Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they say. And, right now, the wheels of federal farm programs are running smoothly, which may not bode well for the farm bill and agricultural funding amid the tight budget situation.

“The budget situation is only going to get worse,” said Joe Shultz, senior economist for the U.S. Senate Committee of Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry, to attendees at the Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium back in mid-December. “There are going to be some real challenges as agriculture programs are targeted for cuts.”

As commodity prices have risen, input prices have followed. Farmers have enjoyed profitability in these times of high prices, but a drop in commodity prices could mean huge losses for every sector of agriculture due to the higher level of costs associated with production. The success of the current farm bill, along with crop insurance, provides protection for farm businesses in the case of plummeting prices or weather disasters.

“I see highly volatile prices in the markets. Folks that don’t understand agriculture don’t understand this risk,” Shultz said. “We know there will come a time when prices will dip and we’ll have lower prices with continued high input prices.”

In the current good times for agriculture, farm policy has proven its efficacy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced that, during the current strong farm economy, government payments have dropped significantly -- the farm bill is doing what it is supposed to do. The amount paid directly to agricultural producers is expected to total $10.6 billion in 2011, a 14.4% decrease from the estimate of $12.4 billion paid out in 2010. If the estimates are correct, this would be the lowest amount paid to producers since 1997.

The largest decreases in payments are expected in disaster relief payments and Average Crop Election Program (ACRE) payments. This good news for taxpayers and the budget is a very timely announcement in terms of the farm bill debates, but the political wave from this announcement may not be much more than a ripple in Washington’s sea of budgetary woes.

“This is how the programs are supposed to work, they pay when farmers need help. They don’t pay when they don’t,” said Adam Sharp, with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “It should matter, but likely won’t matter much politically.”

Instead, agriculture is probably facing a disproportionate share of federal budget cuts because things are going well for agriculture right now. Such funding cuts could weaken the success of these programs and the safety net for producers that may be more important than ever with the high risk, high volatility months and years ahead.

In addition, as more scrutiny is being placed on environmental concerns, water quality and land use issues, the conservation programs included in the farm bill will also take on increased importance. In Ohio there are ample headlines about Grand Lake St. Marys and Lake Erie. Improvements in these and other watersheds depend upon the implementation of state and federal conservation programs through the farm bill.

With this in mind, all of agriculture needs to encourage Congress to move forward with cuts that are equitable for agriculture in what will become an increasingly challenging farm bill amid the budget crunch.

“You need to tell members of Congress that we need to move forward right now because we all risk losing if we can’t move forward together,” Shultz said. “We are at a pivotal moment in farm policy right now. We are seeing a shift towards risk management and that means the work is hard.”

And that may mean that the wheels of agriculture need to start squeaking a bit louder.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

It really is not a secret that Americans (and Ohioans) are overweight. Any trip to the mall, visit to a restaurant or trip to the movies shows that, in general, there are ample expanding waistlines around us.

While there are many factors that played a role in this, there have also been many proposed solutions to America’s weight problem. A year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a proposed rule to update the nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The proposed changes to school meal standards add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals. Schools would also be required to limit the levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories, and trans fats in meals. The Ohio Small Grains Marketing Program (OSGMP) decided to take things one-step further than food mandates by working with education consultants to change students’ behaviors and attitudes about their food choices.

“Rather than us writing a curriculum and handing it to them hoping that they would do something with it, we brought a team of teachers together from Mt. Gilead, which was the first school we approached,” said Carol Warkentien, one of the OSGMP education consultants. “We laid out some of the challenges we would be facing if we wanted to bring kids along with this notion.”

The initial meeting led to a decision to consult the students themselves on the best ways to shape their attitudes and behaviors about their foods. Soon, the Mt. Gilead FFA was working to change attitudes about food in the school. The FFA students started by making a video in the school cafeteria.

“The students did a video in their own high school lunchroom and asked other students what they thought about their healthy lunch. Of course there was some hilarity in the interviews, but there is also an awareness of some of the gaps in student knowledge of and understanding about their food,” said Jeanne Gogolski, another OSGMP education consultant working on the project. “One of the prime athletes at the school ate an entire pack of Oreo cookies for lunch. Naturally that produces some conversation about what it takes to have a healthy lunch.”

As a follow up to the video, the Mt. Gilead health class posted some nutrition information in the lunchroom listing the calories in some of the lunch food. The school also had a whole grains taste test event where students rated whole grain snacks and chose their favorites to include on the school menu to help reach the USDA requirements.

The Mt. Gilead FFA students also used their cafeteria video at some events to generate interest from other FFA chapters in their “Food for Thought Challenge.” For the student-created challenge, the OSGMP gave out $500 scholarships to nine Ohio FFA chapters (including Mt. Gilead) to help them develop a nutritional awareness campaign about healthy food choices for their fellow students.

Each participating chapter will make a presentation at the Ohio FFA Convention next May and the winning chapter will receive $2,000 from the OSGMP. Participating FFA chapters submitted campaign entries in September and were selected in October based on the originality of their campaign ideas.

The participating Food for Thought FFA chapters have already begun implementing their campaigns, which include promoting the use of student food logs, organizing educational fairs with health-related groups and providing healthy snacks between classes. Along with Mt. Gilead, the participating FFA Chapters are: Ridgemont, Northwestern, Clear Fork, London, Miami East, Ridgedale, North Union, and Twin Valley South.

“The schools’ progress will be monitored throughout the year as they launch a program in the school. The winner that can best show that they changed attitudes and behaviors in their district will win the award,” Warkentien said. “We think interest will be even higher next year. It is kind of fun and it has gotten kids working within their own districts and they are reaching out to younger kids in the district as well. Kids can be very innovative and creative and they are going to come up with a lot of ideas that can be shared around the state.”

The nutritional possibilities are limited only by the expanding imaginations of FFA students around the state — and imaginations are much more beneficial to expand than waistlines.