Drought draws notice at Ag Outlook - The Packer

Drought draws notice at Ag Outlook

02/25/2014 06:49:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom Karst Just back from the USDA's Agricultural Outlook Conference in Washington, D.C., and I have to say the event is remarkably like every previous Ag Outlook Conference I have attended.

This fact is comforting in many respects.

The site for the event was again the Crystal City Marriot, located right on the yellow and blue metro lines and just three stops removed from my hotel of choice in Alexandria.

The look of the two-day event is always the same, with the 1,100 plus attendees largely in suits and formal attire, with much less variance in dress but more racial diversity than you would experience at a typical produce exposition.

The educational track of the event skews heavy to traditional farm program agriculture: grains and oilseeds, dairy, cotton, sugar, livestock and poultry.

There are certainly more English-speaking journalists covering the agriculture beat at this event than any other single gathering, and their Apple laptops and appropriately cynical personas ("Do you remember when members of Congress would actually have a conversation with you?") stuffed the press room to overflowing during most of the event.

The traditional ag component of the programming does have exceptions, of course, notably with Cathy Burns of PMA part of a panel on the future of agriculture. An educational session on invasive pets featured Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, a highly informative workshop on nanotechnology and a comprehensive look at the citrus greening issues facing producers in Florida and other states. Look for coverage of those issues in The Packer.

For those of you who couldn't attend, the list of participants can be found here. Thursday workshop presentations can be found here and Friday sessions here.

Of all specialty crop-related issues, the California drought is drawing the most notice.

On Feb. 20, USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber spoke, as is his tradition, on "The Outlook for U.S. Agriculture." Glauber spoke with concern about the drought in the West. He noted that in 2013, California's 154 intrastate reservoirs contained only 70% of their normal volume. The three-year drought has severely hurt California's rangeland and pasture quality, as well as water supplies for specialty crops.

"Water availability could have large consequences for fruit, vegetable and tree nut production, particularly in the Central Valley, which is potentially the most adversely affected area by the shortage," he said.

Bottom line, Glauber said cash receipts for vegetable, fruits and nuts are expected to decline in 2014, but much uncertainty remains because of the potential effects of the drought. With California accounting for about one-third of U.S. vegetable production and two thirds of U.S. fruit and nut production, he said serious shortfalls in water could spike fruit and vegetable prices.

The Feb. 21 announcement by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that the water supply allocation to several Central Valley agricultural contractors is zero certainly doesn't lift sprits.

The story of the drought's effect on fruit, vegetable and nut growers is only beginning to be written. Give your thoughts on how the drought could affect the industry at The Packer Market's discussion thread.

Beyond the issue of the drought, Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack gamely tried to push for immigration reform.

At a press conference Feb. 20, he said immigration reform “has to happen.” Agriculture’s instability of its workforce is jeopardizing the U.S. ability to operate at its potential in agriculture. “Farmers are thinking about moving their operations outside of the United States and there is all the other industries are impacted by not having stability (in farm labor). Vilsack said immigration reform will also reduce the deficit and grow the economy, he said.

“If it doesn’t somehow happen, then people are going to make decisions based on that uncertainty and they are going to scale back their operations and that will mean less opportunity, exports and less income.” Vilsack said he was still convinced immigration reform will happen this year.

It is not hopeless, at least. After all, the farm bill was finished, wasn't it?

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