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Ag retailers feel on-farm income woes

Written by TF Staff on .

After an extended run of impressive financial performances, retailers are adjusting to a tougher economic environment accompanying the down-phase of the current ag commodity cycle, according to a new report from CoBank.

“The drop in farm income over the past three years is the steepest decrease since the Depression,” says Tanner Ehmke, CoBank senior economist covering, the grains, oilseeds and ethanol, and farm supply sectors. “Producer incomes have fallen more than 50 percent from 2013 to today and their debt-to-income ratio is on the rise. Not surprisingly, total accounts receivable for ag retailers posted an 11 percent gain for 2015, and that’s expected to grow in the year ahead due to ongoing farmer cash flow challenges.”

Meanwhile, seed and crop protection companies are experiencing a new wave of consolidation, creating ambiguity and insecurity about product offerings, prices and competition in the industry.

Furthermore, many ag retailers face rising operating expenses—including payrolls and benefits—and higher depreciation costs following years of infrastructure investment. While these upgrades were necessary, they now contribute to a drag on profits.

“On a positive note, it appears the drop in net farm income is slowing,” noted Ehmke. USDA projections for 2016 call for a 2 percent reduction in net farm income year-over-year, compared to 2015 when net farm income dropped 38 percent year-over-year and 2014 when it dropped 27 percent.

“When we do get through this cycle, those businesses that have been able to adapt stand to benefit from a significant payout on the other side,” Ehmke said.

Amendment #1 is good for agriculture

Written by Blake Hurst on .

Amendment #1 will appear on the November ballot here in Missouri, and voting for this important measure will help protect your farm from erosion and help fund Missouri Parks. Voting yes on Amendment #1 should feel as good for Missouri farmers as a hot shower after a day working outside during a Missouri summer. Think about it. By the time you get to Amendment #1 on the ballot, you’ll have listened to and watched months of negative advertising, seen a debate or two, worried about the economy and low farm prices and even, if you’re like me, wished that we picked some of our candidates by lottery instead of the way we do it. Heck, by the time you get to the bottom of the ballot and the end of the season, you’ll be ready for a shower to wash the grime of the long campaign season off. Then, you get a chance to vote to save Missouri soils and improve Missouri parks.

We get the opportunity to do this every 10 years, and voting yes means we’ll leave the polling place knowing that at least one vote we cast will make things better. That’s something that only happens once a decade, and it is a very good feeling.

When the measure was introduced in the early 1980s, Missouri led the nation in per-acre soil erosion. We’ve made more progress than any state and have cut erosion rates in half. We’ve saved hundreds of millions of tons of soil, protected Missouri lakes and streams, and improved the productivity of our farms. That’s a government program with measurable results, which is as rare as a summer with perfect weather.

The program works because we vote on it every 10 years, which means that we have to show results or voters will show their disapproval. The program works because it is primarily administered at the local level, where the people responsible for spending the money know what’s happening with the money they spend. (Half of the funds generated by the program, a one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax, go to the state parks system and half go to soil and water conservation programs.) The program works because farmers are responsible for cost share funds, meaning we have skin in the game. Farmers, like everyone else, spend their own money more carefully than they spend other people’s money. Finally, the program works because it is simple, with easily understood and measurable goals. Our park and soils program can and should serve as an example for public programs in every state.

As I’ve listed the reasons why the program works and talked about why I think you should vote yes, it occurs to me that I haven’t completely explained the reason why I’ll vote yes, which is much more personal, wrapped up in my memories of my grandfather. Charles T. Hurst was careful with a dollar. Once, in the 1980s, when we were removing a fence to repair a diversion terrace, I asked him how old the wire was. He admitted he didn’t know. You see, the wire was already used when he installed it in 1935. You may ask why we were saving the wire: Well-used wire is perfect for water gaps that might have to be replaced.

But Grandpa would spend money on saving soil. I can remember driving out to his tractor to take him home, well after dark, while he was building terraces on the first farm I rented. He was in his 80s, and my grandmother was saving supper and ready for him to come in. His pride as a farmer was to make the land better. I can do no less, and like most farmers in Missouri, have been able to do much more to improve my farm because of our parks and soils program.

