Nebraska farmers still have tough questions for ag secretary on trade, ethanol waivers

Source: By Paul Hammel, Omaha World-Herald Bureau • Posted: Monday, August 26, 2019

LINCOLN — U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue’s visit to Nebraska was canceled on Friday because of bad weather.

What he missed were some tough questions from Nebraska farmers, who are wondering when some good news will arrive in the ongoing trade war with China, which has cut into farm profits. One even wondered if Perdue considered farmers “whiners” or “patriots.”

Exports of soybeans and corn have dropped 31% and 7%, respectively, and shipments of cattle hides and skins are down 30% compared with a year earlier, according to figures compiled by the Nebraska Farm Bureau — and those figures are expected to grow, given China’s recent retaliatory announcement that it was ending new U.S. ag purchases.>

Steve Nelson, an Axtell farmer and president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said his members had hoped to hear “that progress is being made” in opening up markets for Nebraska’s ag products, of which about a third are exported.

“The sooner we can hear some good news on that, the better,” he said.

There are also questions, according to Nelson, about the accuracy of recent USDA crop reports, and about why the agency granted 31 waivers to oil refineries to sidestep the new Renewable Fuel Standard, which lowers demand for corn-based ethanol.

In December, the Farm Bureau estimated that Nebraska farmers had lost more than $1 billion in revenue because of the ongoing trade conflicts.

Farm Bureau members, Nelson said, still back President Donald Trump’s effort to strike a better trade deal with China, though their support is being tested.

“I’m asked often when will farmers’ patience wear out. I don’t have a good answer for that,” Nelson said. “Certainly tough economic times make it harder for producers to wait.”

Vern Jantzen, a Plymouth farmer and vice president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, was less diplomatic. On Thursday, Jantzen was repairing a 16-year-old hay swather that’s broken down four times in recent days. He said he’d rather buy a new one, but with low prices and low demand for his crops, he can’t afford it.

“There’s a lot of farmers gritting their teeth right now,” Jantzen said. “I’ve got corn and beans sitting out in the field right now. But who’s going to want it?”

He said that farmers always seem to be “sacrificed” when there’s a trade war, and he predicted that Trump won’t be able to “call (China’s) bluff.”

“The secretary of agriculture needs to be aware that we’re not happy. And when he says we’re whiners, that doesn’t play very well,” Jantzen said.

That is a reference to a joke Perdue, a former Georgia governor and veterinarian, told at a Minnesota listening session earlier this month. The joke: “What do you call two farmers in a basement? A whine cellar.”

Said Jantzen, “The president says we’re patriots because we’re taking a hit for the team. But that doesn’t work for the banker. He’s more interested in me making a payment than whether I’m a patriot.”

A handful of questions posed by the two farm leaders were forwarded to the USDA for comment on Friday. But they did not elicit a response by deadline Saturday evening.

Both Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Ethanol Board issued press releases last week expressing concerns about the ethanol waivers, which reduce demand for the corn-based fuel and thus depress corn prices.

Ricketts pointed out that the 31 waivers were fewer than in previous years. But the Ethanol Board’s administrator, Roger Berry, said that the waivers represent a loss of 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol demand, and were a “handout” for oil giants like Exxon, Mobil and Chevron at a time when Midwestern farmers are struggling with trade wars, flooding and depressed prices.

Nelson, the Farm Bureau president, said that the USDA deserves thanks for its help to farmers during flooding this year.

He, along with Ricketts, said Friday that Nebraska and Wyoming farmers impacted by the collapse of an irrigation tunnel appreciated Perdue’s announcement, via a press release, that federal crop insurance will cover crop losses resulting from the July 17 collapse. It has blocked irrigation flows to about 100,000 acres of land in the Nebraska Panhandle and eastern Wyoming.

A spokeswoman for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which had arranged for Perdue’s visit to the Nebraska State Fair, said that there have been discussions about rescheduling the ag secretary’s visit, but nothing had been decided by late Friday.