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Best of NAMA 2020

Editorís Note: Whether theyíre talking to farmers at farm shows, conventions, field days or from their studios, farm broadcasters keep their fingers on the pulse of their listeners. In this monthís farm broadcasting section, weíre giving readers the benefit of the knowledge of five veteran farm broadcasters from across the country.

Revealing what they see as the major issues facing farmers as well as how agri-marketers and broadcasters can best serve producers this year are: Colleen Callahan, agribusiness director, WMBD Radio, Peoria, Ill.; Gary Cooper, president, Southeast AgNet, Kenansville, Fla.; Stewart Doan, Delta regional farm director, Yancey Ag Network, Little Rock, Ark.; Lynn Ketelsen, farm services director, Linder Farm Network, Owatonna, Minn.; and Evan Slack, owner/broadcaster, Evan Slack Network, Denver.

AM: What major ag issues are farmers in your area facing?

Callahan: Probably the Starlink situation. There werenít a large number of acres planted to Starlink in Illinois, but the contamination issue has caused concern and problems. Some producers had their deliveries rejected at the Illinois River and at processors. Finding a delivery point became a challenge. There also is concern about the increased cost of nitrogen fertilizer. A small percent of anhydrous was applied last fall because winter weather came quickly. So a high percentage of application will need to be completed this spring - at prices much higher than in the fall. Other concerns are low corn and soybean prices and the possibility that government payments may soon cease or be significantly reduced.

Cooper: Many so-called specialty or high-value crops and a large cattle industry make up much of the diversity in the deep Southeast as well as a good portion of the nationís agricultural cash receipts. Depending on the segment youíre focused on, the issues and challenges can be different, but many share a number of overall concerns. Regulatory costs and other pressures; labor issues (such as its lack of availability); the farm bill and changing trade/market access parameters; and protection against agricultural pests and diseases from abroad are among the top issues facing the regionís producers.

Doan: Soaring energy costs and weak crop prices. I am hearing far more talk this winter about an increasing number of farmers switching to conservation tillage to cut down on the number of trips across the field and, consequently, the amount of fuel needed to plant their crops. Regarding weak crop prices, fortunately, many Southern producers have more than one crop option. That said, I do not believe the high price of nitrogen coupled with prospects for a high soybean loan deficiency payment will necessarily result in a wholesale shift to soybean planting this spring. At this point, it appears that cotton acreage in the Delta will increase by 5 percent to 10 percent due largely to an attractive crop insurance program. And, as long as new-crop rice prices hold above $6/cwt, rice growers will stick with rice.

Ketelsen: The lead item for this spring is the availability of fertilizer. There is a lot of uncertainty about just what will be available and how much it will cost. If farmers canít get enough for corn planting, we will see a switch to soybean acres. With a large crop in South America, that could further depress prices. The other issue is what varieties of seed to plant. GMO or non-GMO is a question many farmers are facing. Farmers are checking on whether thereís a market for the variety they plant before buying it.

Slack: Low prices for grains, dry edible beans and potatoes. In Idaho where they raise more than 20 percent of the nationís potatoes, growers are giving them away - in that the market is a dollar or less per cwt. Growers figure it costs $5/cwt to raise them. Great northern bean prices to growers have been running about $15/cwt for more than two years, while the cost of production is near $20. Colorado, Nebraska and Idaho rank in the top six dry edible bean-producing states. While wheat and corn growers are experiencing low cash prices, payments from the federal government have kept them afloat.

AM:Whatís the mood of farmers in your area of the country?

Callahan: At the recent Illinois Pork Expo, a commodity broker exhibitor remarked how surprised he was at the upbeat attitude of pork producers. He said they didnít want to know as much about the hog market as they did the soybean market. Despite low corn and soybean prices, many farmers booked their corn and soybean seed early and prepaid to receive the early discounts. But that would not have been the case for many without the government programs.

Cooper: Concerned. Different segments of our regionís agriculture seem to go through different cycles at different times. Cattle producers have been experiencing a better market situation than they had grown accustomed to, but seasonal fruit and vegetable and oŁher farm producers remain in a mix of regulatory and competitive market access issues. Theyíre also feeling urban growth pressures. With public understanding of the business of agriculture at such an apparent low in terms of their understanding for farm proposals, some producers wonder what the future has in store for the profitability of the family farm and production agriculture as a whole.

