meaning,” said Jenny Mennenga, a farmer near LeRoy, Ill. “He talked about managing risks, especially manmade risks such as the lack of a five-year farm bill, Congress’ inability or unwillingness to cut budgets before automatic sequester of funds, immigration reform and the impact of seasonal farm workers due to changes, trade barrier conflicts.”
She attended a poultry and livestock breakout session. It focused on formula pricing, which is popular with bankers and packers but may turn out to hurt livestock producers in the long term because it softens the markets of non-captive supplies of livestock.
“Generally speaking, the outlooks weren’t anything the industry and the USDA hasn’t already (released) information on,” said Cassie DeJaynes, a farmer near LaHarpe, Ill. “I felt the outlooks were more designed around foreign buyers that were present at the forum, which is great. I know they need the information also.”
She said the session about economic and foreign trade outlooks, and the keynote address by Vilsack, were misleading because they provided information about the forecast and outlooks based on past weather trends, which are not a reflection of what the weather may be this year.
“As the drought lessens across the Eastern Corn Belt, there was no indication of how much rain we do need to be in the ‘normal’ range of precipitation based on those weather trends,” DeJaynes said.
She attended a session about promoting nutritious diets and hopes the USDA implements some of the research into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to educate children and parents.
“I think, generally, the public is tired of seeing someone pay for chips and soda with Link Cards,” she said, referring to how SNAP is administered in Illinois. “I think the research is putting the missing link into why these benefit programs are failing so miserably.”
Children are currently helping design online programs and video games that would help other children learn about nutrition.
DeJaynes said the cattle and poultry outlook session seemed to focus on the short term. It focused on the lack of calves and stock cattle that would be coming to market in the next 18-30 months as a result of decreased herd size, a result of the draught.
“I really liked the session on almonds, co-ops and cattle genetics … I found it very interesting and it’s more of the thing producers would be interested in,” she added. The panel presentation talked about almonds as a retail and wholesale item on the global market.
“They talked about co-ops, specifically CHS out of Minnesota and how their exports have changed with the emerging middle class in countries like China and India.
That was kind of a common theme throughout this session,” DeJaynes said. “And, Accelerated Genetics talked about how livestock breeding is growing globally and how the co-op, Worldwide Sires, has paired with it’s major competitors, like Select Sires, to have a dysfunctional productive relationship on the global market.”
She said the forum was well worth her time: “It was a great experience to see firsthand the information presented by the USDA to the global industry.”
The opening session and additional information is available online at www.usda.gov/oce/forum