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Pipe dreams

For the past 150 years, the Missouri Meerschaum Company has manufactured pipes fit for authors and artists, presidents and generals. Among those of note are American novelist Mark Twain, famed illustrator Norman Rockwell, President Herbert Hoover and General Douglas MacArthur.

Corn cob pipes were emblematic of the times. Men smoked them in drawing rooms and women adorned their hats with them. Rockwell depicted soldiers, businessmen and sailors with a corn cob pipe in many of his works created for the Saturday Evening Post. Through the generations, the corn cob pipe was an affordable option for the everyman.

“It’s one of the reasons for their popularity,” said Phil Morgan, general manager of Missouri Meerschaum, which has been anchored in downtown Washington, Mo., since 1869.

The company’s storied history is another.

“This company is old,” Marketing Director Dan Nemets said. “It will be 150 years old in 2019. And we’ve been continuously operating out of this building in this space for 135 years exclusively making corn cob pipes. That’s a rarity within itself.”

Famous foundings

As the story goes, a local farmer whittled a pipe from a corn cob in 1869, and he liked it so much he asked Henry Tibbe, a Dutch immigrant woodworker, to make one for him on his lathe. The farmer was happy with the result, so Tibbe started selling the pipes in his woodworking shop.

From there, the Tibbe family began to build a corn cob empire. At 5 cents each, the pipes were accessible.

“The Tibbe family didn’t invent the corn cob pipe,” Nemets said, “but they did commercialize it. They would send out Anton Tibbe, Henry’s son, as an agent on behalf of the company and maybe adver­tise occasionally in trade journals. That’s basically all they could do.”

The Missouri Meershaum’s showroom, store and museum are housed in the same building as the factory. Inside the showroom, Nemets points to two massive wooden panels embellished with hun­dreds, if not thousands, of pipes, hanging above a glass case.

“Anton would send these panels off to exhibition, as they called them back then,” Nemets said. “We now know those exhibitions to be the world’s fair. These are the only ones we ever got back. Anton is also responsible for bringing running water, electricity and the first telephone to Washington.”

By 1925, more corn cob pipe shops sprang up in Franklin County, but the first and largest, the Missouri Meerschaum Company, is the only one left. Remnant stems and bowls of previous competitors are stored on part of the third floor of the company’s expansive building.

Currently, Missouri Meerschaum pro­duces roughly 600,000 to 700,000 pipes a year with 33 employees constructing approximately 3,000 pipes per day.

“In what I call the pipe-smoking heyday, in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and even into the ’50s, we had 125 employees and were shipping 25 million pipes per year,” Morgan said.

This type of pipe is so named because traditionally it was coated in “meer­schaum,” a white clay-like substance native to the country of Turkey. Often ornately carved, an original meerschaum pipe typi­cally costs between $200 to $300.

The Missouri Meerschaum Company mimics that look by using Henry Tibbe’s patented process, even though his patent expired long ago. A nice solid cob, lathe and plaster of Paris achieve an appearance similar to the high-end meerschaum.

“Henry Tibbe liked the look of the traditional meerschaum pipe and believed the corn cob to smoke cooler than a wood pipe, much like the original,” Morgan said. “So he got with friend who was a local pharmacist and chemist. They devised the plaster of Paris method. In 1907, the company was renamed from H. Tibbe & Son Co. to the Missouri Meerschaum Pipe Company.”

Forgotten Formula

Corn cobs produced by farmers today ar­en’t suited for pipes, but in the 1800s, field corn was much different, Morgan said.

“At that time, field corn was bigger,” he said. “The kernels were smaller, but the cobs were great for pipes. When Tibbe started, he would just buy the corn from local farmers.”

A century of hybridization, however, created corn with larger kernels and smaller cobs. In the 1950s, the Otto family, who purchased the com­pany from the Tibbes, started working with the University of Missouri to develop a corn hybrid with a bigger cob.

“We have two families to primarily thank for the success of the company,” Nemets said. “The Tibbe family for developing many of the man­ufacturing processes, and the Otto family for cultivating the corn hybrid with the university.”

