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Finding common ground

CHERYL TEVIS 04/05/2011 @ 10:26am 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.”

It's Saturday morning and Suzanne Shirbroun is at the grocery store –again. Today, instead of scanning a shopping list for husband Joe and their three sons, the Farmersburg, Iowa, farmer is scanning the faces of shoppers.

As the number of agriculture-dependent counties drops nationwide, Shirbroun and farmers Sara Ross and Jill Vander Veen have come to the West Lakes Hy-Vee in West Des Moines, Iowa, to cultivate a closer relationship with suburban and urban women.

“We're a little bit nervous. But we're also excited about the opportunity to share our ag stories with our consumers,” she says.

The new outreach is called CommonGround, and it's an initiative of the National Corn Growers and United Soybean Board. The Iowa event on February 5 was the kickoff for a pilot program also under way in Nebraska, South Dakota, Indiana, and Kentucky.

A survey by Boston Consulting Group reveals that 85% of women handle grocery shopping and meal preparation. So CommonGround's mom-driven approach is a natural venue for engaging women in discussions about food production, food safety, and farm life. Civic events and social media are also new inroads for discovering common ground.

“There's information reaching consumers, but it's not always the whole story,” says Ross, a Minden, Iowa, farmer. “Farmers are concerned about an increasing disconnect between consumers and the people who grow their food. “

The women spent two hours giving away recyclable grocery bags and helping shoppers sign up for the chance to receive gift cards and cookbooks during a drawing at the store event.

At the end of the morning, they gave away a grand prize Valentine's Treat Day for Mom, including flowers, chocolate, and a spa certificate. The event attracted live radio broadcast and TV coverage.

“When people go to the grocery store, many are in a hurry to get in and to get out,” Ross says. “But we were pleasantly surprised that quite a few stopped with questions and listened to our answers.”

Many were curious about Common-Ground. “Others asked about GMOs, organics, and the egg recall,” Ross says. “One woman asked why the eggs she buys locally have darker yolks.”

Ross and her husband, Kevin, grow corn and soybeans and have a cow-calf operation. Shirbroun and her husband are corn and soybean producers and have a seed dealership. Jill Vander Veen farms with her husband, Roger, near Hartley, Iowa. They have a cow-calf operation.

“Our message is that we put a lot of care into the food we grow,” Vander Veen says. “We're putting the same food on our tables that we're producing.”

Check out this food

Near Edgar, Nebraska, Common-Ground spokesperson Dawn Caldwell and her husband, Matt, farm his family's farm just across the border in north-central Kansas.

Caldwell, who has an animal science degree, participated in a Hy-Vee grocery store event in Lincoln on February 26. The event coincided with National Food Check-Out Week.

“We tied it into the conversation that one reason food is so affordable in the U.S. is the efficiency of American farmers,” she says. “At the same time that it's affordable, we want consumers to know that farmers are careful about food safety.”

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