Listening sessions keep ag community in touch

ST. PAUL -- In uncertain times it is important to stay in touch with those who matter to you. That was the idea behind a recent series of listening sessions the Minnesota Department of Agriculture held the last few months.

ST. PAUL -- In uncertain times it is important to stay in touch with those who matter to you. That was the idea behind a recent series of listening sessions the Minnesota Department of Agriculture held the last few months.

From New Ulm to Willmar to Winona, and later Crookston, St. Cloud, Mankato and Worthington, we met with farmers, Main Street business operators and others with a stake in the state's agriculture and food sector. We heard about many issues specific to individual communities or regions. For example, in Crookston, we heard about concerns about the availability of diesel fuel for agricultural purposes. In Worthington, we heard about a desire for more processing infrastructure in support of the region's dairy producers. However, a number of consistent themes came through in all sessions.

First, we heard that while Minnesota has made progress in creating a more farmer-friendly business climate, there still is work to be done.

Farmers talked about the need at both the state and local levels for transparent, fair permitting processes that take into account the realities of 21st century farming. MDA's livestock development team has worked on these issues, and we will continue to do so. At a time when so many of our economic foundations have been shaken, we need to be mindful of the major role agriculture plays in our economy, and we need to treat this vital industry with the respect and fairness it deserves.

Second, we heard 2008 has been good for some but not all parts of the agricultural economy. The high costs for fuel and other inputs held down profits in some cases. This is especially true for farmers who pre-purchased inputs when prices were high, thinking the trend would continue. There is a practical limit to how much impact a state agency like MDA can have on big-picture economic forces, but we can continue to work hard to make sure our market development programs produce meaningful results for various segments of our diversified agricultural economy. We may not have all our sectors thriving at the same time, but if we work hard to build long-term competitive ability in all sectors, we can have a healthy, diverse ag sector for years to come.


Third, given all that has happened in the nation's finance sector, it is no surprise that we heard concerns about the availability of credit.

Minnesota's agricultural lenders did not participate to the same extent in the sort of risky lending practices that led to our credit crisis, but this doesn't mean those lenders are immune from the effects of the problems elsewhere. The bottom line is that as farmers move into the winter number-crunching, there is great uncertainty and unease. MDA will be working to ensure Minnesota farmers have access to the credit they need, and we will be talking with St. Paul decision-makers to make sure they are aware of the ongoing needs of farmers and other small business operators in greater Minnesota.

MDA will continue to hold listening sessions into 2009 because I am convinced those of us in government need to be in close touch with the citizens we serve. I look forward to talking with more of you in the months to come.

-- Gene Hugoson

Editor's Note: Hugoson is Minnesota's agriculture commissioner.

Cattle industry seeing losses

BILLINGS, Mont. -- The U.S. International Trade Commission recently released a report that illustrates how exports of beef from the U.S. have been significantly depressed since 2003 as a result of the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Canada. Jay Truitt, formerly with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, testified to this depressed state of exports at an ITC hearing on the matter in November 2007. He listed country after country that had reduced purchases of beef from the U.S. after the BSE scare. He also listed the billions of dollars lost by cattle producers since 2003 because of these lost exports markets.

After the ITC released its report on Oct. 7, NCBA issued a news release that clamored about all of the lost revenue to the cattle industry. The interesting point is this: neither in last year's testimony, nor in last week's news release has NCBA offered any solutions -- only complaints about how lost trade is hurting the industry. Well, you're either part of the solution, or part of the problem.


R-CALF USA, on the other hand, has been steadfast in its belief that the lost confidence of our trading partners (as a result of BSE) could be corrected by allowing packers to test carcasses for BSE. This would allow our trading partners to get what their consumers want: beef that is tested free of BSE. While R-CALF USA proposed BSE testing as a possible solution to this trade shortfall at last year's ITC hearing, NCBA opposed testing for BSE. And still, to my knowledge, NCBA has not offered any proposal that would restore the confidence of our trading partners. Not surprising, given the close relationship between others in the beef industry -- the American Meat Institute and the National Meat Association -- and NCBA.

The ITC study, and NCBA's reaction to it, demonstrates the huge gulf that exists in our industry. If it is true that the U.S. cattle industry lost $11 billion from 2004 through 2007 because of reduced exports, then why were U.S. cattle prices so severely depressed during the 1990s and up through 2002, which was before we lost $11 billion in exports? And why did U.S. cattle prices increase dramatically, reaching historic highs from 2004 through 2007, the very years that these exports were significantly reduced? Answers to these questions cannot be found in the ITC study, and NCBA is not even asking these questions. Isn't it time for U.S. cattle producers to begin looking at our industry through the eyes of cattle producers and not beef packers? I personally found 2004 through 2007 to be among some of the best years I ever have experienced during my 30 years in the cattle business.

Perhaps there are factors other than exports that are more important to the profitability of U.S. cattle producers -- factors such as managing imports and maintaining competitive markets -- but which are being largely ignored because the entire industry has been conditioned to focus exclusively on exports for its profitability.

If you're wondering how I know these things, I represented R-CALF at the November 2007 ITC hearing -- and testified on behalf of independent live cattle producers.

-- Eric Nelson

Editor's Note: Nelson, R-CALF USA region VII director, is a farmer and cattle feeder from Moville, Iowa.

Idea of cheap food taken too far

NEW YORK -- Melamine was in the eggs that arrived in Hong Kong, the biscuits in the Philippines, the foil-wrapped chocolate coins sold across Canada, and cookies and candy in California.


The world's hunger for ever-cheaper products has wrought a perpetual state of food-safety alert. Hong Kong is expanding its melamine tests to include meat, vegetables and processed foods. More countries, including this one, should be taking similarly aggressive protective steps, holding foods from China for testing before they are released to markets and restaurants.

The world is only starting to learn how ubiquitous melamine, used in the production of plastics, has become in Chinese agriculture. In the case of the melamine-laced infant formula and other dairy products that killed four babies and sickened more than 50,000, the melamine -- which falsely boosts protein readings -- appears to have been added directly to milk that probably had been watered down. It's thought to have been fed to chickens that laid the eggs, raising suspicions that it might be found in other farm animals. It's even used in pesticides, raising the specter of tainted produce.

These products spread globally through the manufacture of processed foods, which mix basic ingredients such as eggs and powdered milk from around the world. Biscuits made in the Philippines and shipped to Hong Kong also were found to be contaminated with melamine, but it's unclear whether the substance was added in that country or whether it came from Chinese-produced milk. Adding to consumer concerns, the labels for packaged foods tell only where the food was processed, not where the ingredients originated.

-- Los Angeles Times

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