In an environment of highs and lows for prices, market demands and costs, the one thing sought by farmers in terms of transporting their goods to market is certainty.
That was the sentiment of a panel of transportation specialists from several state Farm Bureaus during an issues conference at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 94th Annual Meeting.
The panel also discussed the critical need for maintaining and improving the country's inland waterway system — highlighting its importance in transporting millions of tons of agricultural cargo every year.
"We're really talking about making decisions in two areas that will bring a lot of certainty for farmers and ranchers in this country," said Garret Hawkins, director of national legislative programs for the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation.
"One decision will be on certainty of the funding for big ticket infrastructure needs — such as the improvement of inland waterways and ports — and the other will be smaller, regulatory reform for farmers in taking their goods to market. These reforms aren't game changers, but will keep many of these farmers going."
The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, signed into law in July includes several exemptions for agriculture which were fought for by grassroots Farm Bureau members across the country.
The need for regulatory clarity crystalized after state transportation officials felt pressured by federal authorities to make rules for intrastate transportation as tight as interstate rules "We were told to either change or lose federal transportation funding," said Samuel Kieffer, national governmental relations director for Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
Daniel Mecklenborg, senior vice-president and chief legal officer for the Ingram Barge Company, spoke of the need for infrastructure improvements to inland waterways. The improvement of America's ports will enable American agriculture to benefit from larger ships that will come with the completed expansion of the Panama Canal in 2014, he explained.
Mecklenborg and Kevin Rund, senior director for local government for Illinois Farm Bureau, said it has been difficult to secure long-term funding commitments for waterway projects. Public-private partnerships could be a potential remedy for funding inadequacies.
The challenge comes from a lack of long-term commitments to funding from the federal government.
"Only securing limited funding one year at a time makes working on these big infrastructure projects very inefficient," Mecklenborg said.
The panel added that involvement of farmers and ranchers is necessary to pressure lawmakers to make changes in regulatory and funding certainty.
"We need grassroots involvement and (Farm Bureau) members chewing on the ears of members in Congress," Kieffer said.
With common sense changes and greater certainty to the rules governing the moving of agricultural products, farmers and ranchers will be better positioned to respond to their markets in the future, the panelists concluded.