Editor’s note: The following is part of a series of profiles of commodity group leaders.
Jon Doggett has worked with congressmen and various commodity groups for more than 30 years.
During his time in Washington, D.C., he has been part of the National Cattlemen’s Association, American Farm Bureau and for the past 17 years, the National Corn Growers Association, where he took over as CEO a year ago.
Despite his experience, he cannot remember a time quite like 2019.
“This is the most unique situation I’ve seen in my 30-plus years in Washington, D.C.,” Doggett said.
After growing up on a cattle and sheep ranch in Montana “100 miles from the nearest stoplight,” Doggett left the family ranch in search of a different career. He started off studying journalism, hoping to become the next Bob Woodward, but ended up working in the farm equipment industry.
After dealing with real estate and becoming a stock broker, a market crash in the late 1980s ultimately paved his path to Washington, D.C.
“A friend of mine was working for one of the two Montana congressmen at the time, and he kept saying ‘Why don’t you come out here and work for Ron Marlenee?’ and I wasn’t going to do that,” Doggett said. “But the economy in Montana was pretty tough, so we went to Washington, D.C., in the first part of 1988 thinking to do this for two years, five at the most.”
He stayed, and in 2018 he took over as NCGA CEO. That gives him a distinctive perspective on the politics being played at the Capitol.
Like most commodity groups, NCGA is waiting for movement on a number of trade deals that are either being negotiated or awaiting a vote from Congress.
The United States-Mexico- Canada Agreement (USMCA) is a big deal to corn growers, he said.
One of the most important markets for corn is Mexico, and Doggett said some of the “unsettledness” has hurt business. He said some Mexican customers have made the decision to not be as dependent on one source for their corn.
“(Approving UCMCA) it’s absolutely imperative,” Doggett said. “Our industry needs to have expansion of trade and not contraction of trade. We’ve contracted our trade opportunities these last few years, and we need to turn it around.”
A visit with a Brazilian farmer a month ago helped illustrate how the United States’ market share was being absorbed.
“(The farmer) said he’d done two things he’d never done before. One was he sold corn to Mexico, and two was he sold beans at a premium to China,” Doggett said. “They aren’t going to completely replace us, but we need to be on a growth pattern rather than a sustain pattern.”
Doggett didn’t voice much optimism with trade, saying that pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was “unfortunate” as it was a good chance to expand outside of China in the rest of the Pacific Rim. Referencing China, he said he wasn’t feeling “warm and fuzzy” about it at the moment, with lots of work remaining on a deal.
“I don’t see a light at the end of that tunnel,” he said.
That leads to what Doggett called the NCGA’s top priority — building demand, especially domestically.
“We are producing more with less, faster than we are increasing our demand,” Doggett said. “Our yield curve is steeper than our demand curve, and that’s something we are working on a lot. It has to be an all of the above approach. We can’t be just about exports. We need to enhance the demand for our traditional customers like the livestock industry.”
Doggett also mentioned they are exploring other new uses for corn as they try to open up demand. He said the next ethanol may not be on the horizon, but there may still be wins to be found.
“We need to hit some singles rather than swing all the time for home runs,” he said. “I don’t know that there are home runs available to us right now. But we are going to continue to find ways to take the corn kernel and add value to it.”
He said the Renewable Fuel Standard has been significant during his time with NCGA.
Energy bills used to put a lot of emphasis on energy security, he said. Now the emphasis is on reducing carbon emissions and being more sustainable.
“We are still trying to figure out how to embrace that change and how to better advocate for our industry through that,” Doggett said. “I think there’s been a lot of progress made, but we still have the same detractors.”
The biggest detractors, he noted, are people in the petroleum industry, which he understands — ethanol takes part of the fuel market share.
The recent decision to allow the sale of E15 blend fuel year-round was a win for the ethanol and corn industries. Doggett said getting higher octane fuels is one of the next steps for the future growth of demand, but it may take some time.
He said much of the gains from higher blends have been negated by Small Refinery Waivers.
“That’s killed us,” Doggett said. “Let’s be transparent about what is going on. These things are done in secret and we need to be doing this out in the open. There just isn’t a lot of reason or rationale to give these waivers to refineries.”
He said refineries have done very little to use more ethanol, and used their political power to get out of finding new uses.
“It will take years and years and years to build back and suck up the ethanol that was waived just in this year,” Doggett said. “And we aren’t done with this year yet.”