Commodity Classic lives up to its billing as “America’s largest farmer-led, farmer-focused convention and trade show.”

Tom Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vlisack speaking at Commodity Classic 2015.

written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Almost 8,000 farmers attended Commodity Classic on February 26-28 in Phoenix, organized by the National Corn Growers Association, as well as national soybean, wheat and sorghum associations. US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed attendees at this not-to-be-missed event on the American farmer’s calendar. He spoke about upcoming trade agreements with Asia and Pacific Rim countries, and also announced a one-time extension for farmers to update base acres and yield data.

A delegation of grower-leaders from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) and Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council (MCR&PC) represented the interests of Minnesota’s corn farmers at the annual NCGA winter resolutions meeting, held during Commodity Classic.

A number of resolutions sailed to unanimous approval. Farmer-leaders favored FAA approval of drone aircraft by agricultural producers in a variety of applications. They stood together against the move by the EPA to re-write the rules of the Clean Water Act that deal with “Waters of The United States.”

“When I think of navigable waters I think of something you can take a boat through,” said Bruce Peterson, a Northfield farmer and MCGA president. “It appears that what EPA is proposing would in fact grant them jurisdiction over temporary water bodies — ponds and streams that might only be filled with water for a few days during and after a storm event. Since, during that time, it is connected to a navigable body of water, this rule would bring it under their control, even though it isn’t a permanent stream. We didn’t spend a lot of time discussing this resolution because it was unanimously supported by the delegates.

“We also passed a resolution on drones, or the official term is Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” Peterson said. “The FAA is trying to set guidelines about where they can be used, how high they can be flown. We are just saying we want to be able to use them.”

The resolution reads: “We support individual and commercial access to Unmanned Aircraft Systems technology as a tool for farmers to manage their farm operations, for production and research.”

Gerald Tumbleson, a farmer in Sherburn who serves as chair of the MCRPC, has attended “at least 20 Commodity Classics, probably more.”

“One of the reasons I go to Commodity Classic is to find out, is there some way to boost the profitability of the people that elected me, the farmers of Minnesota?” Tumbleson said. “Grocery prices have remained high, even though grain prices have fallen. So the question becomes, ‘How do we get a better price for the product that we produce?’ The portion of the grocery dollar that goes to the farmer is very small, and it’s smaller than it was five years ago because of the increased cost of the inputs needed to make the farm product. That doesn’t seem to resonate with the people. What are you going to do with a product raised on the soil, to make it profitable in the end? That might mean shifting uses for the corn we grow more to plastics or other products.”

Willmar farmer Kirby Hettver attended Commodity Classic for the first time as an MCGA board member this year. He also serves on the National Corn Growers Production and Stewardship Action Team (PSAT).

“Water quality and soil health issues are very important to me,” Hettver said. “The PSAT team had an opportunity to go through the pertinent resolutions ahead of time and refine and make recommendations to the assembly. There was some word-smithing and editing out things that no longer apply. All of those recommendations were adopted.”

Hettver attended Commodity Classic more than a decade ago, when he was a regional educator for University of Minnesota Extension Service. He found the gathering had grown enormously, with the direct result that there is a broader menu of educational offerings and more vendors at the tradeshow to talk about their wares. Constants across all those years are the networking opportunities and the eagerness of farmers to learn from presenters and each other.

“Any time you get involved in a team like that you are going to learn something,” Hettver observed. “Serving on the action team is not only a great educational opportunity, but also a chance to give input on topics they are addressing.”

All three of these grower leaders sat in on discussions regarding the future of National Corn Growers Associations relationship with NASCAR racing.

“We are in the fifth year of the NASCAR E15 ethanol program,” said Peterson. “The national corn board wants to know are individual states happy with it? We need to commit to the 2016 racing season by the end of June. They are polling states because if some were to drop out it would make it more expensive for others to fund the program. One element is the branding of E15 as ‘American Ethanol.’ Some retailers are reluctant, because they brand their own fuel. There will be a rollout in Iowa of E15 pumps that show the American Ethanol label, so that will be kind of a double branding.”

One indication of success of the NASCAR E15 program is the growing number of chains carrying the E15 blend.

“A chain of stores in Indiana, Sheetz, just announced this past month they will sell E15,” Peterson said. “Murphy Oil, the company that supplies the fuel for Walmart’s gas stations, they are going to E15. All indications are that all the state organizations are on board.”

Hettver said, “I appreciate what the NASCAR program has accomplished but the challenge I would put forward is: what is the long term vision for this promotion? What is the five, 10, 15, 30-year goal of NASCAR involvement? The Corn Board needs to decide what that vision is, so we can make decisions on the state level and make sure we are getting a good return on our investment of the corn grower funds.”

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