Doan: Farmers definitely are apprehensive about the year ahead. The $25 billion in emergency farm assistance appropriated by Congress the last three years allowed many farmers to maintain their financial position. However, with practically every ag economist seeing no substantial recovery in crop prices, farmers will need another dose of emergency farm aid from Washington. And even that might not be enough to prevent serious financial stress in light of sharply higher production costs.

Ketelsen: I see a rugged determination when talking to farmers today. They understand the challenges they are facing and are working to do everything they can to put profits into their farming operation. We have seen a virtual hunger for information among farmers. We recently hosted a marketing and management seminar that drew more than 375 top producers in the area. We had hoped for 100 to show. It simply points out that farmers are going to meetings for information and using that knowledge to make more money. In a day and age of little if any margin, farmers canít afford to make any mistakes. That goes for what they plant, when they plant, the chemicals they use, when they harvest and how they market. As tight as farming is, farmers know they need all the odds in their favor.

Slack: Folks are starting to worry about the lack of precipitation, especially in the Northern Plains. My listeners in Montana are importing a lot of hay from Canada and some have sold a portion of their cowherd. Beef producers are healing up from the mid-1990s when they were hit with low market prices. At the National Western Stock Show in Denver, I talked to a lot of beef breeders from across the nation, and almost without exception they were bullish on the cattle market. And at the National Cattlemenís Beef Association Convention the mood was upbeat.

AM:What advice would you give agri-marketers as they go about their business of marketing goods and services this year?

Callahan: Be sensitive to the issues and concerns - genetically enhanced seed, high nitrogen costs and uncertainly about governmental farm policy. So far, farmers have been able to hold it together - and in some cases prosper. But without financial assistance from Washington, the marketing target will become smaller.

Cooper: Be aware of the issues of agriculture sectors you want to serve, and find ways to help producers help themselves while formulating marketing initiatives. Timely and accurate information to, for and about agriculture has never been more important to producers. In a world of consolidation and cost concern, agri-marketers should realize their critical ongoing role of helping to keep producers informed and make the nationís timely agriculture information flow as strong as it can be.

Doan: Utilize strategies that help farmers understand the specifics of how a product(s) can reduce their production costs. I would recommend not using the word "competitive." That buzzword of the 1990s has become a four-letter word today. Any farmer who has been able to survive the last three years already is competitive.

Ketelsen: We all need to realize farmers are very sophisticated business people. Many are college educated, they all receive multiple advisory services, and they attend seminars and make decisions based on facts, not fluff and image. We emphasize to our clients to appeal to these farmers with good solid information - not stereotyped messages appealing to that good-old-boy farmer. Whatís more, donít underestimate the value of advice from local and regional sales reps. They regularly see farmers face to face and understand what theyíre thinking.

Slack: Have an understanding and keen interest in the people on the land, who I submit make for the good life for the rest of us. Work with your prospective customers. Donít just sell a product, but be of service to their lender and show both how they can increase their return on investment.

AM:What do you see as the farm broadcasterís role this year?

Callahan: I view my role as a farm broadcaster as I always have: to inform and educate both the producer and the consumer. I also have, over time, come to view my role as a facilitator. More and more I find myself taking calls from listeners asking if they could speak "one on one" with a guest from my show or someone I have interviewed.

Cooper: Interpreting what issues are important and when to our regionís producers, and getting to newsmakers for reaction to those issues as they develop remain paramount. It also is becoming more important that we do a better job educating agri-marketers as to their proper role in this timely information business, and that qualified news time is limited in todayís broadcast industry.

Doan: Our primary editorial focus this year will reflect two hot-button topics. The first is opening rounds of the new farm bill debate in Washington. Farmers in the Delta are keenly interested in keeping up with the latest proposals, rhetoric, etc. We will satisfy their demand for that information. Second, weíll constantly look for stories about crop production inputs and services that not only work as promised, but also have the potential to help farmers shave a few cents per bushel off production costs.

Ketelsen: I see my role changing from simply reporting markets to interpreting what those markets mean. I also see farm broadcasters relying more and more on agribusiness for information. Not that many years ago it was almost taboo to use our marketing partners as sources of information. Now those same people often are our best sources for information. So our relationship with agribusiness has become closer, which has meant better information for listeners.

Slack: We are living in an era of information overload. Farm broadcasters can help sort through all the information, seek out those who have ideas and ways of operating smarter, and air their plans and successes. And, finally, we can help companies spread their word about their products, if they provide us with the tools and revenue toward that end. AM

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