GLOBAL COMPETITION WEIGHS ON WHEAT GROWERS' MINDS
Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
Editor’s Note: Jack Eberspacher is currently the president and chief executive officer of the Agricultural Retailers Association, Washington, D.C. He is the former chief executive officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers, Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was executive director of the National Grain Sorghum Producers Association, Lubbock, Tex.
AM: In quick summary, what are the biggest issues facing your membership?
Eberspacher: Low prices and profitability are on everyone’s minds. Unfortunately, we’ve been dealing with those issues for the last three years. This is simply a process of production outweighing demand. People often ask, ‘Why don’t we have our old program of set-asides?’ The answer: today, we have enormous global competition through the expansion of production agriculture. As we cut back, our competitors simply produce more. This is a big problem that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
AM:To summarize your policy discussions during the national convention, it sounds like growers are saying, ‘Keep the program the way it is but send more money.’
Eberspacher: There are aspects of Freedom to Farm that people like-mainly planting flexibility. On the other hand, over $2 billion has been paid to growers over the last two or three years-a substantial amount of money not in the budget. Growers didn’t have that guarantee when they went to the bank to set up operating loans, and it’s hard to borrow against something that is not there.
AM:Why are producers now questioning industry marketing and promotion programs?
Eberspacher: When the checkoffs were established, they were sold on the basis of market development and promotion. Looking at market prices, growers are asking why these programs are not working. But it’s not quite that simple. World competition is a big factor. Technology today grows at a rate of 1.5 percent a year; however, the world population grows at a rate of less than 1 percent. The technology stays out in front and provides the ability for more crop production with less crop disasters.
AM:How would you describe wheat producers today compared with at any other time in history, and how does this affect the agribusinesses that serve them?
Eberspacher: The growers who will stay in business are those who readily adopt new technology and incorporate it into their farming operation. You always have to weigh the costs of adapting technology versus the returns. A big emphasis of our annual conference involved remote sensing. We believe NASA and outer space could have a fairly big impact on production agriculture in the detection of insect and disease problems.
Obviously, growers learned a tremendous amount through the ‘80s and have worked hard to keep the debtload down. There are a number of ways that agribusinesses can assist growers, from agronomic benefits to perhaps record keeping issues.
AM:Since you joined the wheat organization, what has been your single greatest challenge?
Eberspacher: One of the first things we did when I came on board was identify the opportunities and threats of our industry. The board wanted to break the association’s activities down into four areas: membership services; policy, including domestic, international and environmental; expanded efforts in research; and value-added opportunities. Today, this is NAWG’s focus and committee structure. We let everyone sign up for committees based on their interests, which has brought unity and cooperation to the organization.
AM:You were formerly the executive for the National Grain Sorghum Producers. Which crop is easier to promote, wheat or milo?
Eberspacher: There is no question about it. Wheat is the crop everybody knows. There are definitely advantages when you work with the big four: corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat.
Although, I’ve enjoyed the growers I’ve worked with and find they are very similar to those who are leading the sorghum industry. Sorghum is similar to wheat in that they are both predominately dryland commodities and highly dependent on public research for development of hybrids. AM
Candace Krebs is a freelance writer based in Enid, Okla.