House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott said the nation’s severe truck driver shortage calls for a “Paul Revere moment.”
“We’ve got to sound the alarm on this weakness,” said Scott, D-Georgia, during a Wednesday committee hearing about immediate challenges with the country’s food supply chain.
The process of transporting food and grains via truck, ship and rail continues to crumble with bottlenecks at the nation’s ports, truck driver shortages and deteriorating infrastructure contributing to what’s been described as a crisis by those in the agriculture industry.
“We must act on both short-term and long-term solutions and utilize a multi-pronged approach to mitigate these disruptions,” said Rod Wells, chief supply chain officer of GROWMARK and chairman of the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA). “The importance of improving our infrastructure, crop input production, energy availability, access to labor and regulations that work for rural America is very clear now.”
Wells was joined by other witnesses in the trucking, bakery, grocery, dairy and fruits and vegetable sectors to bring their challenges to committee members, as well as proposals to unclog the food supply chain.
Logjams at the country’s ports — especially busy ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. — and a severe shortage of truck drivers dominated the discussion, with witnesses urging passage of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act and committee members pushing for solutions on recruiting and retaining truck drivers.
The Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2021, which has gained bipartisan support since its introduction in the House in August, would establish reciprocal trade to promote U.S. exports as part of the Federal Maritime Commission’s (FMC) mission and require ocean carriers to adhere to minimum service standards that meet the public interest.
Mike Durkin, president and CEO of Denver-based Leprino Foods Co., said he fears the exports crisis is causing other countries to question the dairy industry’s reliability.
“Over 99% of our 2021 ocean shipments have been canceled or rebooked to a later date at least once and in some cases up to 10 times or more,” Durkin said. “Over 100 bookings this year have been canceled, or rebooked 17 times. This equates to a five-month delay for our customers who depend on our products.”
The White House Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force has worked to urge ports to operate 24/7 and ease trucking regulations, and the White House announced it’s rolling out a new Supply Chain Dashboard to track progress at congested ports.
The trucking industry, which transports 80% of U.S. commodities, faces five key issues, according to Jon Samson, executive director of American Trucking Associations’ Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference: decaying infrastructure, workforce development, vaccine mandate consequences, flexibility and cooperation in commercial relationships and port productivity issues.
An aging trucking workforce was pushed toward retirement during the pandemic while the majority of newly-hired drivers quit within one year. Today, Samson said the industry is short roughly 80,000 drivers.
The industry has tried to incentivize potential drivers with higher pay, more flexibility, bonuses and other benefits, but those measures aren’t solving the problem, Samson said, adding targeting a younger population as well as women and those living in urban areas for possible careers in trucking is gaining momentum.
Forty-eight states currently allow drivers to obtain a commercial driver’s license at 18, however, they are prohibited from driving in interstate commerce until they’re 21. A coalition of more than 120 companies and trade associations endorse the proposed DRIVE-Safe Act, which would create a two-step apprenticeship program to allow younger drivers to safely enter the industry and promote enhanced safety training.
Infrastructure also is critical to the health of the U.S. economy, Wells said. Replacing outdated locks and dams is necessary for transporting commodities and essential crop inputs on inland waterways. Many of the locks were built in the 1920s and ‘30s, far exceeding their 50-year lifespan.
“Our waterways need new 1,200-foot locks and more ports need to be capable of offloading containers,” Wells said.
Scott pointed out the country is not facing a scarcity of food and agriculture commodities, but stressed there are immediate challenges with the supply chain.
“We want to look at the logistics involved with ensuring that our grocery store shelves, our convenience store shelves, all of the retail elements where our people get their food products are well stocked. And we want to make sure that we in Congress are doing what we need to do to make sure that stays constant.”
Policies involving solar and wind energy, disaster assistance, conservation programs and agriculture education are among the proposals Illinois Farm Bureau delegates will weigh this year during Annual Meeting.
That package of local, state and national issues — and where IFB stands on them — was assembled Wednesday during a daylong meeting of the IFB Resolutions Committee in Bloomington.
“The resolutions process — you always see what’s on peoples’ minds,” Brian Duncan, IFB vice president told FarmWeek, adding the committee “really vetted things thoroughly.”
“I think they reviewed both the consequences and unintended consequences of submittals. I think they looked at current law, what the capabilities of what current law provides in some of these areas,” Duncan said. “Will the delegates raise further questions? I think they usually do, which is their right, and I look forward to their discussion in December.”
