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Michigan Ag Leaders Discuss Production Challenges
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The Michigan Agri-Business Association (MABA) this weekend hosted its 2014 Fall Outlook Conference, now in its fifth year of bringing agriculture industry leaders together to discuss industry developments. The two-day meeting included updates from state and national leaders on current challenges in agriculture, advancements in the agronomy sector, the growth of renewable fuels, infrastructure access and more.


Source: Michigan Agri-Business Association

Contact: Chuck Lippstreu, clippstreu@byrumfisk.com


Michigan Agriculture Leaders Discuss Production Challenges, Opportunities during Two-Day Fall Outlook Conference

More than 250 agriculture leaders gather on Mackinac Island for a look ahead in Michigan's agriculture industry
The Michigan Agri-Business Association (MABA) this weekend hosted its 2014 Fall Outlook Conference, now in its fifth year of bringing agriculture industry leaders together to discuss industry developments.  The two-day meeting included updates from state and national leaders on current challenges in agriculture, advancements in the agronomy sector, the growth of renewable fuels, infrastructure access and more.
"Michigan agriculture is a forward-looking industry and the Fall Outlook Conference is an opportunity for our members to retool, and think strategically about the issues they face, and what the future will bring," said Jim Byrum, president of MABA. "As we do business in a changing landscape - from rail and logistics, to shifting weather and production patterns, to expanded consumer interest in sustainability - this meeting provides an opportunity to bring industry leaders together and ensure we're well-positioned to be successful going forward."
David Geers, president of Michigan Agricultural Commodities, opened the day with a promising outlook for corn, wheat and soybean production in 2014, but also noted a number of unique challenges facing producers - including prices and uncertain rail transportation and logistics to move what may be a record corn and soybean crop.
Agronomy services are changing to meet new challenges, according to Dan Vradenburg, presidentof Wilbur-Ellis Company, who highlighted advancements in data and technology that are giving agronomy companies new ways to solve customer concerns. Regulatory issues also remain top of mind for many producers and agribusinesses, including chemical safety and the Food Safety Modernization Act. Vradenburg said that growing customer interest in sustainability also deserves industry attention.
Leonard Gianessi, director of crop protection research at CropLife Foundation, highlighted the use of crop protection technology and innovative agricultural inputs to feed a rapidly changing and growing population. He discussed the benefit of modern herbicides and fungicides to boost yields - an especially important issue given rising global demand for food.
Ken Nobis, president of Michigan Milk Producers Association, said that Michigan's dairy industry adds more than $14 billion annually to Michigan's economy. He noted the growing efficiency of the industry, with Michigan milk production increasing more than 60 percent since 2000 with just 25 percent more cows. He also emphasized the need to meet consumer interest in food production and sustainability, including documenting sustainability efforts already happening in the production process, especially in a growing Michigan industry.
Jeff Lautt, chief executive officer of POET, emphasized the ongoing growth and innovation within the American biofuels industry that promises to revolutionize renewable energy in the years ahead. Lautt called for maintaining a strong Renewable Fuel Standard to fuel continued growth and boost American energy independence. Less than two weeks ago, POET launched America's first cellulosic ethanol refinery, Project LIBERTY, that converts baled corn cobs, leaves, husk and stalk into renewable fuel. At full capacity, it will convert 770 tons of biomass per day to produce ethanol at a rate of 20 million gallons per year, later ramping up to 25 million gallons per year.
Joe Cramer, executive director of the Michigan Bean Commission, and Mike Wenkel, executive director of Potato Growers of Michigan, focused on new opportunities for Michigan's potato and dry bean sectors, including movement further north as the growing season changes for these and other crops. Like other speakers throughout the morning, Cramer and Wenkel said that sustainability is a key issue for growers as consumer interest grows in that area.
Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said that while agriculture faces a number of challenges on the horizon, it's critical that industry leaders continue working together. He emphasized a commitment to partner with Michigan agriculture from DEQ and other state agencies.
 Scott Shearer of the Bockorny Group emphasized the need for new partnership and coalition building to advance farm legislation in Washington. Shearer highlighted a need for agriculture to take the lead on building these new coalitions, including reaching out to nontraditional partners and building new rural-urban cooperation around key issues. Bipartisanship must play a bigger role than ever in the coming years to maintain agriculture's influence in Washington, he said.
Shasta Duffey, vice president of marketing and sales at WATCO Companies, touched on the current difficulties agriculture has seen regarding rail logistics. Crude oil transit has cut deeply into rail capacity to move what's projected to be a record crop, and frustration is growing regarding reliable access to move grain. Duffey noted ongoing engagement by the federal Surface Transportation Board and outlined steps shippers are taking to expand rail availability in key agriculture states.
Michael Schweickert of J.P. Morgan Securities gave an overview of banking and finance specifically within the agriculture industry, and emphasized the need to identify lenders with experience on agriculture issues.
Vern Hawkins, president of Syngenta Crop Protection, said the company is pursuing a "good growth" strategy for crop protection, with six commitments to use fewer resources and boost sustainability, while still increasing food production and boosting rural economies. The company is working to establish productivity measures while quantifying efficiency across the board.
Garrick Rochow, vice president of Consumers Energy, focused on expansion of renewable and energy efficient options for agriculture, as well as natural gas and three-phase electric access in rural Michigan. He said Consumers has undertaken new efforts to reduce upfront costs for agribusiness, including 22 new energy efficiency programs for agriculture, and noted that those who found programs cost prohibitive in the past should consider reapplying.
State Senator Mike Green said that infrastructure investment is particularly critical for the future of agriculture in Michigan - including road, rail and vessel transportation, energy access and more. Green gave an outline on upcoming business in the state House and Senate, expressing concern about potential fertilizer fee increases that could then be used to subsidize other state government departments.
Byrum closed the meeting with a summary of the issues addressed over the two days of the conference.
"If there's one word you've heard a million times at this conference, it's partnership. This isn't just a one-way street," he said. "From road and rail transportation, to water quality, to meeting new sustainability requirements, we need to work together with folks and tackle these issues head-on. We're focused on the future, and this industry can achieve great things if we continue to look ahead and embrace partnership. We have to lead and we have to engage. If we don't lead, we follow, and we're not used to following here in Michigan."