By former USDA Secretary John R. Block
I have been on the farm in Illinois the last few days. As we loaded a semi with market hogs and I walked through the barns with baby pigs, it made me think once again about the challenges farmers face. As I reported last week, the outlook can change pretty fast, but will it? We like to send to market about 6,000 hogs per year. The last load average weight was almost 300 pounds each. Years ago, our market hogs weighed about 220 pounds. Our sows ran in the field until ready to farrow when we bring them into the barns. It has been really cold. The stream where our sows drink froze up. We had to haul water to them. Where was global warming when we needed it? In spite of the challenges, our pigs are healthy and happy.
Looking out over the snow-covered frozen fields, it’s hard to imagine that in 2 months we will be planting corn.
More concerns come to mind. Farm country is worried about trade conflict or a possible trade war. President Trump imposed tariffs on solar panels and washing machines and, in response, China closed the door on our exports of sorghum. I know that we need to do something about our massive trade deficits with China, but we don’t want this to get out of hand.
We already have what could be a very costly fight over the Renewable Fuel Standard. A large part of the oil industry would like to reduce the role that ethanol plays in fueling our cars. With corn price projections as low as they are, we can’t afford to give up any of our market. Consumers also benefit from renewable fuels. Ethanol is less expensive than oil-based fuel, and I might add, cleaner burning, which is good for the environment. Ethanol is crucial to our corn-based economy in the Midwest.
President Trump has been a strong supporter of renewable fuels. We have to stand up to a very loud and aggressive group of small oil refiners. They say that RFS is hurting their “bottom line.” Standing up for big oil is Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. He has blocked Iowan Bill Northey from being confirmed as Agriculture Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. Secretary of Agriculture Perdue needs Northey and farmers do also. If confirmed, he will be able to defend corn belt interests. I think Senator Cruz’s hold on Northey’s nomination is disgraceful. Cruz is a Republican, but the fight goes on.
I am a perpetual optimist, and as it warms up and planters start to roll, the outlook will brighten.
John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill. If you would like to review his radio shows going back more than 20 years, visit johnblockreports.com.