Agri-businesses weigh challenges, opportunities at Idaho Ag Summit
By DAVE WILKINS
BOISE -- High input costs, urban growth and anti-agriculture activists are some of the toughest challenges now facing farmers and ranchers, according to participants in the Idaho Ag Summit.
Representatives from the J.R. Simplot Co., Glanbia Foods, Agri Beef Co., Crookham Co., and The Amalgamated Sugar Co. shared both obstacles and opportunities during the event Feb. 14.
While higher commodity prices are great for farmers, many producers are also concerned about high input costs. Nowhere is that being felt more keenly than in the livestock sector, agri-business officials said.
Corn prices around $7 per bushel and premium hay prices of about $220 per ton are putting great pressure on dairy producers, said Jeff Williams, president and CEO of Glanbia Foods, a large cheese company that processes about a third of Idaho's total milk supply.
Banks are starting to get nervous about some of their dairy clients, and there are questions whether some of them will be able to stay in business, he said.
"There are a lot of folks living right on the edge right now," Williams said. "There are a lot of people in survival mode."
Federal policy that mandates increased use of alternative fuels, including corn-based ethanol, are "misdirected," he said.
The loss of farmland to development is a huge concern for many agri-businesses, said George Crookham, CEO of the Crookham Co., a seed company based in Caldwell, Idaho. Crookham is a member of the Coalition for Agriculture's Future, a group committed to preserving farmland in southwest Idaho.
The loss of good farm ground has permanent and negative consequences, he said.
"We're not opposed to responsible growth," Crookham said. "But when they build that residential community, that land isn't coming back to agriculture."
Participants in the summit said technology represents one of the greatest opportunities for agri-business, whether it's biotech crops or Internet-based commerce.
Five years ago, most consumers wouldn't have dreamed of buying clothing over the internet, but now such purchases are commonplace, observed Rick Stott, executive vice president of business development at Agri Beef Co., in Boise.
There's no reason to think that consumers will shy away from buying beef online, he said.
"We think the food sector is in the same place the clothing sector was in five years ago," Stott said.
Vic Jaro, president and CEO of The Amalgamated Sugar Co., said technological advances have allowed Idaho farmers to grow sugar beets with less cultivation, improved weed control and improved disease resistance.
Lawsuits that threaten to make biotech beet varieties illegal are the greatest challenge facing growers right now, he said.
Environmental and social activists pose a formidable challenge to modern agricultural production, said Betty Wolanyk, an industry advocate and former director of education and research for the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture.
More than 100 activist groups are focused on attacking U.S. agriculture, she said.
The top 21 groups together are spending more than $600 million annually to spread the message that large-scale agriculture abuses animals and poses health risks to humans, Wolanyk said.
"These groups are intentionally creating misinformation," she said. "Facts do not matter. All that matters to them is forwarding their message."