Pictured Above: Neil Caskey (l) of the National Corn Growers Assn. met with Heather Bruce and Joe Sampson of Osmundson Manufacturing to discuss the unique challenges 2019 presented farmers, dealers and manufacturers from weather to the decline in demand for biofuels.
Neil Caskey, VP Communications, National Corn Growers Assn.
Heather Bruce, Owner, Osmundson Manufacturing
Joe Sampson, VP Sales, Osmundson Manufacturing
Neil Caskey: We’ve described 2019 as a perfect storm. It’s comprised of a few things. First, really bad weather. The world was introduced to this brand new term called a bomb cyclone. There were big sheets of ice rolling through Nebraska back in March and that was a pretty good signal that weather was going to be a challenge this year. Then you have the trade war. Most farmers are still standing behind the president, even as he’s prosecuting this trade war in some of our key markets like China and Mexico and Canada. And then, more specific to corn and soybeans, we’re having some challenges in biofuels, too, with our own government doing some kind of screwy things.
Heather Bruce: Some of the legislation they’ve come out with sounded positive, at first. The farmers were excited, but now there’s going to be less ethanol demand.
Caskey: 15 billion bushels of corn — that’s what we produce. About a third of that goes into ethanol production, and that’s the ethanol we produce here in the U.S, with U.S. jobs and U.S. profit. We just started building up China as a market for ethanol in recent years. We had a tariff, and everything shut down. We were just beginning to develop China as a big market for ethanol, and that’s where we see our future for ethanol, overseas. And that shut down. We’re hopeful that this phase one deal will allow us to get back in there in an aggressive way.
Joe Sampson: The sentiment in politics is, “Let’s focus on taxes, immigration and education.” Agriculture and farmers are like the lost, forgotten child. The tariffs and the trade war — the farmers swallowed, more or less, all of that. Right now, we hear the consumer economy is great. But the manufacturing sector is getting hit pretty hard right now. Did something have to happen with China? Of course. There were some unfair practices going on there. When we do change, there is going to be pain. The farmers have definitely taken the brunt of that. What’s your forecast on the future of trade?
“There are genuine questions about food. And those are coming from women who trust other women. The thought of bringing more women into agriculture to solve some of those societal problems is incredible because that’s where the rational conversation can happen. It’s not the unempathetic male trying to address some concerns they can’t relate to. It’s a relatable conversation where people can get to the heart of the matter and talk…”
Caskey: I’m optimistic that we will get the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) passed. Mexico’s our biggest market for corn. The president believes this is a winning political issue for him. We’re hearing reports of a phase one China deal.
Sampson: It feels like earlier in the year, the trade talks were top priority and, all of a sudden, weather has been the reason for the soft economy. We’ve had some really bad seasons. This spring was super wet, and the fall saw some record numbers of rainfall in October. That makes it really tough to do anything.
Caskey: Yet, there’s still optimism in the air. There are pockets of despair and that’s more newsworthy to talk about. By and large if you look nationwide, there’s still optimism in agriculture. In regard to sustainability, weather is completely uncontrollable. Trade wars are completely uncontrollable. Ethanol is largely uncontrollable. Farmers face so many things that are outside of their control in their business and there are few things that they can really zero in on. Sustainability really is the practices they employ on their farm. Those are the things that they really need to focus on in a world of just complete uncontrollability. Let’s focus on the farm and driving sustainability so that you can build up the resilience that is making a difference in a year like this.
Bruce: How do you educate the consumer? There are so many consumers who just don’t understand how these things affect the farmers.
Caskey: We’re trying to reorient the conversation from education to service. There are consumer trends that no one in the world can understand. We can get frustrated with these trends, so we need to get better at figuring out how we, as a group of agricultural producers, can better meet their needs moving forward. It’s less of a focus on education and more on service.
Sampson: I think we have changed the way we eat. The change has been drastic in the past 10 years. You can go into the grocery store now and there are cage-free eggs, organic options, non-GMO. In the end, the farmers are growing our food, so how do you do it in a progressive way, where we can move into that next generation of people and how they eat? There’s a lot more concern about what we’re putting into our bodies.
Caskey: If you look at the past year, there was a downright panic whether there was going to be a crop or not. The story, to me, is going to be shifting from the awful weather of 2019 to the amazing technology and the people who are operating it. They took what should have been a devastating year and made a great crop out of it.
Sampson: That comes down to the equipment. You need equipment that doesn’t fail when you’re trying to hit small windows like that. You must give these OEMs credit because they figure out ways to make this stuff be pretty darn durable, along with the parts that go on it.
Bruce: It’s also the education of the farmer. More farmers are more educated, whether it’s secondary schooling or just gaining a better understanding of what’s going on in different practices. In terms of sustainability, the farmers who are really going to come out on top this go-round are the ones who really planned it. And it seems like it’s the younger guys and girls that are really the ones who are making the push
Sampson: And it’s that technology that’s going to help farmers hit that two-day window and still get optimal yields.
Caskey: There is a changing face in ag. The industry is typically getting older and one of our priorities is bringing diversity into our leadership, whether that’s different races, more women and younger folks.
“Farmers used to go 4.5 mph on a planter, and now they’re going 8, 10, 12 mph on a planter. It’s like putting the gas down on your car, going 100 mph, and having your tires last for just as long. Something’s not going to work, so we have to be innovative and find solutions to adapt to these changes…”
Bruce: The Midwest culture really helps with that, too. The thought is, “I really don’t care who you are. You can be purple as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” That really helps. The STEM programs are starting to get more women interested in either manufacturing or engineering or other industry-related roles. That also applies to farming. You have to be everything all the time when you’re a farmer.
Caskey: Some of the disconnect between producers and consumers of food is historically caused by a dominating male voice on the producer side. Since the Garden of Eden, men haven’t been known for being terribly empathetic. There are genuine questions about food. And those are coming from women who trust other women. The thought of bringing more women into agriculture to solve some of those societal problems is incredible because that’s where the rational conversation can happen. It’s not the unempathetic male trying to address some concerns they can’t relate to. It’s a relatable conversation where people can get to the heart of the matter and talk. “We’re trying to raise kids; we’re trying to do the best we can. Tell me how you’re doing it. Tell me how you’re growing stuff on the farm and how that relates to what I’m putting into the mouth of my kids.” These are the conversations that can solve some of these problems.
Sampson: That’s the world we’re evolving into and that’s pretty exciting. What will sustainability look like in the future and what’s a healthy way to grow to that point?