MANHATTAN — Outgoing Gov. Sam Brownback wistfully reflected on the administration’s work on agriculture policy Thursday before plugging a strategy for building an empire through relocation of the American Royal across the state line into Kansas.
He spoke with pride about inspiring a collaborative effort among farmers who rely on irrigation to slow depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, expressed gratitude for emergence of ethanol production to expand the market for bumper corn harvests and looked forward to completion of the $1.2 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan.
But, Brownback said, the nucleus of an economic marvel can be found in construction of the $160 million American Royal complex in Kansas City, Kan.
"It’s going to be more than a stock show," Brownback said. "We want to be the center of agriculture technology for the world. We want to be the center of genetic marketing for the world. In Kansas. Here. Us. That’s a vision we have."
Brownback, who expects to be confirmed within a couple months as ambassador of religious freedom in the administration of President Donald Trump, addressed about 350 people at the Summit on Agricultural Growth.
Only oblique references were made by Brownback to the slump in Kansas farm income during the past three year associated with low commodity prices. Average net farm income fell from $140,000 in 2013 and $128,000 in 2014 to $6,000 in 2015 before rebounding slightly to $43,000 in 2016, based on the Kansas Farm Management Association’s annual surveys.
That economic reality provided incentive to look beyond the obvious during dozens of discussion groups devoted to the future role of specialty crops, unmanned aerial drones, food processing, oil seeds, entrepreneurship as well as the staples of beef, pork, dairy, wheat, corn and sorghum.
U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, a Republican who represents the rural, massive 1st District in Congress, said he was impressed the conference had the feel of a business strategy session rather than a stem-winding task force full of bluster and low on action.
"So many people form committees, pray about it and do nothing," Marshall said.
He said the government was prepared to endorse the conversion of sorghum oil into bio-diesel, which would bolster the market value of a grain mainly used as livestock feed.
"Maybe you’ll get 10 cents or 15 cents more per bushel," the congressman said. "It’s not where we need to be, but it’s a step in the right direction."
Marshall said the new U.S. farm bill under development in Washington, D.C., would continue reliance on crop insurance to promote domestic food production. The insurance safety net costs every U.S. citizen about $35 each year, and the congressman said it was worth every penny.
"Crop insurance doesn’t just protect the farmers. It protects your loan at the bank. It protects your downtown communities, your co-ops, Main Street. America is protected by crop insurance," he said.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the U.S. House and Senate had to move the Trump administration away from recommendations that weaken crop insurance while continuing encourage action to reduce costly regulations. Congress should work in a bipartisan way to drop the number of federal tax brackets and to lower rates applicable to the middle class, he said.
"We now have people running agencies who are our friends," said Roberts, who has taken pleasure in the transition from President Barack Obama to Trump. "At a time when the ag economy is in a period of adjustment, it is important that the role of government be a partner — not an adversary."
He said the new Farm Bill shouldn’t be victimized by revolutionary ideas of reform, because government should stick with policies proven effective. The senator said the government ought to increase investment in agriculture research after years of stagnation.
During the summit, Colyer said he would recommend the event continue once he takes over as governor.
"This is an opportunity to say, ‘Where are we going?’ This is the key economic driver. It is our kids’ future," said Colyer, decked out in jeans and cowboy boots. "We are the heart of America."