Ag rebel pitching new plan: Can an unorthodox idea revive a felon’s reputation?
ALEXANDRIA, Minn.— If the bearish numbers in the March 29 U.S. Department of Agriculture's Prospective Plantings Report gets you down, Alan Roebke says he has a plan to perk things up—the Roebke Plan.
Roebke, 69, in the 1980s was a sizeable Minnesota farmer and sugar co-op mover and shaker. He says his plan can do for corn, wheat and soybeans what the sugar program does for the region's sugar beets. He says he thinks farmers need the government to raise commodity loan rates significantly and increased ethanol content in gasoline mixes.
Whether program would be affordable or politically feasible is debatable, but it has another problem: the author is a convicted felon.
More on that later.
Consider the Roebke Plan:
• 70% loan increase. Increase Commodity Credit Corp. loans by about 70 percent, to $3.50 per bushel for corn; $5.00 for wheat and $8.50 for soybeans.
• Recourse loans. Make the commodity loans "recourse" loans—not the "non-recourse" loans typically used in farm policy. Under recourse loans, farmers cannot forfeit collateral loans, but would have to pay the loan off.
• 25 percent loan retention option. Require that 75 percent of the loan must be repaid at the end of nine months. Farmers could choose to "roll" or re-enroll up to 25 percent of their "historic production level" of a particular crop for up to an additional nine months.
• 1 percent higher interest. Set interest rates at 1 percent higher than traditional CCC loans.
• E11, now! Instead of fighting petroleum to increase ethanol blends from 10% (E10) to an optional or mandatory 15% (E15), Roebke would move all of the pumps in the country to increase to E11. A one percentage point increase in ethanol consumption would increase corn use by 550 million bushels per year.
Publish a poll!
Roebke has a forceful personality that isn't always well-received by agricultural policy influencers. He's tried unsuccessfully to push the plan to journalists and to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and members of Congress.
He sees his plan as "attachment" to the 2018 Farm Bill. Or the Trump administration could direct on "option" on the 2018 Farm Bill, to cut costs.
Frayne Olson, a North Dakota State University Extension Service commodity marketing specialist, agrees the ethanol concept would boost corn use. Congress would have to act on such a loan rate change, either as an amendment to the 2018 multi-year farm bill or a separate bill. That's unlikely, he says.
Scott Stofferahn, executive vice president of Golden Growers Cooperative, was director for the USDA's Farm Service Agency in Fargo, and was a key player in farm bills while working 12 years as an ag policy staff specialist for former U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. Stofferahn says the Roebke Plan would have the effect of holding some grain off the market.
Out-of-the-box thinking sometimes becomes policy, he says, but the Congressional Budget Office would see the Roebke Plan loan increase and score it as a cost, even if it is a recourse loan, he says.
"If I'm the government and I'm lending money to you, and the only collateral (you) have is insufficient to cover the loan," Stofferahn says. In that case, the federal government will become an unsecured creditor rather quickly. "The government wouldn't own all the grain, but they'd own all of the debt," he says.
Plus, any new program would have to start with endorsement by the general farm organizations or commodity groups, he says. That's a problem for a plan championed by a felon.
Roebke grew up on at Hector, Minn. In 1970, he graduated from the University of Minnesota Crookston. In 1973, he organized Southern Minnesota Canning Crop Growers Association—to sign a contract to grow green peas and sweet corn for Green Giant.
Starting in 1982, he served nine years on Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative's board of directors including as its secretary. He was instrumental in setting up a 6-cent per ton assessment for lobbying that was instrumental in setting up sugar import and loan programs that are still in place today.
In 1997, he followed marketing gurus who thought beans would go to $10 a bushel. Instead, they topped at $9.37 and crashed. At the same time, lenders limited him to $850 an acre for operating loans when he thought it should be valued at $1,250. Later, it went much higher.
In 1999 to 2000, Roebke removed and sold 150,000 bushels of grain in his bins that were that was under CCC at a "ridiculously low loan rate" — the equivalent of three river barges. The first load to the Farmers Elevator of Buffalo Lake, Minn. "I blatantly lied to them," he now admits. "I said, 'There's no loan on them. Send me a check."
Roebke explains he was angry and deliberately broke the law to make a political point.
But instead of a soapbox he got a jail cell.
He was divorced in 2000 and convicted in 2002 and served time in a federal prison in Yankton, S.D. In 2004, he was let out of federal prison at Yankton, S.D., to a Minneapolis halfway house. Out of custody in 2005, he worked manufacturing jobs in Chaska. In 2008, he moved to Alexandria to live in Minnesota's Seventh District. He tried in vain to get the Republican congressional nomination. The party didn't want him.
Today, Roebke lives alone in a rental house in Alexandria, working to get his ideas on numerous topics in the public eye. He says he lives on Social Security and a check from working at a local building retailer. "I regret (the conviction) cost my family, and what I went through for the past 20 years," he says. But that's past, he says.
Just focus on the Roebke Plan, he says, insistently
Farmers would love it, he concludes: "Publish a poll!"