NCGA Policy Expert Criticizes TMDL, Praises Ethanol

9/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

QUEENSTOWN, Md. — Jon Doggett is the vice president of public policy at the National Corn Growers Association, or NCGA, in Washington. It’s the third agricultural group he has worked for during his 22-year career, so he has spent a lot of time talking to both farmers and legislators.

Speaking recently to attendees of the Maryland Commodity Classic, Doggett said one of the problems facing agriculture has its roots in a constitutional obligation to conduct a census of the population every 10 years.

Doggett said the process has caused farming interests to lose representation as population has become more concentrated in urban areas and the rural population has decreased.

“Fewer and fewer elected legislators represent rural America,” Doggett said.

Reapportionment has also caused districts to become more polarized as Republican and Democratic interests struggle to retain seats for their respective parties.

As a result, Doggett said primaries have become more important because the extreme wings of both parties are the ones who turn out to vote in primaries; and would-be politicians have to appeal to primary voters in order to get a chance to run in a general election. When a candidate does make it through the general election, Doggett said they tend to be representative of the extreme wings of their party; insisting on having it their way all of the time.

Doggett said it’s caused a stalemate in Congress that has endangered agricultural interests. A prime example of this is the failure to pass the 2013 Farm Bill.

Conservative interests have attempted to gut the Farm Bill of the food and nutrition components that help to feed the hungry. Doggett said this has damaged, if not destroyed, the important partnership between food producers and those who are hungry, and he called it a mistake.

Another legislative issue that’s concerning grain farmers is the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.

In 2012, NCGA joined with the American Farm Bureau Federation and other agricultural organizations to legally challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s, or EPA, TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay.

Farm groups say the TMDL goes beyond the scope of the Clean Water Act and that the science is flawed and the regulatory process lacks transparency. The case has been filed and argued in federal court in Pennsylvania.

Doggett said farmers across the country are awaiting the outcome of the case because its ramifications could be wide ranging. An NCGA position paper states the case “could establish significant precedent for future water quality regulations throughout the country.”

Corn growers worry that the Chesapeake Bay TMDL could become the blueprint for addressing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff in the Mississippi River Basin and other watersheds.

Doggett said many environmentalists have a lot of misunderstandings about agriculture.

“There are a lot of good things going on,” he said. He said fertilizer runoff has gotten better over the years and “is the largest non-land cost, so farmers are conservative.”

Doggett said there is less fertilizer application on farms than there is on other non-ag sources. He said NCGA is hoping the court case will go forward so agricultural interests can bring EPA back to the table to discuss how to move on from it.

“How do you address the problem if you don’t know what the problem is?” he said, adding if rules are made too harsh, more farms will go out of business and turned into subdivisions.

Another lawsuit involves pesticides and its potential impact on endangered species.

The 6th Circult Court of Appeals has ruled that general use permits would be needed for any application of pesticides near water sources. These are done at the state or county level with environmental protection officials.

Doggett said the issue involves paperwork, which he thinks will make it more difficult for farmers to address immediate problems in their fields.

For the most part, Doggett said EPA has made an effort to streamline the regulation and make it as painless as possible.

“They did not start this and they have to comply with the ruling of the court,” he said.

Doggett said remaining actively engaged in governmental issues is necessary to make sure programs are implemented in a way that’s feasible for farmers.

On the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, Doggett said it’s been good public policy since ethanol production has helped to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil and it’s also helped to boost the rural economy and reduce greenhouse gases.

“RFS has been a huge success,” he said.

But Congress has threatened to make changes to the program as a result of last year’s drought as well as Doggett’s belief that oil companies have begun pressuring Congress to make changes.

“We expect that a piece of legislation could be enacted based on drought in October at a time when we are enjoying a bumper yield. Corn prices have already dropped in anticipation of this bumper crop. Suspected legislation would further depress prices,” he said.

Seed companies like Syngenta are trying to produce higher ethanol-yielding corn. Amylase, the first corn cultivar developed specifically for the ethanol industry, is in its second year of commercial production.

Doggett said the demand for corn ethanol has resulted in a lot of investment by seed and equipment companies and more farmers investing in precision farming technology.

“Profit in the market place,” has spurred these developments, he said. “It’s been a win-win for agriculture and it’s floated a lot of other boats.”

Manufacturers produce ethanol by extracting starch and fermenting it to sugar, which is converted into alcohol. Out of 56 bushels of corn, 18 to 19 pounds goes back into feed as dried distillers grain. Doggett said the California dairy market loves the product and it’s also used in pork and poultry feed.

The kernel of court that goes into ethanol doesn’t disappear. Doggett said corn oil is extracted for cooking oil or ethanol production.

“For every bushel of additional demand, we have grown more than an additional bushel for traditional users,” he said.

The biggest customer for corn is still the livestock industry, he said, “but the days of farmers raising corn at $2 bushel and having the difference in their cost made up by federal government are over.”

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