The future of agriculture

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

 Farmers
Verslues outlines future challenges for producers and MFA

Ernie Verslues has been president and CEO of MFA Incorporated since 2015. He has 29 years of cooperative business experience at MFA, including stints as a regional manager and chief financial officer. MFA Incorporated provides products, services and professional advice to 45,000 farmers and ranchers in five states. Verslues was raised on a dairy farm near Taos, Mo.

1. What significant issues does MFA face?
No. 1 is the farm economy. Given today’s commodity prices and input costs, it’s a tough time for producers, and that impacts agribusiness. MFA’s success will always be tied to the success of our member-owners. Next, our success is tied to the strength of our workforce. MFA employees are talented and passionate, but it’s becoming more challenging to fill some key positions—particularly drivers and applicators. Thirdly, regulations continue to add costs to our operations that can’t be recouped.

2. Is MFA changing to meet the needs of farmers?
MFA offers robust precision farming and livestock programs and a strong farm supply and grain marketing presence. We continue to push boundaries as new technology becomes available. Our precision team has experience with the equipment and data analysis it takes to make variable-rate planting a reality. While that’s not widely adopted in our trade territory yet, we know the technology’s value. We have also seen substantial growth in pasture and hay acres enrolled in precision programs. For livestock producers, PowerCalf is a new approach to herd management that uses data collection and processing to improve production. We recently announced a new component in our Health Track program that includes genetic information to give buyers even more confidence in the potential of calves in the program. MFA Shield Technology delivers health benefits to livestock without needing a Veterinary Feed Directive. We are leaders in this technology.

3. Why does MFA continue to thrive?
All of our services came about because of a need in the marketplace. MFA was formed more than 100 years ago to fill a void. Our longevity can be attributed to a commitment to change, and change will keep occurring at a faster pace. Every day, employees throughout MFA anticipate the next challenges and opportunities facing our member-owners. We will continue to innovate and focus on increasing our market share in the areas we serve, evaluating costs and becoming more efficient.

4. How important are cooperatives like MFA?
One of the principles of a cooperative is to provide economic benefit to member owners. You won’t always see this in our day-to-day transactions, but cooperatives provide a competitive environment for producers. We provide rural jobs, distribute earnings to members and invest in local communities. To remain strong, we must stay in touch with member-owners to maintain interest in local operations and cooperative governance.

5. What do you see for agriculture under President Trump?
I believe the outlook is positive, but time will tell. Despite his limited background in agriculture, the President filled the Secretary of Agriculture and the EPA Administrator positions with business- and agriculture-friendly individuals. Both bring experience and common sense to their roles. However, producers remain concerned about the next farm bill, renewable fuel standards, crop insurance and trade policies.

6. What’s your financial forecast for U.S. producers?
Most producers entered this downturn in fairly good financial shape, but the last few years ate into working capital and equity. As with any business, those who manage costs stand the best chance of success. Can the producer increase production, spread costs over more acres and animals, postpone equipment purchases, walk away from excessive cash rents or find other ways to increase efficiencies? These are tough strategic decisions. If this environment continues, creditors will force decisions. It’s an especially difficult time for young farmers and ranchers to get started.

7. How can we turn things around?
Cycles aren’t new to agriculture, and the farm economy will improve. But don’t expect the good times experienced from 2010 to 2014 to return. We continue to increase U.S. production, and growth in usage must come from trade. China may become a new market for beef, but we need to move our carryover of corn, beans and wheat.

8. Can we build support for agriculture?  
Many organizations do a good job of advocating for agriculture, and MFA is one of them. But nothing is more powerful than a producer discussing his or her farming practices and stewardship commitment with the public. Consumers want to know more about food, and their biggest concerns include GMOs, antibiotics and animal welfare. Without more help from producers, we can’t combat the negativity put forward by activists and environmental groups. Agricultural producers make up less than 2 percent of the population; we’ve got to educate the other 98 percent.

