Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

Farmers in 2020 have lived through an avalanche of bad news. Tariff wars. A market-killing virus. Low commodity prices. Then, on top of everything else, a historic windstorm leveled nearly 10 million corn acres and crippled our storage infrastructure. The hits just keep on coming.

But just as ski resorts in mountain valleys use the North American Avalanche Danger Scale for guidance – it predicts avalanche occurrence/severity on a scale from 1 (Low) to 5 (Extreme) – farmers need to examine old risks and new dangers and make plans accordingly. Here are a few of the imminent to long-range danger signs we see in the coming year.

Resistant Weeds: Level 5, Extreme Danger. Glyphosate-resistant pigweed has already overwhelmed fields across the south and corn belt and it will likely get worse. In the past, farmers used Dicamba in addition to 2,4-D and glufosinate-resistant soybeans to ensure their fields stayed clean; the loss of Dicamba due to off-target issues has taken a valuable asset out of their hands, even though pigweed was already showing signs of resisting Dicamba. In fact, pigweed has shown an amazing ability to adapt to most post-emergence chemistries. To win the war on pigweed, farmers must use overlapping residuals, start with clean fields, and consider using cover crops.

Biomass Legislation: Level 4, High Danger. Ethanol, which uses a third of the corn produced by U.S. growers, is fighting an increasingly dangerous, two-front war. On one side are gasoline refiners pleading for EPA waivers to avoid having to blend ethanol with gasoline. On the other side are well-funded environmental lobbyists who have decided that, when it comes to clean energy, solar and wind projects are preferable to biomass or nuclear. Being squeezed between the two sides of this vise isn’t a new situation for growers. Farmers will need to pay special attention to energy policy as it’s debated in the new 2021 Congress.

Crop Protection Products: Level 3, Considerable Danger. For more than 100 years, the U.S. Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) has successfully enforced both the safe use of and access to crop protection products. But a new proposal championed by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) would overhaul FIFRA. Called the “Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2020,” the proposal would impose a long list of new restrictions on the regulation, sale, and use of pesticides. It would immediately ban organophosphates and neonicotinoids. It would create a process for citizens to petition the EPA to review and ban pesticides. It would give states a much greater role in regulating farm products. And it would require the EPA to review – and likely restrict – any substances deemed unsafe by the European Union or Canada. Most political insiders believe this legislation has no chance of passing in 2020, but farmers are well advised to watch closely the makeup and actions of the 2021 Congress.

Animal Agriculture: Level 2, Moderate Danger. Animal agriculture is facing challenges on several fronts as demand for traditional meat and milk products is declining while nut- and soy-based milks, plant-based meat, and cellular-grown meat competes for grocery shelf space and consumer attention.

To regulate large animal agriculture, Senate and House Democrats have introduced the Farm System Reform Act. Provisions include: A moratorium on new and expanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations; Buyouts of large livestock farms; and new pecuniary rules to hold livestock integrators responsible for pollution of large farms under their contract. Growers and ranchers should take time to educate themselves on the potential ramifications of shifting consumer tastes and pay special attention to any legislative proposals that could affect traditional livestock operations.

Farm State Bipartisan Coalition Collapse: Level 2, Moderate Danger. For years ag issues have been overseen by the House and Senate Ag Committees with strong bipartisan support.  As Ag issues overlap into health and the environment, they will be overseen by a larger segment of Congress.  The legislators with the closest relationship to farmers will have a smaller role in overseeing farmer issues.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Level 1, Low Danger. Everyone in commodity crop agriculture should look at the Nikola Motor Company. This start-up company is developing hydrogen fuel cells and electric trucks.  What differentiates them from Tesla is the development of H2 Filling Stations where they expect to profit primarily as a hydrogen fuel supplier.  It is early days for Nikola but biofuels like ethanol and bio diesel have a growing list of competitors.

As conditions change, we’ll do our best to alert you on these issues and tell you if they’re moving up or down the “danger list.” For now, we recommend:

  • Joining an organization like Farm Bureau or other Ag livestock for commodity organizations will help you see what is coming and how they can plan accordingly.
  • Lend your voice to shape legislation, both in writing and by attending public hearings.
  • Take action to stay in front the situation. For example, every livestock farm should implement a nutrient management plant with the guidance of local soil and water associations or the NRCS.

Advanced knowledge of upcoming challenges – like a warning of a potential avalanche – is the key to surviving and adapting to these challenges.