To make pipes, the cob needs to be at least an inch and a half in diameter. On the cob, the corn kernels are nearly white.

“The white corn produces a cob that is denser,” Morgan said. “The middle is known as the pith, and that gets drilled out, but it’s the woody ring around it we really care about. Once the cob dries out, that ring becomes literally as hard as wood, and that’s why we can make a pipe out of it.”

Missouri Meerschaum’s seed comes from four heritage corn varieties, Morgan added.

“They cross two, cross the other two, and then cross those,” he explained.

About 10 years ago, the company nearly lost this recipe when two of the varieties were inadvertently left out of the breeding process for several years.

“We had some bad years,” said Christina Lehr, finishing room supervisor, a 26-year em­ployee. She and her husband, Dave, both work for the com­pany. “Some of the cobs were small or soft and odd shaped and we weren’t sure why.”

Fortunately, a professor who worked on the project in the ’50s wrote a chapter called “Pipe Corn” in one of his books charting the hybrids.

“That’s how we found out what was wrong with our hybrid,” Morgan said. “At that time, we had to go back to the university and ask them if they still had any of the miss­ing seeds. Luckily they did, but we basically had to start from scratch.”

CRD Advisors, an Iowa-based company that special­izes in maize product devel­opment and breeding, now maintains the Missouri Meer­schaum’s hybrid seed. It’s an exceptional task, growing corn from 50-plus years ago with what amounted to a handful of seeds, but CRD Advisors was able to do it.

“That saved us,” Lehr said.

Pipe production

Because the pipe company could no longer buy corn directly from farmers, it needed to grow its own. For a while, Missouri Meerschaum con­tracted with farmers to grow the specialty corn, but in the 1980s, current owners Michael Lecht­enberg, Robert Moore and Larry Horton decided to purchase acreage next to the nearby Missouri River. The company owns 150 acres and rents land from local farmers to adhere to standard rotation practices. MFA affiliate Cooperative As­sociation No. 2 in Washington fertilizes the corn fields for the pipe company.

Using New Idea pickers from the late 1980s and early ’90s, field supervisor Dave Lehr and employee Rex Miller harvested 270 acres of corn in 2017.

“This year we’re harvesting 170 acres, and we’re hoping we’ll have enough that we can rotate everything back into soybeans next year,” Morgan said.

Once harvested, the corn goes to a corn crib outside of town where it is stored until it is shelled. To remove the kernels without damaging the cob, employees use a converted walnut huller combined with parts from another old picker. What they shell amounts to about 1,500 bushels of grain per month.

“This is probably the only one in the world be­cause we invented it ourselves,” Dave Lehr said. “We’ve manipulated the cage of this old black walnut sheller, replacing the tire straps with chains. With this, we’re able to separate the cob from the grain, and then we’ll sell the grain. It’s not the fastest process, but it’s our process.”

The company has plans to modernize the pro­cess by adding a stationary combine.

“We’ll have to manipulate that a little bit, too, by removing the chopper and spreader, opening up the throat and adding a couple hoppers,” Lehr said.

From the corn crib, the cobs are moved to the main factory and stored on the third floor to harden. There, cobs piled more than halfway to the ceiling will cure for at least two years. Below is the rumble of machinery that has been ser­viced and rebuilt through the decades. There’s no replacing the custom tools specifically engineered for this job.

“So much of what we do is the way we did it years ago,” Morgan said.

Once dried and hardened, the cobs travel to the second floor down an elevator installed in the 1890s. Next, they are cut into two-inch sections by a piece of machinery Morgan calls a “gang saw”—a machine of their own design that uses four saw blades to cut the cob into the desired length.

“A lot of the machines we have are ones we made,” Morgan said. “This isn’t a machine you can just go buy somewhere. We have to put it together, so that means it has to be tweaked every once and awhile.”

For larger pipes, cobs are sawed at each end and hand-turned on a lathe.

“It seems like there’s more demand for some of the larger pipes right now,” Phil said. “What style we make at any given time all just depends on the cob and our demand for a particular product.”

After the cob is sectioned, the bowl is bored, and the pipe is sanded and smoothed. The pipe may then be finished with plaster of Paris and set aside to dry.

