Midwest year in Review

Confusing, frustrating and downright unpleasant could all be ways to describe 2019 from an agricultural point of view.

Wet weather, trade wars, ethanol battles, continued climate and water quality discussions, and a parade of Democratic presidential candidates beginning their trek toward the White House were all major issues for farmers this year.

For our last issue of the year, Iowa Farmer Today takes a look at just a few of the top stories for agriculture in 2019.

Flooding and shortages

It started with a wet harvest in 2018. That led into a warm early winter and a brutal late winter for farmers in the Midwestern states.

For farmers along the Missouri River in western Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri, wet took on a whole new meaning. They saw record flooding in March and later in the spring that not only kept them out of the fields, but in many cases washed away whole farmsteads and parts of small towns.

For the farmers lucky enough to grow a crop, fall came with a new challenge. The corn and beans were very wet coming out of the fields, and farmers were suddenly faced with shortages of LP gas to dry that grain. As a result, it was not uncommon for farmers to harvest for a brief time and then stop while they waited for grain to dry or for more fuel for drying to arrive.

Trade wars and low prices

As was the case in 2018, farmers were buffeted by low commodity prices and by continuing trade wars.

A tentative deal on an update of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was reached about a year ago, after a year-long trade fight. But the newly dubbed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was negotiated before the 2018 elections, and Democrats in Congress wanted changes. In just the past few weeks, an agreement was announced, and Congress was expected to approve the new USMCA.

But negotiations with China were a bit more difficult to resolve. A tentative phase 1 agreement was announced in December, but the details are still coming out.

Those trade wars hit commodity markets hard in 2019, and still hold the potential to depress prices in the future, as China and other buyers start to look to other sellers of grain and agricultural products. Production in Brazil and Argentina, for example, continues to rise.

Ethanol

President Donald Trump pleased farmers by announcing the year-round approval of E15 sales. But that win was offset by the continued granting of so-called hardship waivers by the administration — giving refiners permission not to follow Renewable Fuel Standard obligations.

In early fall, farm organizations thought they had reached a compromise with the president on the waivers, but were surprised just weeks later to see a proposed Environmental Protection Agency rule that did not do what the farmers had expected.

Presidential politics

While many farmers voted for Trump in 2016 and continue to support him, others have turned their attention to the huge number of Democratic presidential candidates that have flooded into Iowa. Some of those candidates are well known to farmers, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

The onslaught of candidates has allowed farm organizations the chance to meet potential future presidents and to discuss farm issues with those candidates. A number of them have toured ethanol plants or visited farms or gotten the chance to grill pork chops at the Iowa State Fair.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.