As farmers, we’re under more scrutiny to be good stewards of the soil and water. For the first time ever, we’re being asked to meet conservation goals in order to qualify for crop insurance. Missouri farmers have a huge advantage in meeting those regulations because Missouri voters are our partner in soil conservation. As citizens, as farmers, as stewards of the land, we can continue this valuable partnership by voting yes on Amendment #1 on Nov. 8.

New corn disease confirmed in the United States

Written by TF Staff on .

A new disease, bacterial leaf streak, has made its way into corn crops throughout the heartland.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed the presence of the new disease on Aug. 26, 2016. According to its announcement, the bacteria that causes bacterial leaf streak disease is Xanthomonas vasicola pv. vasculorum. APHIS does not consider it to be of quarantine significance and will treat it as other bacterial diseases of corn such as Goss’s bacterial blight, said K-State plant pathologist Doug Jardine.

The disease is thought to have occurred on corn in South Africa, but it has been most notably associated with gumming disease of sugarcane. It is unclear how it made its way to the United States or how long it has been here. It was first observed in samples submitted to the University of Nebraska Plant and Pest Diagnostic Clinic in 2014, but a lack of historical information and the appropriate diagnostic methods delayed its identification until APHIS positively identified the bacteria from a sample collected in Nebraska in August 2016.

Bacterial leaf streak disease has now been identified in nine states including Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma, Jardine said. Missouri has returned no positive tests for the disease.

Infected corn leaves exhibit narrow tan to brown streaks that range from less than an inch to several inches long.

“To the untrained eye, the disease can look very similar to the common fungal foliar disease, gray leaf spot,” Jardine said. “One diagnostic key is that bacterial leaf streak has narrow, wavy-edged lesions compared to gray leaf spot, which has very sharp, straight-edged lesions that follow the veins in the leaf. Sometimes the lesions occur close to the midrib; in other cases, they occur across the leaf blade.”

It is not currently known how the disease has spread to so many states, Jardine said, but a current hypothesis is that it is seed-transmitted. Movement within a field or from field to field may be by the bacteria blowing in the wind created by thunderstorms. Unlike Goss’s blight, it does not appear that it needs a wound to aid it in getting into the plant. Disease management options are currently limited. Since it is a bacterial disease, fungicides are not effective.

Our robot future

Written by TF Staff on .

Driving in straight rows used to be a sign of skill on the farm. When the corn came up, it was a point of pride to have the straightest rows in the neighborhood. In the past two decades, that skill has become less important. Nowadays it’s more important to know how to download the latest software driver for the GPS gear to make the guidance system work. And that’s a skill set that looks to remain important in the coming years, because in the not-too-distant future, farmers might not climb onto their tractors to plant. The robot future is closer than you think.

At the 2016 Farm Progress Show, CNH Industrial announced its latest concept tractors, the Concept Case IH Magnum and New Holland T8 NHDrive Autonomous. The former needs no onboard fleshy pilot to do its work. The latter gives its human interface the nod by providing a cab so that farmers won’t feel completely useless and might be needed to handle less routine jobs such as road transport.

In either format, the company claims the machines can be seamlessly integrated into existing fleets. Aside from the driverless technology, they use a conventional engine, transmission, chassis and implement couplings. According to CNH Industrial, the process of operating either tractor begins with inputting field boundary maps into the system, and then using the integrated path planning software to plot the most efficient field paths for machines. Autonomous technology is most suited to jobs that make this possible, and which require minimal complex operator intervention, such as cultivation, planting, spraying and mowing. This system automatically accounts for implement widths and plots the most efficient paths when working with multiple machines, including those operating with different implement widths and with varying operating requirements. Manual path plotting can also be carried out for refueling or when custom paths are required.

Once path plotting has finished, the user can choose a job from a pre-programmed menu by selecting the vehicle, choosing the field and then setting the tractor out on its task.

Subsequently, the machine and implement can be monitored and controlled either via a desktop computer or via a portable tablet interface, which can both display three operating screens.

Both designs use LiDAR (range finding lasers) and video cameras to ensure obstacles or obstructions in the tractor’s path or that of the implement are detected and avoided. CNH Industrial has worked with Autonomous Solutions Incorporated, a Utah-based company to develop and refine this concept autonomous technology.

According to CNH Industrial’s crystal ball, the skills farmers will need in the future will be less about straight rows and more about the cash flow management needed to buy the best robot.