A stem hole is drilled and the top and bottom of the bowl are ground until level. The stems are adhered, and the pipe may receive an additional coat of lacquer. In the final steps, filters are insert­ed, mouthpieces are attached, and the pipes are packaged for sale.

Boxes wait to be shipped next to the building’s loadout dock. Their destinations are handwrit­ten in permanent marker—Spain, Russia, Czech Republic, Italy and Denmark.

“We sell all over the world to about 70 different countries,” Morgan said. “I would say about 30 percent of what we make is exported. We have wholesale items we sell to distributors and both physical and online retailers. Since we’re still relatively small, we try to market everywhere we can.”

Competition for the corn cob pipe

While the Missouri Meerschaum Company was once the world’s only manufacturer of corn cob pipes, China has recently entered the market­place.

“Several years ago, a delegation from China came for a tour to see how we do things,” Morgan said. “Now they make pipes, but it’s our corn that makes the pipe, and it doesn’t grow the same there.”

To reproduce the pipe’s quality, the seed profile and environment would need to be replicated exactly. While the Chinese pipes have popped up in the United States, the Missouri Meerschaum Company has always been known for quality and affordability.

“I think the neat thing is our pipes cost $12 on average,” Nemets said. “A lot of our customers appreciate the fact that all of our pipes are grown and sourced here.”

Over a century later

Back in the museum, Nemets reaches for the “MacArthur Natural Straight Corn Cob Pipe.” Above the display is a photo of the famed general looking off camera, with a large corn cob pipe hanging from his lips.

“MacArthur actually came to us to have this pipe made,” Dan commented. “There’s a story about him going ashore in the Philippines during WWII with a corn cob pipe in his mouth.”

Customers mill about the small shop examining both the products and the history. Two college-age students come in to purchase a pipe for one of their fathers. A local man stopped in because he’d never been before. Another couple marvel over the Tibbe family’s accomplishments while passing through on a long weekend.

It’s the history that attracts both employees and customers to the company, Morgan said.

“I attribute the longevity and success of the company to the uniqueness of the product and the dedication of the people who have worked here,” he said. “We were the first to commercialize the corn cob pipe and for all intents and purposes, we’re the last. Through the years, people have come and gone, but there have always been those who want to keep it operating—people who view it not just as a job but as dedication to a prod­uct that has now superseded any one person’s lifetime.”

The Missouri Meerschaum is located at 400 West Front Street in Washington, Mo. For more infor­mation, visit its website at corncobpipe.com.

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Borders in order

Nearly 20 years of yield-monitor maps have helped David McCutchan pinpoint places to potentially increase production on his northeast Missouri farm.

That same data has also helped him determine what acreage to take out of production and put to work for wildlife instead.

He’s not alone. The challenging agriculture economy coupled with the availability of government cost-share programs have increased interest in conservation practices such as field borders, buffer strips and habitat plots that help make farms more profitable while also improving the land for wildlife.

“Farm productivity is getting to be less about total bushels produced and more about the efficiency of producing them,” said Matt Hill, MFA Incorporated precision agronomy manager. “If growers can identify unproductive acres and reduce the cost of inputs, that could help increase the overall profitability of the entire farm. What’s more, there’s opportunity to not just fallow those acres but to install conservation practices that could provide cost-share funds and increase the return on investment.”

The desire to boost quail populations on his Lewis County farm prompted McCutchan to establish some 20 acres of wildlife-friendly field borders along the edges of his corn and soybean fields. He used his yield maps to determine some of the least-productive areas and enrolled them in the CP33 “Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds” program, administered by the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

The program provides cost-share funds to help establish the buffers, which must be 30 to 120 feet wide. McCutchan planted a quail-conducive mixture of warm-season grasses, legumes and forbs. There’s also a per-acre annual payment for the span of his 10-year contract.

“With this program, there’s income, and then there’s wildlife,” McCutchan said. “First of all, I’m not losing money on those field edges because the inputs, by far, cost more than what they return. With the cost-share, we’re not spending a lot money to get the plots established, and then you get paid throughout the contract. And I like to quail hunt, so that’s a bonus.”

