ASGA Executive Vice President Luther Markwart
Outlines Association Priorities for Coming Year
In what areas will the American Sugarbeet Growers Association be focusing its efforts during the coming year? Luther Markwart, ASGA’s longtime executive vice president, updated members on several of the association’s top 2010 priorities during the group’s annual meeting in early February.
• Crop Insurance — ASGA has worked for several years toward the removal of stages for sugarbeet crop insurance. That effort, which began with a pilot project in Minnesota, has now culminated in stage removal in all U.S. sugarbeet states except California (whose growers typically do not take out crop insurance on beets).
As to price election for the 2010 sugarbeet crop, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) announced in late November 2009 that it would be set at $41 per ton. (The 2009 crop level was $43.) In early January, ASGA leadership met with top officials at RMA to present information in support of an upward adjustment in the election price. “We did not give them a specific number, but said we could expect beet payments to be in the $50 or higher range — so the price election should be somewhere near [that level],” Markwart reported. An RMA decision on the adjusted level was expected in late February. “We have to be careful with this,” Markwart added, “because we don’t want to get the price election too high so it creates an incentive for a producer to walk away from a crop if it gets a little difficult to harvest. As cooperative owners, you want as much volume moving through those factories as possible. And if some people don’t harvest, that’s going to affect your bottom line to some extent.”
Actual revenue history (ARH) was another topic of discussion during the January meeting with RMA. It’s unclear as to how soon that could become a reality, due to funding issues. “We fall under ‘administrative pay-go,’ ”Markwart noted. “So if a revenue program is going to cost more money, they (RMA) need to find other money to cut in order to fund this program.” While there’s no guarantee, ASGA’s hope is to have some type of ARH policy in place for 2011.
Finally, ASGA has been investigating the possibility of getting crop insurance extended to include beets that have been harvested — but, due to field conditions or another obstacle, could not be trucked from the field to a piling site. Currently, coverage ends once the beets are harvested — regardless of whether they are hauled away or left at the edge of a field in “clamps.” Including clamped beets in one’s insurance coverage “would perhaps allow us to help farmers who might [otherwise] lose a crop or let a crop go [unharvested] because of a fear of losing their insurance,” Markwart said.
RMA, of course, needs to know how covering clamped beets would affect the loss levels that may be incurred. Depending on that answer, this may be an opportunity to increase coverage without raising premiums. For now, it is too early in the process to predict whether clamped beet coverage will actually come to pass, Markwart emphasized.
• Biotech Front — The ASGA has been extensively involved, along with other segments of the sugarbeet industry, in the legal challenge to the use of Roundup Ready® beets. Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court (9th Circuit) was scheduled to hear plaintiffs’ arguments on March 5.
“Clearly, working through all of our legal issues is our number one priority,” ASGA’s executive vice president told his annual meeting audience. “We do feel good about that; but we have to get through those issues.”
On another Roundup Ready-related item, Markwart referred to the numerous comments and questions he has received from growers upset about the technology provider’s (Monsanto) increase in the tech fee for 2010. “My ears are still ringing [from calls received] from growers around the country,” he quipped.
“This is a long-term relationship we have with our seed and technology providers,” Markwart continued. “It’s 18 years from the time that patent begins [until] it stops. Over that period, we’re going to transfer about $1 billion from growers to the tech provider and the seed companies in order to have that technology available and to benefit from it.
“With that long-term relationship, we need to make sure it is right, it is positive — and that we’re able to maximize the technology,” he stated. “Any issues relating to the tech fee have to be dealt with by the individual cooperatives
with the tech provider and the seed companies. It is not an issue that can be addressed by ASGA.”
• Sugar Policy — Though the ’08 farm bill has been operative for some time, the administration of its details by USDA continues to evolve. Plus, the next farm bill is on the horizon.
Always seeking to be proactive rather than reactive, the American Sugarbeet Growers Association annually brings in dozens of its grower-leaders to Washington, D.C., to visit with members of Congress. During a twoweek period in late February and early March of this year, ASGA members would be visiting about 220 different congressional offices, Markwart noted.
“We need to continue to put the ‘grower face’ on our issues — and to constantly tell our story,” he emphasized. “This is not a sprint that we do in the year the farm bill is actually under consideration. This is a marathon that we have to work at all the time.”
• Climate Change — Referring to the ASGA meeting presentation by Janet Andersonon current climate change legislation proposals, Markwart bluntly stated, “When you stare at that problem, it is a ‘death sentence’ for this industry going forward, if those kinds of proposals are put in place.”
How so? “We are trying to explain to members of Congress that, with most of our ag commodities, when they leave the farm gate, you can sell them to anybody you want to,” the ASGA leader explained. “But that is not the case with sugarbeets.
“First of all, the beets are of no value until you get the sugar, pulp and molasses out of them. And you only have one place you can take them to for processing — a factory that is owned by growers. So sugarbeets do not become commercially viable until they’ve been processed.” For that reason, beet factories should be included under the “agricultural exemption” within the current group of climate change proposals.
“A little piece of that factory really ‘belongs’ on your farm,” Markwart illustrated, “because the factory is an extension of your farm. “Only once those beets have gone through the factory do you have something [that has] commercial value.”
• International Trade Issues — The U.S. sugar industry continues to be very focused on Mexico. With the two nations now being essentially a common market in sugar, the level of sugar production in Mexico and how much will be moving into export are questions of paramount importance for the U.S. sugar sector.
Other trade issues — such as WTO — are relatively quiet at present. “But just because they’re quiet does not mean they’re going away,” Markwart stressed. “We’re always monitoring them” for signs of activity that could impact the domestic sugar industry.
Political Action — With 2010 being an election year — and with many House and Senate race outcomes being far from predictable — many of the current and potential members of Congress are open to talking with groups like ASGA. “Why? Because we have political action funds,” Markwart stated. “We have the capability to help support their campaign.”
So association leaders are spending a lot of time visiting with candidates, exchanging points of view and determining whether there is much in common. “If we think we have something in common, we’ll try to work with them. If we don’t, it’s ‘thank you and good-bye’ — and we hope they don’t win,” Markwart said with a smile. “It’s going to be a very busy year.”
In closing, Markwart praised outgoing ASGA president Alan Welp of Colorado for his dedication and leadership
the past two years. “He has worked for this organization with great integrity,” Markwart noted. “He has set the bar high — and leaves with the industry in great shape.” Referring to incoming president Russ Mauch, vice president Kelly Erickson and new board members, ASGA’s executive vice president added, “We have another great leadership team coming in. The secret of a successful organization is to have one leadership team and be able to transition to another — and never see the difference.”
Part of that success also is due, he emphasized, to his fellow ASGA staff members: Ruthann Geib, Pam Alther and Brianne Blevins — “a hard-working, talented team.”