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Who Will Rescue Rural America?

CHERYL TEVIS 10/14/2010 @ 11:46am Geopolitical Skirmishes Trigger Supply Chain Concerns As the markets opened on March 3, and the world realized that Russia had annexed Crimea, equity markets plummeted on forecasts of macroeconomic problems and falling demand. Meanwhile in Chicago, commodity prices rose, implying supply problems. Six weeks later, no one knows which reaction was justified. However, the vulnerability of the agriculture and energy sectors to emerging geopolitical events is rapidly overshadowing the impact of weather as a growing topic of concern. “In agriculture, we’re used to a lot of turmoil,” Brian Oleson, University of Manitoba professor of economics told participants at a recent Washington, D.C. Farm Foundation Forum. “We have to live with a lot of price fluctuations. Every day when we wake up, the market has gone somewhere and is doing something. It’s a lot of noise to sort out. Yet we always have the constant question of global food security.” What’s the likely impact of current world conflicts on global energy and agriculture markets? “Energy and agriculture are absolutely inseparable,” Oleson says. “Regarding Russia, we ask the question: Is this just noise? Or is it an opportunity for pricing? Is it something that requires us to look beyond the next crop year, and start buying inputs? In the post war world period we’ve seen two big price waves: the Great Russian Grain Robbery and the ethanol boom. Is it possible that this is going to be one of those?” He adds, “We saw OPEC and the great Russian grain robbery march hand in hand almost in terms of the price effects that happened. But in terms of the second big price wave, in my point of view, the great farm prices of the last seven years were driven by ethanol. Energy and agriculture have become inseparable.” What significant trends in these two markets should producers recognize? “Big power politics is back,” says Charles Doran, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “None of the great powers have used force to annex territories since 1995. That’s being challenged now in Crimea. The Chinese also have expansionist views of their role in the Pacific. As a result, the U.S. is finding a need to reorient its presence.” Mideastern politics also remains a major factor. “The Middle East has 70% of the world’s exportable oil and natural gas,” Doran says. “There are civil wars between the Sunni and Shia Islamists in lots of places in the Arab world. There’s a transition going on in the leadership of Saudi Arabia, a key country in terms of oil and natural gas production worldwide. There are 2,000 armed, ideological Sunni fighting in Syria. What happens when they come home? The upshot is the probability of a major oil supply interruption is higher now than in quite awhile.” Doran contrasts the declining production of older oil fields in the U.S., the Alaskan North Slope, the North Sea, and Mexico with the “incredible revolution” in fracking and the output of shale gas and tight oil. “Two million barrels of oil a day now, as well as a lot of natural gas, are coming from places like Eagle Ford, Texas, and the Bakken formation in North Dakota,” he says. “In the short term, the Saudis have pegged the price around $100 per barrel. But things could change. Will increased production drive price down? Will the decline in old fields offset this? How fast will the worldwide movement of fracking technology develop? The Chinese lack water and pipelines, but they’ve already increased their output. Almost every country has access to this shale. It’s not always as easy to develop as it is here in the U.S.” He adds, “There’s a great marketing contest going on between the decline of old fields and the increased export production of natural gas and oil,” Doran says. “I wouldn’t want to predict how this will come out. I think on balance it’s not bad for those in agriculture who are worried about the price of petroleum and gasoline.” Despite predictions of U.S. energy dependence in the near future, Doran is cautious. “The oil industry has a saying, ‘All oil comes from a single barrel,’ “ he says. “It means that all countries are interdependent. The amount of oil and natural gas being consumed by the developing countries like India and China is expanding very rapidly, so we can’t escape the drag of what may take place there.” Outlook for Global Agricultural Production What’s the impact of civil unrest on global agriculture? “Production surprisingly isn’t affected big time by geopolitics in most cases,” Oleson says. “Farmers tend to just keep going. They may react in terms of delivery, or they may be affected in terms of inputs. Look at Argentina. I remember being there in the early 2000s, and farmers were just shoving grain into plastic storage bags as fast as they could. They didn’t trust the currency or the government, and would rather have their bank account in plastic grain storage on the farm than a bank. Argentine farmers, despite the fact they were getting one-half the price of U.S. corn, just kept on producing” Oleson refers to Russia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan as “the accidental exporters.” “Early in my career, this was the biggest importing region in the world,” he says. “The U.S. and Canada were fighting to see who would get the larger share of the USSR grain market. The interesting thing now is those three countries are vying to become top exporting region in the world. It’s absolutely astounding that they moved from being one of the biggest importing regions of the world to one of the biggest exporting regions of the world. And their grain production today is less than it was then.” He adds, “One question is whether the Baltic region is adding to world food supply issues and price instability, or is it part of the solution to world food price and food security?” Wheat Production as a Barometer Gary Blumenthal, CEO of World Perspectives, Inc., argues that geopolitical events exert a greater impact on oil supply than food supply. He has studied the impact of political instability on wheat production. “Of the food insecure countries in crisis, according to the FAO, 60% are due in part or entirely to poor governance and civil strife,” he says. “In the early 20th century, Argentina was the 10th richest country, and today it ranks at #55,” he says. “We know it’s because of poor governance. But what has happened to its wheat production? Through all the political turmoil, we basically don’t see a lot of impact.” Looking at a more volatile region of the world, wheat production actually rose during the 2011 Arab Spring, he says. Syria experienced a modest production decline of 3.8% in 2012 -13 during its civil war. “But generally wheat production not affected,’ he says. He points out that in countries like Iraq, wheat production is more often impacted by drought than civil conflict. “The long term trend in Iraq, despite 30 year of strife, is that wheat production has increased,” he says. Ukraine is just the latest example in the news. “The 2005 crop, the year of The Orange Revolution, was a very good crop, and wheat production bounced along fairly stable through the strife,” Blumenthal says. “The USDA Foreign Service attaché report fully expects a regular harvest of winter wheat crop this spring and planting of the spring crop, with no adverse impact on supply. “But it’s the complete opposite in energy markets,” he says. “Iraq oil production fell dramatically during the Iran/Iraq War, and it plummeted during the Gulf War, and then recovered. Libyan oil production dropped off during the conflict with Chad, and during the intervention in 2012, again there was a great drop off in oil production.” He points out, “Fossil fuel not only has not concentrated energy, it’s concentrated in a region where production is more subject to disruption. So energy markets should be watched more than food.” He adds, ‘What hurts agriculture is macroeconomic decline, a drop in demand and falling prices as a result.” He offers the rule of four as “a great metric.” (1) CPI inflation rate (2) Budget deficit (3) Current account deficit (4) Combination of those four in any given country. “This metric predicted the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and the Russian default in 1998,” Blumenthal says. “In each of those instances, the price of corn fell.” He suggests the following countries are poised at a threshold that indicates considerable trouble if the Federal Reserve starts to raise interest rates: India, South Africa, Argentina, Turkey, and Indonesia. “These countries need to take action, not so much individually, but collectively they could have a certain adverse impact on grain markets,” he says. But he concludes, “Geopolitical problems can depress economic growth, and therefore depress food demand. The increased economic capacity for people to buy better food is suppressed if the economy is hurt by geopolitical conflicts.”