An active member of the Ten Rivers Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever chapter, McCutchan said quail numbers have dwindled over the past 10 to 15 years, mainly due to habitat loss. Buffers around field edges benefit the birds by providing food, nesting habitat and protection from predators and harsh weather. Edge feathering of nearby trees and shrub plantings also enhance the habitat.

“In my lifetime, the quail population has definitely declined,” McCutchan said. “I graduated from high school in 1986, and back then you could go out after school and kill your limit of quail—if you had a good dog and could shoot. Hunting is a lot more work now. A lot has changed, and it takes time to correct some of the things we’ve done.”

The 51-year-old producer, who raises 4,000 acres of row crops with his son, Cole, near Monticello, Mo., said he believes conservation efforts are making difference both on his farm and throughout the Midwest.

“People have been talking more and more about seeing pairs of quail and coveys in this area and even north of us,” McCutchan said, standing in a 30-foot wide buffer planted last April on one of his rented farms. “There was only one small covey here before, but I’m pretty sure there are two pretty good-size coveys now. Once this cover comes in good, it should help them a bunch.”

McCutchan participates in MFA’s Nutri-Track precision program and said the “yield by soil type” reports he receives are especially helpful in showing current or prospective landlords what they can expect from his production and conservation practices. Most of his buffers are placed in fields he rents from absentee landowners who expect income from their renter but also enjoy seeing more wildlife on their property.

“I act as the go-between with Missouri Department of Conservation and the landowners to introduce them to the practice,” McCutchan said. “The cost-share is a good incentive to do it. They still get paid, I don’t lose money farming against the trees, and it makes it easier for them to hunt.”

Benefits beyond wildlife

In addition to working for wildlife, conservation practices such as habitat buffers and field borders also help control erosion and runoff. Steve Jackson has experienced those benefits on his farm near Cardwell in Missouri’s Bootheel, where he raises 1,250 acres of row crops in furrow-irrigated fields. Jackson has exclusively used no-till practices since 1996 to help keep the farm’s sandy soil in place. He mainly grew cotton until about six years ago, when low prices and disease pressure prompted him to switch to corn and soybeans.

Over the past four years, he has added cover crops on all his acreage with cost-share assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). To benefit wildlife, he also has established several miles of field borders through the CSP and CRP.

Though the environmental benefits are undeniable, he has more personal reasons to improve wildlife habitat on his farm.

“I grew up quail hunting with an English setter named Jake,” Jackson said. “Now, I have a grandson named Jake, and I want to take him on a good quail hunt before I die. He’s 9, so I need to get things going!”

Jackson worked with Missouri Department of Conservation planners to help choose the programs and locations that would work best on his farm. Like McCutchan, the southeast Missouri farmer said he looked for unproductive areas—adjacent to woods or fencerows or in wet spots—to improve with wildlife habitat.

His efforts seem to be paying off, Jackson said. He saw several good coveys on his farm last year.

“These programs will help you pay for it, so why not do it?” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, if I can break even, and see more quail, then it’s worth it.”

Perfect partnerships

For wildlife conservation to succeed, such partnerships with private landowners are critical, said Wes Buchheit, farm bill wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever.

“If we really want to have impact, it’s going to be on private land,” he said. “Where producers and landowners are creating habitat, we’re seeing response in the quail population and in other wildlife such as deer and turkey.”

While precision technology isn’t required to implement these conservation practices, data from yield monitors and grid sampling can give producers some added assurance, Buchheit said.

“Whenever you have data to help make those decisions, you can truly see the dollar signs and how things will weigh out,” he said. “You’ll benefit from having habitat in those poor-performing areas, and you can concentrate more on the productive acres with your farming operation. It makes the whole landscape more usable for wildlife. It’s win-win.”

MFA precision specialists can help producers interpret yield data and soil maps to identify areas that might be better suited for conservation than crops, MFA’s Matt Hill said. MFA will also have a natural resources conservation specialist on staff to serve as a liaison to the agencies that administer these programs. Hill formerly served in that role until becoming precision agronomy manager in October, and a replacement for the position will be hired soon.