Agriculture Production/National Issues Subcommittee
At the heart of the Agriculture Production/National Issues (APN) subcommittee’s discussion was a 40-point submittal recommending what should be included in government and future farm policies.
That list, which reflected common themes expressed by IFB members during 2021 statewide listening sessions about the upcoming farm bill, was ultimately parred down to 27 different points across five separate topics — crop insurance, dairy programs, disaster assistance, conservation programs and solar energy.
Many points were nixed by the subcommittee because they were already addressed by current IFB policies or were repeated throughout the larger submittal.
Among the farm program policies that garnered approval the full committee were proposals to support allowing farmers to update base acres and yields, making base acres portable, inflation-adjusted farm program payment limits and increased commodity loan rates.
The full committee also advanced proposals to support a number of conservation programs, including creating a water quality credit, incentives for sequestering carbon through cover crops and publicly funded land grant research on soil carbon.
Disaster assistance policies that received full committee approval include support for maintaining programs for animal disease prevention and management and federal spending to protect the agriculture industry from cyberattacks.
IFB delegates will also consider a new policy to oppose a permanent disaster program at the federal level.
Adam Nielsen, IFB director of national legislation and policy development, said that position was shared by many members throughout the state, who cautioned against a permanent program because it could jeopardize longstanding crop insurance programs offered through USDA.
But it also conflicts with a potential American Farm Bureau Federation policy effort, Nielsen said, which aims to create a permanent program gaining favor with farmers in the south and western United States, two regions that have been hit hard by hurricanes and wildfires.
Adam Henkel, subcommittee chairman, participated in the farm bill listening sessions earlier this year. He said they were valuable because they made him “think of things that I hadn’t considered before.”
An example, Henkel said, involves a proposed policy from McHenry County Farm Bureau that would oppose the removal of base acres on any farm participating in a renewable energy project.
As of now, those acres disappear, setting up long-term issues for future generations or for a farmer who may want to use those acres again after a project is decommissioned.
Henkel said at first he disagreed with the proposal, thinking that a farmer getting $1,000 an acre for a solar farm is a positive. But after hearing arguments from other subcommittee members, Henkel understood that “it would be nice if the next generation of farming could walk right in” and farm those acres.
“There are two sides to every story and we cannot be blind to both sides,” Henkel said. “That’s key to this whole process — everyone has their say.”
Henkel added that’s especially the case with the policy proposals that resulted from the member listening sessions, which demonstrate that IFB has “a finger on the pulse” of its members.
Natural Resources Subcommittee
During lengthy discussions, the Natural Resources Subcommittee debated several proposals related to development of commercial solar energy and commercial wind energy projects.
“Energy projects continue to be top of mind for our members. Our organization continues to work with how to deal equitably among our membership,” said Kendall-Grundy Farm Bureau President Scott Halpin, chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee.
The committee supported policies allowing county governments to grant local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) the right to inspect and identify violations of county land use regulations for both commercial wind and solar projects or Ag Impact Mitigation Agreements (AIMAs) provisions during construction, maintenance and deconstruction for both types of projects. The SWCDs’ costs to provide services to the county would be paid by the commercial wind or solar developer.
In other proposals, IFB would support a requirement for comprehensive drainage management plans to be developed for farmland where surface or subsurface drainage would be impacted by construction, maintenance or deconstruction of either a proposed commercial solar or commercial wind energy project.
While all the energy policy proposals were thoroughly vetted, the subcommittee believed some ideas might not achieve the submitting county’s goal or had unintended consequences, according to Halpin. “As we discuss any consequences, the Resolutions Committee has the luxury of IFB staff expertise,” he added.
In other action, the Natural Resources Subcommittee favored policy to add IFB support for the Illinois Leadership Council for Ag Education to policy supporting the Illinois Committee for Ag Education. The subcommittee also supported a moderate increase in the agricultural education line item in the Illinois State budget at not less than $5 million.
State and Local Government Subcommittee
State and Local Government Subcommittee members debated the scope of state emergency declarations during discussion of proposed policy. The subcommittee supported limiting a governor’s power to declare states of emergency to four consecutive ones unless the legislature or an equally bipartisan legislative body approves the state of emergency.
The original policy submittal basically sought support to limit a governor’s power to extend states of emergency beyond 30 days unless approved by the General Assembly.
The subcommittee amended that language because most disaster declarations cover natural disasters, such as flooding, that impact primarily downstate. Numerous times, multiple governors of both parties have extended declarations several times with praise from legislators. Using those examples, the original policy submittal would have required the General Assembly to convene every 30 days, which would be difficult and also run the risk of making those disasters subject to politics.
