As Trump prepares to speak to farmers, their future seems uncertain

Source: By Emily Hopkins and Carley Lanich, Indianapolis Star • Posted: Thursday, November 1, 2018

When President Donald Trump addresses more than 65,000 past and current members of the former Future Farmers of America, now known as the National FFA Organization, he will be speaking on Saturday to an audience whose future is, above all, unclear.

“It seems a lot harder to farm than it used to be,” said Mackenzie Gladding, an FFA member from Clinton County, Indiana.

Gladding and her cohort will be looking to see if Trump, despite months of tumultuous trade talks and tariffs, is still the guy looking out for their interests.

That was something he signaled earlier this month when the White House announced a rulemaking decision to increase the use of ethanol fuel nationwide.

That move would help farmers, agriculture groups say, but is only one small step on the road to parity for growers.

What is ethanol?

When Americans fill up at the pump, about 10 percent of the fuel they buy is ethanol, a grain alcohol that is largely made from corn.

That’s not by accident, or even market force. The increased use of ethanol in the U.S. is fueled by a federal mandate called the Renewable Fuel Standard. It was part of a 2005 amendment to the Clean Air Act aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil.

Ethanol emissions are considered cleaner than gasoline — they contain less carbon dioxide and are free of some of the more harmful chemicals present in gas. But mixing the two makes gasoline evaporate more easily, which can contribute to smog. It’s for that reason that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restricts sales of gasoline blends made of more than 10 percent ethanol during the summer months.

Trump’s proposal would lift those restrictions, allowing the sale of gas blends with up to 15 percent ethanol, or E15, throughout the year.

“E15 is a door that opens our marketplace to additional plans of ethanol that could be good for the agriculture economy and the environment,” said Mike Beard, a farmer from Mulberry, Indiana, and Vice President of the Indiana Corn Marketing Council.

Farmers groups have been advocating for a similar proposal for years, a move they say will increase demand for a product they have plenty of. They look at the peak days of the federal fuel mandate, before the EPA’s restrictions, when corn sold for $8 a bushel. Today, it sells for less than half that.

“Every market we get into, they take it way from us,” said Jim Benham, president of the Indiana Farmers Union.

Is ethanol good for the environment?

That boom and bust creates problems for farmers, whose markets are heavily influenced by federal policy.

The biofuel mandates established in the early 2000s created a market for corn and soy that was so strong farmers converted millions of acres into cropland to maximize their profits.

“It’s undeniable that our biofuel policies have driven a change in farming,” said Dr. Richard Perrin, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“People are growing corn in Montana, which used to be unthinkable before,” he said.

Turning land into farmland releases a lot of carbon into the air, so much so that Perrin said it has pretty much cancelled out any carbon reductions from putting ethanol in our gas tanks.

Land conversion in the U.S. has largely tapered off, Perrin said. But lifting the restrictions on E15 and increasing demand for biofuel in general has global implications. Brazil, for example, is heavily converting the Amazon rain forest into cropland for biofuels.

Today, a third of America’s corn crop is made into ethanol, and with another 38 percent going towards animal feed, it’s safe to say that most of the time Hoosiers drive past a cornfield, it’s not for human consumption.

The expansion and intensification of growing row crops like corn and soy have destroyed important ecological areas like grasslands and prairies, said DeGennaro. The fertilizer required for these crops runs off into waterways, ultimately causing toxic algal blooms and dead zones in lakes and as far away as Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

DeGennaro believes that some of these problems can be addressed through the same policies that created the problem in the first place. Providing incentives for “next generation” biofuels made from crops that are better for soil health and water quality.

The Renewable Fuel Standard as it has been written is a good example of how federal policy has locked farmers into one specific pathway, rather than providing the options and alternatives as it should,” he said.

Uncertain farmers

Farmers across the country have cheered President Trump’s E15 proposal, but it is the latest chapter in a tumultuous story of agriculture under his administration.

That story has included international tariffs, the eruption of a trade war, a renegotiated North American trade deal, and waivers for oil companies to leave ethanol out of their blends entirely.

Trump urged farmers to “be patient” at a veterans convention in Missouri, and earlier this year he announced a $12 billion aid package for farmers impacted by the immediate responses to his trade policies.

“That is literally a drop in the bucket compared to the losses incurred,” said Bob White, director of national relations for the Indiana Farmers Bureau.

Nationally, farmers’ confidence in Trump has wavered. A Farm Journal Research survey found in August that about 52 percent surveyed would vote for the president again, down from the 70 percent who said they’d vote for him in 2018.

Still, White and some others seem to be heeding Trump’s “wait and see” advice. That’s in part because they say it’s been a long time since a president has expressed such interest in the agricultural sector. In fact, when Trump addresses the FFA on Saturday, he will be the first sitting president to do so in 27 years.

Those changes — be them Trump or others — will need to reverse troubling trends for the young farmers at his year’s convention. With net income for farmers in approaching a 12-year low, bottoming commodityprices, and  ever-increasing farmland value, it’s again unclear what the future looks like for young farmers in the United States.

“A lot of the guys have retired. They just quit,” said Dean Wolfe, an FFA member from Richwood, Ohio. “The younger generation, it’s not coming back with the prices that we have and the hardships we’re going through.”