9. What’s your dream for the future?
For farmers to be able to continue doing what they love to do—to grow safe, healthy and affordable food. As an industry, we are forced to spend too much time addressing issues that distract us from that and add unnecessary costs to our operations. One day I hope regulators, activists and social media critics understand the value we provide in production agriculture—we are true stewards of the land, air and water.

Consumers  
Fleck and CFI strive to earn consumer trust

The Center for Food Integrity celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and Terry Fleck has been executive director from the beginning. This not-for-profit organization, based in Gladstone, Mo., helps the food industry earn trust by engaging with the public to provide balanced, credible information on how food is produced. The center is supported by farmers, farm organizations and food companies. Previously, Fleck was with the Indiana Pork Producers Council and the U.S. Grains Council.

1. What’s the focus at the Center for Food Integrity? 
The public is more interested than ever before in how food is produced, who’s producing it, what’s in it and how it impacts health. Skepticism is prevalent, particularly with biotechnology. Our goal is to earn trust.

2. Has consumer trust declined?
CFI research shows that most consumers like and trust farmers, but they don’t trust “big ag.” The perception is that “big ag” and “big food” will put profit ahead of public interest. The latest survey shows that 80 percent have a strong desire to learn more about how food is produced. It’s a golden opportunity for the agriculture community to commit to long-term public engagement. We must demonstrate that while farming has changed, values regarding high standards in animal care, food production and environmental stewardship remain strong.    

3. When did trust levels begin to fall?
When Roundup Ready seed and other biotechnology breakthroughs were introduced in the 1990s, scientific studies and regulatory bodies concluded they were safe. Engaging the public wasn’t given much consideration. This unintentional lack of transparency eroded trust in biotech and the food system.

4. What are you doing to build trust?
The CFI trust model demonstrates that communicating shared values is three-to-five times more important to building trust than simply sharing facts and science. The public wants to know that you’re doing the right things for the right reasons. Here’s how we can help:

  • In our 2017 consumer research, set for release this fall, we uncover perceptions toward information coming from governments, non-profits, traditional media and consumers’ personal tribes as it pertains food. This will help us evaluate to what extent consumers look to reaffirm existing beliefs and how to best engage to earn their trust.
  • Our “Engage” in-person training program equips participants with tools to engage with the public using the power of shared values in one-on-one conversations, online and in media interviews. That same curriculum is now offered through “Engage Online,” our self-paced training program.
  • We also form coalitions on important food topics including the Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing and the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply.

5. What’s your dream for consumer and producer relations?
Agriculture’s goal should be to embrace authentic transparency. We can’t assume that the public knows we prioritize safety and care about health, animal well-being and the environment. Consumers want details so they can decide for themselves. To learn more, visit www.foodintegrity.org.

 Rural communities
Chinn wants to do MORE for agriculture

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens appointed Chris Chinn as Director of Agriculture in January. A fifth-generation Missouri farmer, Chinn has served on the boards of the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Pork Association and participated in Agriculture Leaders of Tomorrow. She is a long-time advocate of agriculture through social media and public speaking.

1. What’s your focus as Director of Agriculture?
In May, we rolled out our vision for the Department of Agriculture—MORE—which is about enhancing the quality of life in rural Missouri and building on the proud tradition of our farmers and ranchers. The focus is on four pillars: feed MORE, reach MORE, connect MORE and empower MORE.  

2. What other ideas will you advocate?
Rural communities depend on farmers and ranchers as much as farmers and ranchers depend on rural communities. Right now, rural areas have a competitive disadvantage when it comes to business development, healthcare, education and farming techniques because of a lack of high-speed internet. The Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Progress Report reveals that 20 percent of all Missourians don’t have access to high-speed internet. I will bring the right people together to ensure that broadband access is available every last mile.

