Adaptability keeps U.S. agriculture viable, journalist tells farmers

Across the nation, farmers and ranchers have asked agricultural journalist Tyne Morgan “how long” until the industry’s next glory days of high commodity prices and supportive policy.

“I don’t have the answer to that,” Morgan said, adding that adapting to change is what keeps U.S. agriculture viable. “We grow when we have challenges like we’re seeing today.”

Morgan hosts U.S. Farm Report, the nation’s longest-running syndicated program focusing on agriculture and rural issues. She delivered keynote remarks Nov. 28 at the opening luncheon of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention in Williamsburg.

The current scenario for U.S. corn and soybean production is not exactly glorious, Morgan noted. Prices are lackluster, and “we have a lot of supply. We have good demand; we have too much supply.”

But, she added, the description she has heard frequently this fall is that yields are “better than we expected.”

More concerning, she said, are current levels of farm debt. “We’re at levels that we haven’t seen since the 1980s,” and if U.S. farms’ debt-to-income ratio continues to grow it could have a negative impact on land prices. Given that scenario, Morgan said, healthy production levels “are saving people” in some instances.

Another question she fields from producers is “What is it going to take to move corn prices higher?” When she relayed that to industry experts, “the No. 1 answer is ‘China. We need more demand from China,” which has surpassed Canada as the top importer of U.S. ag products.

But it’s going to take more than that, Morgan added. “We need more than just China. … We need to find new markets” among countries with growing populations and rising standards of living.

Touching briefly on NAFTA and recent calls by the current administration to re-negotiate agreements with Canada and Mexico, Morgan noted that, in the 21 years since NAFTA’s creation, U.S. agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico have quadrupled. When she asked a group of bankers what would happen if NAFTA’s agricultural components were abandoned, “they didn’t even skip a beat. They said, ‘We’d be back in the 1980s.’”

In speculating on the outcome of the 2018 Farm Bill, Morgan recounted being asked, on short notice, to educate a news reporter about the farm bill in general. The important thing to keep in mind, she said, is that “80 percent is actually food”—resources allocated to assistance programs for people in need.

“So agriculture is actually a really small piece of that pie.”

And this year, “everybody wants a bigger piece” of resources the bill affords.

Morgan noted that, in a conversation with former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, he called food and access to food “a convener” that can bridge gaps between Americans who farm and those who do not. In conversations about agriculture issues, she advised, “don’t talk about what it means for your farm. Talk about what it means for that person at the grocery store.”

Returning to the topic of farming under challenging conditions, Morgan recounted success stories she’s seen, such as that of a potato producer in Idaho who, when faced with extremely low potato prices, began successfully exporting hay to China. That country has a growing consumer demand for meat—and for hay to feed cattle.

Looking back at when times were better is not a solution, she said. “Let’s look at where we are today and how to make it work.”

Morgan cited a quote frequently attributed to Charles Darwin about the species that is most adaptable to change being the one most likely to survive. It’s entirely applicable, she said, to the nation’s farms.

“We are willing to change, and that’s how we survive.”

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