A farm-to-desk adventure

Written by Austin Black on .

Third-grade students across Missouri are learning about agriculture in a fun and exciting way. Agriculture Education on the Move (AEOTM) provides hands-on and interactive learning that highlights the importance of agriculture and farm families.

AEOTM began in 2011 through the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and the soy checkoff. The council saw a need for hands-on ag education and built a program that targeted elementary school classrooms. By 2015, the program represented all sectors of Missouri agriculture. To provide support for continued expansion, the MSMC partnered with Missouri Farmers Care. Today, the program is in over 100 schools across the state. More than 200,000 students and their families have experienced hands-on agriculture education.

“Ag Education on the Move is an excellent way to communicate with the next generation all the good things that farmers and ranchers are doing to make our lives better. With their leadership and passion for this information, and the difference that it makes regardless of whether you live in the city or on the farm, the AEOTM program is making a difference. Missouri Farmers Care is proud to have the AEOTM program as part of our toolbox to tell the real stories about modern day agriculture in Missouri,” said Dr. Alan Wessler, MFC Chairman.

AEOTM is a 10-week classroom program. Lessons cover row crop and livestock production, soil and water management and Ag careers. The goal is increasing the consumer’s general knowledge of agriculture production.

Trained educators visit third-grade classrooms for one hour each week. Many of them have a background in agriculture, and some have prior teaching experience. “We want to identify passionate educators, so they can act as a vehicle and ensure the existing quality resources are getting into the classroom and making an impact,” said Luella Gregory, AEOTM program director.

Students receive a handbook and educators use PowerPoint presentations and hands-on activities. The PowerPoint presentations have quizzes, photos and videos that cater to all types of learners. All lessons have a STEM component, using science, technology, engineering and math. State commodity groups provide the curriculum, so every school receives standardized material. “They worked hard to improve the text so it goes along with state standards,” said Buchanan County 3rd grade teacher Kimberly Weigel.

“Ag Education of the Move’s strength is in delivering components of our members’ effective agriculture education curriculum directly to students,” said Ashley McCarty, MFC Executive Director.

But the lessons go beyond science. “Not only do we focus on science, but we try to incorporate family farm characteristics and show the faces behind everyday products,” Gregory said. Educators stress the fact that farmers work 365 days each year.

“Even if [the students] don’t remember the details of the lesson, they remember the sacrifice made when livestock farmers wake up on Christmas morning and have to feed the animals first,” she said.

Education that excites

Since teaming up with MFC, AEOTM has seen rapid growth and interest. Most of it is due to teachers recommending the program to each other. “The program speaks for itself,” Gregory said. AEOTM offers its programs to schools free of charge, which is a large contributor to the organization’s growth. “Students love hands-on learning and teachers love the material,” Gregory said. “We want teachers to feel like this is an added program to enhance what they are currently doing, not a sacrifice of their time. Educators often comment that students are on the edge of their seat the whole hour,” she added.

Teachers tend to have a full workload keeping up with curricula and the art of teaching itself. Asking them to learn, incorporate and implement a curriculum on an unfamiliar subject is likely to fail.

The strategy with AEOTM is to provide the experts. That’s an aspect St. Joseph third grade teacher Bridget Wells appreciates. “It helps when the kids have an expert in the classroom, they believe them more than they believe me. It’s more exciting for them,” Wells said.
Students in Weigel’s class always ask when the educator is coming next. “The kids just love it and look forward to it. It’s a good way to get kids excited about science and math,” she said.

Wells has also learned a few things from watching the educators.

“They’re very well organized and knowledgeable. For me, it has benefited me by helping review what the kids learned about plants and lifecycles. The women teaching show me a different way to explain things in future years to come,” said Wells, whose favorite unit is the lesson on dairy production.

“I don’t think kids understand there are different types of cows. They are blown away learning that different cows have different uses,” Wells said. She likes getting to make ice cream in that lesson also.

In the 2015-2016 school year, AEOTM placed 26 educators in more than 100 classrooms across the state of Missouri.

But AEOTM isn’t planning to stop there. Gregory said they are working to increase activity in urban areas, including St. Louis, Springfield, Kirksville, Cape Girardeau and Columbia and the more densely populated counties that surround these cities. And, Gregory pointed out, students lack general agriculture knowledge even in rural school districts.