“We can help point producers to programs and partnering agencies that fit their situation,” Hill explained. “And for those who participate in our Crop-Trak program, their consultant can be a real resource to identify places where conservation practices would work well.”

Although the CRP sign-ups are at a standstill right now in the absence of a new farm bill, farmers and landowners can enroll in other conservation programs to improve wildlife habitat in low-production areas. For example, Missouri Department of Conservation private land conservationists listed these as some of NRCS’s most popular practices:
•    Access Control
•    Forage and Biomass Planting
•    Conservation Cover
•    Contour Buffer Strips
•    Critical Area Planting
•    Field Border
•    Riparian Forest Buffer
•    Riparian Herbaceous Cover

“Farmers are looking for ways to make the most out of tight margins, and these may be opportunities to help make their acres more profitable,” Hill said. “Instead of continuing to pour input costs into them with little or no return, there’s a return on investment every year. Wildlife value may not drive your decisions, but it’s a great ancillary benefit that you can enjoy.”

For more information, contact your local MFA crop consultant, MDC private land conservationist, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever biologist or conservation experts at your FSA or NRCS office.

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The politics of farming

Heading into the new year, farmers in our region face challenges from both weather and politics. A drought cut into yield during the 2018 growing season. On the political side, President Trump imposed a tariff on imports from China in July, prompting China to retaliate with a 25 percent tariff on soybean imports. U.S. soybean prices declined by roughly $2 a bushel since March. On top of that, Congress delayed passing a new farm bill by its September deadline, finally reaching an agreement as the year drew to a close.

In mid-November, Brooks Hurst had nearly finished harvesting 6,000 acres of soybeans on his family farm near Tarkio, Mo. However, he had yet to sell any beans from the 2018 crop.

“We watch where every penny goes, and we’ve made long-term investments in on-farm storage, so we have more options in marketing the crop,” said Hurst, president of the Missouri Soybean Association and member of the American Soybean Association board. He farms with his father, Kevin; his grandfather, Charlie; his uncles, Blake and Brooks; and his two younger brothers, Dallas and Taylor.

Low market prices are mostly to blame for the Hursts’ hesitation to sell new-crop soybeans. In July, the Trump administration imposed 25 percent tariffs on Chinese products such as steel and aluminum. China responded by placing duties on U.S. imports, mostly agricultural products, with soybeans most impacted. Soybean prices have declined by approximately 20 percent since the tariffs went into effect.

The ability to store soybeans helped to insulate the Hursts from this decrease, but others may not be so fortunate.

“Our association has placed a high priority on developing our international markets and export relationships for many years,” Hurst said. “Our farmers are counting on having access to these markets and the demand they create for U.S. soybeans. What we’re seeing now is a direct hit to farmers and rural communities.”

Missouri farmers raised an average of 247 million soybeans annually over the past three years, according to the University of Missouri Extension Service’s Commercial Agriculture Program. Typically, more than half of Missouri’s annual soybean crop is exported, with nearly one in every three rows of soybeans destined for China.

Chinese citizens are demanding more pork as their economy develops, and China feeds beans to an increasing number of hogs. The Chinese population also consumes an abundance of soy cooking oil.

MU estimated that a $2-per-bushel decrease in soybean prices costs Missouri farmers nearly half a billion dollars, which means $212 million in lost earnings for workers and business owners and 3,000 fewer jobs statewide.  

The American Soybean Association released this statement in late September: “Some trade analysts say it will be impossible for China to find enough soybeans and other protein feeds from other sources, and that China will continue to depend on the U.S. for a significant amount of its imports. But even if the U.S. keeps half of its soybean market in China, the value of exports due to lower prices will fall to an estimated $5.6 billion from the $14 billion sold in 2017. The outlook is for continued low prices and declining U.S. soybean production for years to come.”  

MFA handling fewer beans

Hurst wouldn’t be surprised if farmers shift to planting more corn in 2019. Eric Williams, manager of grain trading for MFA Incorporated, agrees.

“The tariff will skew how we plant,” Williams said. “If I were a farmer, I’d plant more corn.”

