AUSTIN, TEXAS — The year 2019 was an eventful one for the grain industry with great progress scored on several fronts, including trade, waterways improvement and workplace safety, Eric Wilkey, president, Arizona Grain, Inc., Casa Grande, Ariz., and outgoing chairman of the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), told industry executives who gathered for the NGFA’s 124th annual convention in Austin on March 9.  In each of these areas, and others, the NGFA, played a critical role.

“On trade, NGFA is widely recognized within the Trump administration and Congress for its effective advice and advocacy that contributed to the enactment of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the US-China Phase One Economic and Trade Agreement,” Mr. Wilkey said. The US-China phase one agreement took effect on Feb. 14, and USMCA, once it is ratified by the Canadian parliament, will come into force on July 1.”

Mr. Wilkey said USMCA will ensure a predictable trade and supply chain environment in the North American marketplace, while making substantive improvements in regulatory cooperation and the process for resolving non-tariff trade barriers.

“Meanwhile, the purchase commitments made by China in the phase one agreement are substantial and significant,” Mr. Wilkey said. “We’ll see how that plays out given the coronavirus outbreak.”

The phase one agreement also requires China to implement a more timely, transparent and accountable process for approving biotech traits, and established mechanisms for resolving non-tariff barriers, Mr. Wilkey said.  

“It’s also important not to lose sight of the successful culmination of the phase one trade agreement with Japan last October, which averted having US wheat, dairy and meat products being competitively disadvantaged by preferential tariffs granted to other countries that are part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership and the European Union-Japan trade agreement,” Mr. Wilkey said.

In 2020, the NGFA will monitor compliance with the USMCA and the China phase one agreement and concentrate efforts on the next round of negotiations with Japan, which was expected to address important sanitary, phytosanitary and biotechnology issues.

“We’ve also provided our industry’s input to the administration on US objectives for a new trade agreement with the United Kingdom that we trust will lead to a more science- and risk-based approach and counter the EU’s protectionist precautionary principle,” Mr. Wilkey said.

The NGFA long has championed the improvement and modernization of the nation’s inland waterways.

“It’s no secret that the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System are dilapidated and have long surpassed their 50-year lifespan, with a big uptick in lock breakdowns,” Mr. Wilkey noted.

Mr. Wilkey explained that for years, both Democratic and Republican administrations have refused to provide funding for the US Army Corps of Engineers to conduct the pre-engineering and design work required before the Corps may obtain the funding for seven critical lock projects that already have been authorized by Congress.

“But lo and behold, again thanks to the persistence of NGFA and our partners at Waterways Council Inc. (WCI), and with the strong intervention and support of Secretary Perdue, OMB in February relented and included $4.5 million in the administration’s fiscal 2021 budget proposal to enable the Corps to do the advance work needed to get these projects rolling,” Mr. Wilkey said.

“But in 2020, we want to attain even greater heights when it comes to waterway infrastructure and port maintenance,” Mr. Wilkey added.

“Joining with WCI, we’re urging Congress as part of biennial legislation known as the Water Resources Development Act to increase the federal share of funding for inland waterway projects to 75%, versus the 50% share currently, with the remainder coming from full use of the Inland Waterway Trust Fund comprising monies generated from the barge fuel tax,” Mr. Wilkey said. “Increasing the federal share would greatly expedite construction of new 1,200-foot locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River. Further, we’re supporting legislation to allow full utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to dredge all harbors to their authorized depths to accommodate the larger Panamax vessels now plying the seas.”

On workplace safety, Mr. Wilkey asserted, “I’d argue no organization has done more to produce a relevant and diverse suite of education and training materials than NGFA, thanks again to the expertise of our Safety, Health and Environmental Quality Committee and staff, and with the financial support of the National Grain and Feed Foundation.”

The NGFA has conducted several regional safety and regulatory compliance workshops in recent years as well as an annual digital streaming conference on safety called Convey.

Mr. Wilkey pointed to the NGFA’s alliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), established a little more than two years ago, as a way to further extend the reach of the NGFA’s safety training and education efforts, as well as building a closer working relationship with that agency. Last September, the NGFA’s board of directors approved extending and expanding that alliance for an additional five years.

“NGFA and OSHA have partnered for a Stand Up for Grain Safety Week for the past three years,” Mr. Wilkey said. “This year’s intensive week of safety activity is scheduled for April 13-17, with a kickoff event at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

Mr. Wilkey said the NGFA this spring will launch a new initiative to educate both commercial facilities and farmers about the life-saving importance of proper grain bin entry procedures and engulfment prevention, as well as the importance of maintaining grain quality to minimize the need to enter bins at all.

“We’ll be sending an array of materials that grain, feed and processing facilities can distribute to their farmer-customers,” Mr. Wilkey said. “But to further extend the reach, we’ll be doing the same with our state and regional affiliates; the Grain Elevator and Processing Society and its local chapters; state farm and commodity organizations, as well as the Future Farmers of America, 4-H and other farm youth groups.

Looking to the future, Mr. Wilkey said, there will be no letup “in the daunting challenges we face in the decade ahead.”

For the industry to continue to thrive, its leaders must be innovative, Mr. Wilkey said.  Staying ahead of the curve requires creating a truly competitive and modernized transportation system, ensuring government policy safeguards the US’s ability to produce and compete for foreign markets, maintaining the ability to capture the productivity and utility of new crop technologies, preserving efficient trading systems and risk management tools, achieving relief from burdensome and ineffective regulation, and maintaining a safe and highly capable workforce.

“In short, what our industry requires is squarely within the wheelhouse of the NGFA,” Mr. Wilkey said.