Last fall, AEOTM placed educators in schools throughout Kansas City.

Schools there offer different challenges, but the results are just as rewarding. Gregory said most of the students aren’t exposed to anything outside of their neighborhood. “These students have never seen a cow, corn stalk or soybean,” she said. There are more language barriers too, so educators have to use hands-on methods to teach.

As it expands, AEOTM is partnering with selected FFA chapters to find educators. FFA members in these chapters can apply to be an educator in their community. The program provides FFA members with interview training and classroom experience.

Hands-on learning

While implementing a successful classroom program, AEOTM expanded its efforts outside the school building. In the fall of 2014, AEOTM conducted Ag Day tours on local farms. These tours provided hands-on learning experience for students not involved in the classroom program. Schools treat the tours like a field trip, so teachers and parents also attend. The tour rotates through three or four stations, discussing topics related to the operation.

One of the Ag Day tours visited a beef farm where attendees took a hayride out to the pasture to see cattle. At another station, they learned about nutrition and saw the feed ingredients used on the farm.

Most tours occur upon request of local schools and feature farms in the immediate area. “Ag Day tours target students we might not otherwise have,” Gregory said. The tour offers networking opportunities as well, connecting teachers with the AEOTM program.

“Everybody loves it,” Gregory said. “A lot of teachers say sometimes they are limited when teaching science. They love the opportunity to expose science in a different way.”

For some kids, the Ag Day tours offer them the opportunity to see livestock in real life for the first time. “We all know what kind of impact an animal can have on kids,” Gregory said.

Last year, AEOTM conducted three tours in Columbia, St. Joseph and Cape Girardeau. Between 100-600 students attended each tour. This May, they plan to host an Ag Day tour in the Kansas City area.

Focus on teachers

In addition to students, AEOTM also focuses on educating the teachers. “In the fall of 2014 we started talking about building relationships with these teachers,” Gregory said. During the classroom sessions, the teacher often asks as many questions as the students. To provide support for teachers, AEOTM started conducting Teacher to the Farm tours.

The tours occur in the summer and showcase area agriculture businesses and farms. Teachers see agriculture production firsthand and get answers to their questions. “I think we have a lot of people with good intentions that want to know the facts,” Gregory said. During the tour, teachers are invited to tweet comments and share what they learned. Gregory said several teachers were impressed with the amount of technology used in farming. “It helps rebrand their idea of what farming is. That’s one of the biggest comments,” she said.

Last summer, Weigel attended one of the tours in Northwest Missouri. She visited Shatto Dairy in Osborn, Mo., and BioZyme, a feed supplement plant. “At the dairy, I learned about the process of how milk is produced from start to finish,” Weigel said. Her husband is a farmer, but they didn’t have much experience with running a dairy. “It gave me respect for that family. They had to keep that family farm going and restructure their business,” she said.

The BioZyme plant was a learning experience for Weigel. In addition to touring the plant, they visited the research farm to see how products were tested. “I learned how scientific it is and how much testing they have to put into the product before selling. Stuff that consumers don’t think about,” she said.

Each tour hosts 25-30 teachers. Last summer, AEOTM conducted its first three tours in the Columbia and St. Joseph areas. Three were planned for summer 2016: St. Joseph, Washington and Cape Girardeau. Gregory said they intend to conduct a tour in every region of the state each year.

AEOTM is always seeking help. Gregory said they continually search out new schools and educators interested in volunteering. For more information or to get involved with AEOTM, visit www.agmoves.com. Click on the About page for contact information.

What teachers have to say

Teachers who participate in AEOTM programs love the results. Here are some testimonies that highlight benefits of the program.

“Ag Education on the Move educators make learning fun and exciting for students.” –Erin Caldwell, Alpha Hart Elementary, Columbia

“No other classroom program we have participated in has engaged the kids like this has.” –Jerrone Willoughby, Parkway Elementary, St. Joseph

“The Teacher to the Farm tour was so much more than I expected!” –Diana Deatherage, St. Joseph School District

“In 2015, Whittier Elementary was designated as a Lighthouse School, to facilitate science, technology, engineering and mathematics within its diverse student body. The hands-on activities are perfect to get the kids to apply what they are learning.” –Luis Hinojose, Whittier Elementary Principal, Kansas City

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