In the midst of the 2018 harvest in November, Williams said MFA was handling fewer soybeans than usual.

“We’re seeing beans come across our scales, but not in the volume that other states are seeing, maybe due to the drought in parts of our trade area,” Williams said. “Also, some farmers are holding more beans in their own storage than in 2017 and are selling more corn now since corn prices haven’t been as affected by the tariff.”

Still, Williams predicts the 2018 U.S. soybean crop will be huge, on top of a large carryover from the 2017 crop. Large carryovers can depress market prices. However, Williams said MFA’s Grain Division positions itself to withstand different dynamics in the market every year.

Why a tariff?

As a founding partner with Global AgriTrends, Brett Stuart analyzes global and trading trends. He explains why the U.S. imposed tariffs on China.

“China has used many different means to keep U.S. products out, including non-scientific restrictions on U.S. beef, pork and poultry as well as feedstuffs,” Stuart said. “The current China duties retaliate against the Trump administration’s efforts to improve market access for U.S. farmers. Whether it succeeds is yet to be seen. But the reality is that outside of soybeans, China has never really opened to U.S. agriculture.”

Now, Stuart adds, Chinese officials have implemented an embargo of sorts, not allowing some U.S. soybeans in even if importers pay the duty. He warns that the trade war could be prolonged.

“The administration’s demands are big, broad and vague: intellectual property theft, market access, dumping, subsidizing,” Stuart said. “Those are difficult to fix in China. Chinese duties could last through 2019.”  

Help comes from subsidies

With $27 billion of American agricultural exports affected, the U.S. announced it will subsidize American farmers for up to $12 billion through the Market Facilitation Program to offset losses resulting from China’s retaliatory tariff.

“Soybean farmers were scheduled to receive half of the promised amount—82.5 cents per bushel—on Dec. 3,” Williams explained. “If the tariffs go away, the federal government doesn’t have to pay the rest of the subsidies.”

While grain handlers like MFA can easily report the volume of soybeans they’re holding, USDA would have to send personnel to farms that store their own beans, Williams added.

“I don’t know how USDA will do it all,” he said. “Farmers don’t want a handout—they’d rather earn their profits in the marketplace. I don’t have a solution, but everyone will be happy when we can get away from tariffs.”   

The deadline for applying for USDA’s Market Facilitation Program is Jan. 15, 2019. The program will provide payments to soybean, corn, cotton, dairy, hog and wheat producers based on 2018 production. Contact your local Farm Service Agency, or visit www.farmers.gov/manage/mfp.  

USMCA cheers up corn and soy growers

September brought better news when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was replaced with the slightly revised U.S., Mexico and Canada Agreement (USMCA), allowing trade between the three nations to remain duty-free. President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the USMCA Nov. 30 at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires.

“We appreciate the stability this stands to bring soybean producers in the North American markets,” Hurst says. “U.S. soy exports to Canada and Mexico were almost $3 billion in 2017, with Mexico the No. 2 export market for U.S. soybeans, after China.”

Corn growers were pleased as well. In 2017, the U.S. exported more than $3 billion of corn and corn products to Mexico and Canada, according to the National Corn Growers Association. Mexico is the top importer of U.S. corn.

No one can predict the outcome of the president’s bold trade strategy, but it’s certain to affect agreements with other nations.

“With USMCA and the Korean-U.S. trade agreement mostly complete, the focus is on China,” Stuart said. “However, the administration intends to begin free trade talks with Japan, the EU and Britain. Those markets hold key benefits for U.S. agriculture.”  

Prices may rally  

MFA’s Williams is hopeful for positive news in the soybean market, quoting a Nov. 30 St. Louis daily cash price for soybeans of $8.72, while March 2019 futures were priced at $9.05.

“Some farmers will hold onto a high percentage of their beans,” he said, “and an upside price rally is possible in 2019.”

Williams also reports that the U.S. continues to export soybeans to China, although at a slower pace. Some worry that Brazil will step in and capture the U.S. market.

“Brazil can’t supply all of China’s needs,” Williams said. “Besides, Brazil is selling beans for about 20 percent higher than before the tariff. China’s going to pay more, no matter where they source it. China accounts for roughly 60 percent of world demand for soybeans, and eventually they’ve got to come to North or South America to get what they need.”