However, the subcommittee agreed no governor should have the autonomy to extend a disaster endlessly and voted to amend the original submittal.
Subcommittee members decided against a couple of proposals that they felt might have unintended consequences or limit free speech.
“All the submittals were given due consideration with a sympathetic point of view. We tried to foresee situations and any unintended consequences,” said Vermilion County Farm Bureau President Dennis Smith, chairman of the State and Local Government Subcommittee.
Smith praised Farm Bureau’s policy development process that considers any member’s idea.
“It’s the only organization I know of that any member can give their county Farm Bureau an idea,” Smith said. “If the idea makes it through the Resolutions Committee process and is voted on by the delegate body, it can become part of Illinois Farm Bureau policy. If it is part of IFB policy, it may become part of American Farm Bureau Federation policy. It’s unique.”
For two decades, Amy Hess always had an evacuation bag packed with essentials.
“I was always ready to leave,” the former Army Reserve major told FarmWeek.
It wasn’t until she was standing in the middle of her Mercer County pasture – seven years post-retirement – that she realized she no longer had to go anywhere.
“I retired at 40 after 22.5 years of service. I had no idea how tired I was until I left the service. This gives me rest and also a purpose,” she said looking over the rolling fields. “If you had told me in 2012 where I was going to be, I wouldn’t have dreamed it. I needed time to find what gives me joy.”
Today, Hess finds joy in a small, diversified farm with heirloom breeds of pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys; a few acres of hay and pasture; large garden; and big future plans. “I’m working toward self-sufficiency. It’s a lifestyle for myself and my family,” she said.
As America celebrates its first Veterans Day since the end of the nation’s longest war in Afghanistan, FarmWeek spoke to Hess about her service, her new ag venture and Veterans Day.
In only a couple of years, Hess transformed a mostly undeveloped farmyard into a neat grid of small pens and housing for 250 layers and dual-purpose chickens, four guineas and several ducks and a few Country Red Bourbon turkeys. Her Guinea boar, sow and seven little pigs and a Kunekune gilt were selected for their smaller sizes and marbled, slightly darker red pork.
With a grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Hess bought a cabinet incubator and started incubating 200 eggs on Nov. 1. “Now I won’t have to rely on a hatchery anymore,” she added.
Her “giant leap,” a New Holland tractor with blade and mower, was delivered a couple of weeks ago. Now Hess won’t have to miss a third cutting of hay again because she had to rely on others. “That (missed cutting) was the catalyst to buy,” she said, noting the equipment also brings opportunities for custom mowing and snow removal.
With a commercial license, Hess delivers an “eggscape” that ranges from rusty red to soft greens and blues to customers across Mercer County. By next fall, she hopes to have spring turkey eggs and birds weighing in the 20-pound range available for Thanksgiving meals. In the near future, she plans to offer customers starter eggs or poults to raise. When their birds mature, those customers may return to Hess for help processing the mature birds.
Next year’s plans include completion of a small on-farm stand with a small grain bin roof. The “farmers market of one” will offer a variety of vegetables from her two gardens, cut flowers, eggs and meat birds.
“It’s a lot of work, but if you love what you do,” she said with her voice trailing off.
“I credit the Farmer Veteran Coalition for helping to fund my dreams, for understanding what it takes, giving me opportunities to pursue my dreams and for giving veterans a mission to serve a purpose,” Hess said. “It’s very important to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
Farmers seeking hard working employees should consider hiring veterans, Hess said. Veterans are “equipped to handle and manage stress and remain calm. Until the job is done, our (veterans’) workday is not over. That’s the parallel to serving in uniform and farming,” she explained.
While Americans owe much to veterans, they also owe those serving today. “We can never lose our awareness and appreciation for a volunteer force,” she said. That awareness applies to Hess’ twins. Her son, Ben, serves in the Marines and his twin, Rebecca, is in the Air National Guard. Their younger sister, Sarah, is a freshman at Mercer County High School.
On Nov. 11, the nation’s thoughts to turn to those who serve and sacrifice. Thank a veteran by acknowledging them and asking basic questions that demonstrate a level care, Hess recommended.
“If you really want to thank a veteran, appreciate the freedoms you have,” she said.
To see Hess and other 9/11 veterans discuss the 20th anniversary, visit the No Barriers Warriors’ Facebook link https://bit.ly/3E86ZhP.