Volunteers are the life­blood of rural America. Nationally, 72% of fire departments are all volun­teers. It's even higher in rural states.

Many, like Lynn Kirschbaum, Glen Haven, Wisconsin, are farmers. Kirschbaum joined the fire department in this township of 480 in 1988. The photo above shows members of his team. "When I was recruited, we had 32," he says. "We're down to 22."

In July, the department gained its first recruit since Kirschbaum became fire chief in 1999: his 18-year-old son, Tyler.

Glen Haven isn't unusual. Between 1984 and 2006, the number of vol­unteer firefighters across the U.S. fell by 8%, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Nearly 50% of fire volunteers were age 40 or older in 2005, compared to 37% in 1987.

The rural all-volunteer fire and rescue department is an endangered institution. The problem began in the 1980s when the farm crisis uprooted the next crop of potential volunteers. Off-farm jobs also have cut the ranks of farmers available to come to the defense of friends and neighbors.

Today, more stringent state training mandates are igniting a new hot spot.

"When I started, there was little training required," Kirschbaum says. "Now firefighters need 60 hours. It's getting to be a larger problem, and it's driving young people away."

The situation also hits close to home for my community of Pilot Mound, Iowa, population 199. Sean Whalen breathed new life into the fire department when he moved here 15 years ago. He's funded a pumper and a tanker truck with USDA grants and local trust dollars.

But Whalen is concerned. Effective July 1, Iowa firefighters are required to complete 84 hours of specific training for structural firefighting. And 24 hours of annual training must be logged to conduct any firefighing activity.

No one can dispute that firefighting is dangerous, and most agree that train­ing is essential. About 50 people recently attended a meeting to discuss forming a recruitment committee for the Pilot Mound fire department and more cross-training with other departments.

In Iowa, the state pays for required training. Human capital – not money – is the critical shortfall. What can be done?

Some states, such as Colorado and Nebraska, have laws to prevent employ­ers from punishing workers who leave to respond to fire and rescue emergencies.

Other departments use a cadet or junior program to recruit high school students. (They can't enter burning buildings.)

In southwest Wisconsin, a regional technical rescue team of volunteers was formed in 2003 to assist local depart­ments with complex fire and rescue calls.

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