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Former ag secretary to kick off Indy Tech Expo


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — An unfinished farm bill and trade policy issues have created a number of questions for those in agriculture, but former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture John Block hopes there will be some answers by the time he speaks at the Indiana Farm Equipment & Technology Expo next week.

“A lot is up in the air, and it creates a lot of uncertainty in the industry and in the U.S.,” Block said, explaining the tenor of his talk will depend on “what develops between now and then.”

One key topic is trade challenges the industry faces. Two waves of tariffs imposed on Chinese products this year by the Trump administration resulted in retaliatory tariffs by China that affected U.S. ag exports. For example, according to Reuters, China imported only 132,248 metric tons of U.S. soybeans and 516 metric tons of U.S. corn this September, compared to 937,000 and 174,965, respectively, last September.

China has stopped U.S. wheat imports, according to U.S. Wheat Associates spokesman Steve Mercer.

“We had a big crop in general,” Block said. “That helps make up for low prices, but the reality is that we’re going to see a drop in income because of the surplus.”

The tariffs, of course, have no impact on China’s ability to import the crops from other nations – and the United States reportedly is still importing Chinese goods at record levels.

“I think both China and the U.S. have pressure to resolve the conflict, but both want to show gains,” Block said, adding he hopes he’ll have information on a resolution to the dispute by the time he arrives in Indiana.

The burden is also on the administration to complete a new trade agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, Block said. President Trump has shown displeasure with the North American Free Trade Agreement, put in place over two decades ago to remove trade barriers among the three countries, and because NAFTA needed updates the Canadian and Mexican governments agreed to renegotiate.

The new pact in progress is called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA. “They’ve got to get that signed and get the countries to approve,” Block said.

And then there’s the farm bill. “I want to talk about where we’re at on the farm bill and getting that done; the budget and getting that done; and avoiding government shutdown,” he added.

Legislators did not meet the Sept. 30 deadline for approving the 2018 Agriculture and Nutrition Act, better known as the farm bill. Midterm election campaigning and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s impending retirement are just two matters that have taken time away from the approval process.

An extension of the Agricultural Act of 2014 had been contemplated by some legislators as early as April and still could be an option. Late last week, conference committee leaders did announce an “agreement in principle” on a new farm bill.

“There has been some dispute over crop insurance and the level of subsidies the government provides to support that,” Block said. In addition, “the House would like to have work requirements for people who receive SNAP (nutrition assistance). My judgment is that the Senate won’t accept that.”

Ranking Ag Conference Committee member Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) told American Agriculturist the mandatory work requirement provision hasn’t been negotiable, as responsibility can’t be deferred to states, and there’s no money for the training it would take to make it happen. With a reported $112 billion baseline reduction by the Congressional Budget Office from the 2014 farm bill, Congress is trying to find places to cut, not add, costs.

House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said on Sept. 28 there are “legitimate policy differences of opinion” across all 12 titles included in the farm bill. He said it’s a matter of “having the political will to make those hard choices.”

Senate Ag Committee Chair Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) agreed the ag industry is in “a rough patch,” the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a while, and getting a new farm bill in place is important. Delaying passage could result in the loss of program funding.

Block said there’s added stress to get the job done before the end of the year, because there will be a new Congress in 2019 that will want to have some influence on the bill. Allowing the negotiations to run into the new year will send the process back to square one, he said.

“There’s pressure to get it done now because the Republicans will have more influence over it,” he explained. “They’ll have to compromise more then than now. I think they’ll get it done.”

Block was involved with the 1985 farm bill as secretary of agriculture during the Reagan administration. He said his talk will look back at agricultural history and his observations through the years.

The 83-year-old lifelong agribusinessman has seen a lot. He grew up on a farm in Illinois, where he remembers his dad’s two horses, Bert and Bill, pulling a two-row corn planter. The corn was picked by hand. Now, he said, there are 32-row planters and the crop is harvested much less laboriously.

“Everything has changed so dramatically,” Block, who also built a successful pork operation in Illinois, said. “We’re so much more efficient.”

Yet, farm income may not go as far as it did in the past. “You used to farm 120 acres and send two kids to college; you can’t do that anymore.”

He served as Illinois director of agriculture from 1977-81 and as the 21st U.S. USDA secretary from 1981-86, where he worked on the 1985 farm bill. He was also responsible for the task force that recommended the USDA coordinate the Ag in the Classroom program, which is now in every state and many U.S. territories, as well as Canada and some other countries.

Block was president/CEO of Food Distributors International from 1986-2003. He’s been active in global food programs and served on various boards. He’s now senior policy advisor for OFW Law in Washington, D.C., which specializes in representing interests before the USDA, and author of the weekly radio commentary “John Block Reports from Washington.”

Attend Block’s talk at 10 a.m. on Dec. 11 during the Expo. The show will feature a variety of other seminars, demonstrations and exhibitors. Hosted by Hoosier Ag Today and Farm World parent company MidCountry Media, the event runs Dec. 11-13 in the West Pavilion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. For more information, visit www.indianaf