My Voice: A ‘swing and a miss’ from the USDA

Source: By Doug Sombke, Sioux Falls Argus Leader • Posted: Friday, January 19, 2018

Our esteemed U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a report of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. While it is hard to get excited over any government report, I had high hopes for this particular effort given the title and the supposed focus.

First of all, by standards of any government report, it is brief – just 44 pages. While that can be a good thing, in this case the brevity underscores a lack of understanding by the USDA and the other participating agencies as to what really constitutes prosperity.

Granted, rural America does not instantly translate to farming and agriculture. There are many areas of our great country that do not enjoy the rich farmland we have and the opportunities it provides. Rural Appalachia or rural desert areas struggle for meaningful jobs and livelihood. However, one section of the report that focuses on energy seems to conflate all rural areas and fails to recognize the significant and game changing role agriculture has had. Agriculturally derived biofuels, including biodiesel but primarily ethanol, have single-handedly reversed a decades long trend of rising oil imports and a staggering flow of American dollars to foreign countries that support drugs, terrorism and other activities. While we are struggling to see commodity prices above the cost of production, I shudder to think of where we would be without the 15 billion gallon ethanol market.

While this report references renewables, it does so in the most general way imaginable and lumps the need to produce renewables in rural America with coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear power. The word ethanol is not mentioned despite the fact that it is a multi-billion dollar domestic industry and here in South Dakota alone, it contributes nearly $4 billion to the state’s economy according to a 2012 study by South Dakota State University, and that was six years ago. Our neighbors in Nebraska have studied this issue and reached similar conclusions with an estimated $5 billion annually in economic impact, as has Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas and so many others. Across the country, the ethanol industry has raised land values, wages and generated hundreds of millions in tax revenue to the state.

How is it ethanol and biofuels are not singled out in this report for not only the contributions to date, but the untapped potential of the future? Ironically, the report keys on the need for regulatory reform in order to “unleash the potential” of rural America, when there is no industry held back more from expansion than ethanol. President Donald Trump also recently addressed the annual meeting of the Farm Bureau and again railed against regulations that impede prosperity, but with no mention of ethanol.

To the USDA, the EPA and the president, we call on you to break down these barriers you often talk of, but a year into this administration, we have seen little in the way of action. With billions of bushels of corn ready to be put to work, we say ‘Tear down that wall.’ We have given EPA all the direction it needs to shatter the so-called ‘blend wall.’ Remove the vapor pressure restrictions on ethanol blends, update the woefully outdated models on lifecycle analysis and tailpipe emissions, facilitate the certification of higher ethanol blends and do your job with respect to enforcing the law on toxic aromatics and fine particulate emissions.

In short, with all due respect, get out of the way. We can thrive in a free market if given access and we can play a key role in protecting public health through higher blends like E20, E25 and even E30.

There are no consumer or taxpayer costs associated with any of these actions and the opposite is true in that these measures provide a lower cost, cleaner, healthier fuel – saving lives and boosting our economy. USDA had a chance with this report to highlight these specific measures that would in fact, put us on a pathway to prosperity, unfortunately, it was a swing and a miss.

Doug Sombke is president of the South Dakota Farmers Union.