When will we see a new farm bill?

The Sept. 30, 2018, deadline for a new farm bill came and went without resolve, even though Congress had been working on new legislation throughout the year. That’s not surprising to those in agricultural circles, said Gary Marshall, CEO of the Missouri Corn Growers Association.  

In late November, however, Farm Bill negotiators said they had reached an “agreement in principle,” offering hope of breaking the impasse and sending legislation to President Trump before the end of the year. Details of the deal had not been released as of press time.

At issue has been a provision in the new draft of the bill that would impose stricter work requirements for recipients of food stamps. The Republican-led House of Representatives passed the $867 billion bill in June with the tougher requirements, over the objections of Democrats. The Senate, meanwhile, passed its own bipartisan version that excluded the requirements.

“The farm bill is intended to manage risk and provide certainty by offering farmers a safety net in times of hardship and ensuring the United States remains the safest and most effective food source in the world,” said Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican, who in July was named to serve on the Conference Committee formed to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The newly re-elected congresswoman has a personal stake in the bill. She, her husband, Lowell, and their daughter, Tiffany, farm near Harrisonville, Mo.

“We, like all farmers, are feeling the effects of lower prices,” she said, adding that she hopes for a resolution on trade with China soon.  

For an outlook on the new farm bill, we talked with Hartzler, Marshall and Chuck Conners, president of National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC). MFA Incorporated is a farmer-owned cooperative and a member of NCFC.

Crop insurance

Conners predicts that the final farm bill will reflect strong support for crop insurance.  

“The farm bill isn’t the magic bullet when it comes to low prices affecting agriculture,” Conners said. “It can provide a safety net to keep losses from becoming even more catastrophic.”

Commodity support programs and crop insurance are the most important elements of the safety net, he added.

Marshall agrees: “Crop insurance is our only real protection from drought or low prices.”   

Mike Smith, principal agent for MFA Crop Insurance, assures farmers that even if the farm bill is further delayed, it won’t affect the crop insurance program for 2018.  


Conners, Marshall and Hartzler all want to see provisions to increase exports. Since NCFC represents grain-marketing cooperatives such as MFA, Conners said expanded access to export markets is a high priority.  

Corn and soybean growers associations also have skin in the game. Both devote a share of check-off funds collected from grower-members to foreign market development.


In our farm bill discussions, we found a consensus of support for conservation funding.

“Our members use a lot of conservation dollars,” Marshall said. “The state of Missouri matches federal dollars to help us put crop protection where it’s supposed to go.”
Conners thinks we’ll see a continued trend towards consolidating working lands programs.

“Overall funding will likely stay the same or possibly increase,” he said.  

Hartzler said she would like to roll the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) authority into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to ensure decisions are made closer to ranchers and landowners.


The biggest bone of contention between the House and Senate versions of the bill is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The program benefits 40 million Americans and makes up 80 percent of farm bill funding. The House bill requires SNAP recipients to work or get job training; the Senate version doesn’t include those stipulations. The final legislation will likely not include the stricter requirements.

“Any action on nutrition programs should preserve the broad-based coalition that has ensured strong support for farm programs in the past,” Conners said. “We will probably see some changes to SNAP, but the end result will be much closer to the Senate’s legislation than to the House’s provisions on work requirements.”

Research, the internet and labor

Additional farm bill priorities, according to Hartzler, are continued research and development funding, along with improving access to high-speed Internet.

“The House version of the farm bill includes my provision to set minimum speeds and expand access to Rural Utility Services loans and loan guarantees,” she said.  

Access to labor is a challenge for many farmers. NCFC calls for a guest worker program and other reforms, but Conners admits the outlook remains uncertain with the contentious immigration issue.

As of press time on Nov. 30, the farm bill’s language was yet to be finalized. The latest debate among lawmakers focused on forestry provisions The latest debate among lawmakers focused on forestry provisions following the deadly wildfires in California. Once voted on, the bill goes to the president for signing.


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In this November 2018 issue

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