3.  How will the department change under your leadership?  
As we launch the MORE vision, we have asked department employees what they think we can do better. We’ll use that feedback and other observations to determine how we can better serve the state’s 99,000 farmers and ranchers. We’ll also encourage feedback on rules in the Code of State Regulations.

4. What do you foresee for departmental regulations?
Gov. Greitens understands that agriculture is an area of strength for Missouri, and he wants to empower farmers and ranchers to do what they do best—raise quality food. He is taking aim at reducing the amount of burdensome and unnecessary rules. Via executive order, he halted the addition of any new rules between Jan. 10 and Feb. 28, 2017, and called for a thorough review of every state agency rule.

5. What can you do to build support for agriculture?
One of the main pillars of MORE is reach MORE. Everyone in the world eats and we as farmers need to connect with consumers. I will continue to be a strong advocate for sharing the farm story through social media and traditional media.  

6. Will agriculture continue as a bright spot in terms of trade? 
In my role as director, I talk with farmers and ranchers as well as consumers about the importance of trade. Missouri agriculture is extremely diverse. From corn and soybeans in the north and cotton and rice in the south, our producers need markets to sell their goods. The department’s marketing staff works every day to help farmers identify and secure new markets.

7. How can you enhance success for tomorrow’s farmers?
I’m passionate about making rural Missouri a place where our children and grandchildren can thrive. My goal is to ensure that my children, Rachelle and Conner, have an opportunity to live in a community with same amenities I had when I moved back.

Youth 
FFA leader Aaron Mott preps for a future in agriculture

Aaron Mott, 18, is vice president of Missouri FFA. He graduated from David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo., in May 2017 and is studying agricultural education and leadership at the University of Missouri. He hopes to work for a genetics company and raise sheep and cattle. His dad, Jason Mott, is corporate credit manager at MFA Incorporated and his mom, Becky, works for University of Missouri Extension. He partners with his brother, Andy, to raise registered Polled Herefords.

1. Why do you want a career in agriculture?  
I’ve known I would enter this field since I was 4, when I wanted to be a cowboy. Grandpa Mott ran a slaughterhouse in western Missouri, and Grandpa Ridder raises registered Polled Herefords on the east side of the state. I want to make a difference for someone, just like my family influenced me. Feeding people is a huge responsibility, and farmers don’t take it lightly. While we love and care for our animals, we also understand why they are on the earth. It is a job that we love, one that is often not the most recognized or held in the highest regard, but it’s vital.

2. Has your FFA experience prepared you for the future?
FFA developed my leadership skills and brought me out of my shy stage. I gained skills in public speaking, livestock evaluation, animal science, veterinary science and real-life experience.

3. You raised sheep for your FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience. Why sheep?
I own 15 Hampshire sheep, a dual-purpose breed raised for meat and wool. I sell lambs to kids who want to show them at the county fair. I purchased ewes from my great-uncle, Dean, and great-grandad, Houghton, several years ago. My great-uncle, Tom, started the flock in the 1950s as his FFA project, and that heritage is special to me. Sheep have the highest profit margins of any major livestock species and thrive on rougher ground. Through my project, we learned we could companion-graze sheep with our cattle. As farmland availability decreases, companion grazing may be an alternative for producers to consider. 

4.  How will your part-time jobs in the university genetic engineering lab and at a veterinary clinic impact your future?  
Working at the vet clinic helps me learn more about how to care for my own livestock. My experience has already helped me catch early signs of illness, treat it, and prevent a bigger problem. I’m excited about genetic engineering because it solves problems for producers while helping to end world hunger.

5. Can we bridge the gap between farmers and consumers?
Consumer distrust comes from a lack of understanding. Many people in the U.S. are four generations removed from the farm. Agriculture Days at Hickman High School is one of my favorite events. Students who aren’t familiar with animals come face-to-face with a cow, pig or goat. For some of these students, I may be the only livestock producer they’ve ever talked with. Real-life, hands-on experiences can make a difference for consumers.

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