Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Don't Believe Everything You Hear About Regulations, President Obama Tells Farmers

...And don't bet on Grandpa's corn ethanol operation, President tells boy at Atkinson town hall...
*An update at bottom of post
"Nobody is more interested in seeing our agricultural sector successful than I am," President Obama declared on Wednesday in Atkinson, Illinois, during the third town hall of his rural bus tour. He was speaking at Wyffels Hybrids, a family-owned hybrid corn seed operation that does a big regional business. The President bounded into Wyffels to a standing ovation, and his formal remarks were interrupted by frequent bursts of applause. All the same, he got some tough Ag questions during the brief Q & A that followed.

The President's adopted home state is the fifth largest corn producer in the nation, and he received a hero's welcome in Atkinson. The streets of the tiny town, population about 1,100, were decorated with 1,000 flags donated by one excited local citizen. An upgrade in the local highway and the town's shiny new fire station were paid for with Recovery funding, the White House noted on its blog, adding that the cash flow also "kept jobs going." Still, locals weren't afraid to take on their President.

Don't believe what you hear...
The very first question, from Rock Katschnig, a farmer who identified himself as a corn and soybean grower, was not so much a question as a flat-out complaint. Katschnig said he had "heard" that the Administration is planning new regulations for farming operations for dust, for water run-off, for noise.

"Mother Nature has really challenged us this growing season -- moisture, drought, whatever," Katschnig said. "Please don’t challenge us with more rules and regulations from Washington, D.C., that hinder us from doing that. We would prefer to start our day in a tractor cab or combine cab rather than filling out forms and permits to do what we’d like to do."

President Obama first said that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in the audience and could better answer a regulatory question, but then gave the farmer some advice.

"If you hear something is happening, but it hasn’t happened, don’t always believe what you hear," President Obama said. He got laughter and applause, then continued.

"I’m serious about that. Because a lot of times, what will happen is the folks in Washington -- there may be some staff person somewhere that wrote some article or said maybe we should look into something," President Obama said. "And I’m being perfectly honest, the lobbyists and the associations in Washington, they’ll get all ginned up and they’ll start sending out notices to everybody saying, look what’s coming down the pike."

The President said the Administration would be "applying common sense" to regulatory issues.

"And if somebody has an idea -- if we don’t think it’s a good idea, if we don’t think that there’s more benefit than cost to it, we’re not going to do it," the President said.

He advised the worried Katschnig to query USDA with his concerns about what are proposed EPA regulations. Later in the day, at the town hall held in Alpha, Illinois, the President got the exact same question from another farmer, and repeated what he'd said the first time, adding "we're looking for creative solutions."

"Nobody is more interested in seeing our agricultural sector successful than I am, partly because I come from a farm state," the President said at the Alpha town hall.

UPDATE, Aug. 18: A reporter from Politico took President Obama's advice to query USDA about the regulations, and made calls to USDA to get an answer to the farmers' questions. After being bounced from local to state to federal outlets as well as to non governmental agencies, the reporter finally got an answer from a spokesman in USDA's media relations department. This was USDA's statement, via e-mail:

“Secretary Vilsack continues to work closely with members of the Cabinet to help them engage with the agricultural community to ensure that we are separating fact from fiction on regulations because the administration is committed to providing greater certainty for farmers and ranchers. Because the question that was posed did not fall within USDA jurisdiction, it does not provide a fair representation of USDA’s robust efforts to get the right information to our producers throughout the country.”

USDA spokesman Justin DeJong later told The Hagstrom Report that USDA would be changing how it responds to farmers' queries, but declined to give specifics on what this would entail when Obama Foodorama asked for further details.
__________________ End update

Can you save Grandpa's corn ethanol business?
On Tuesday, the President unveiled a $510 million initiative to boost rural industries that create advanced biofuels for military and commercial use, which will focus on all kinds of fuels--except for corn ethanol. The President made the audacious move of unveiling his package in Iowa, the largest corn producing state in the nation. In Atkinson, 11-year-old Alex McAvoy stared the President down, and asked how the Commander in Chief planned to save Grandpa's corn ethanol operation. The boy's mom sat beside him in the audience, encouraging him.

"My grandpa is a farmer, and he owns -- well, yes, he owns part of the local ethanol plant. I was wondering, what are you going to do to keep the ethanol plant running?" Alex asked.

The President didn't really flinch as he explained, albeit slightly confusingly, that alternative biofuels have a brighter future than corn ethanol, and Grandpa needs to basically get out of the corn ethanol industry.

"I will say that the more we see the science, the more we want to find ways to diversify our biofuels so that we’re not just reliant on corn-based ethanol," President Obama said. "Now, we can do more to make corn-based ethanol more efficient than it is, and that’s where the research comes in."

The President said "the key going forward" is creating biofuels out of "switchgrass and wood chips and other materials that right now are considered waste materials."

The next part of the President's answer made loose sense, in terms of answering the child's question:

"And part of the reason that's important is because, as I think most farmers here know, particularly if you’re in livestock farming, right now the costs of feed keep on going up and the costs of food as a consequence are also going up," President Obama said. "Only about 4 percent of that is accounted for by corn being diverted into ethanol, but as you see more and more demand placed on our food supplies around the world -- as folks in China and folks in India start wanting to eat more meat and commodity prices start going up, it’s going to be important for us to figure out how can we make biofuels out of things that don’t involve our food chain."

Then came the real answer:

"Hopefully your grandfather, with his ethanol plant, is starting to work with our Department of Agriculture to find new approaches to the biofuel industry," President Obama said.

The President took eight other questions unrelated to agriculture, then hit the road in his big black bus for his next town hall, stopping off for a visit at a high school on the way.

The transcript of the President's remarks is here.

The video of the town hall:

*Photo by Pete Souza/White House

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