Panama Canal expansion ready for 2016

By Joseph L. Murphy

A U.S. destroyer and grain ship are pulled through the final locks of the Panama Canal. The expansion canal is ready to begin operations in 2016. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

A U.S. destroyer and grain ship are pulled through the final locks of the Panama Canal. The expansion canal is ready to begin operations in 2016. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Information about the Panama Canal expansion took center stage during the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) meeting in Panama this week. About 100 farmers, state soybean staff members, and others were able to get a briefing from canal officials about the progress of the vital shipping route for U.S. soybean farmers.

Ilya Espinoza De Marotta, the executive vice president of engineering and program administration with the Panama Canal Authority, told the group that April 2016 is still the expected completion date for the new expanded canal channel. The channel will enhance a system of locks that have been in place since 1914.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told those attending the STC board meeting and the tour of the canal that it is important for farmers to see the canal first-hand.

“Farmers need to be acquainted with, knowledgeable and passionate about, not only the supply side of their business, but demand side as well. They need to be just as passionate about the connectivity between supply and demand,” Steenhoek said. “That’s what transportation is. That linkage or connectivity is the system of roads, bridges, highways, ports, inland waterways, railway systems and includes the Panama Canal.”

He went on to say that 600 million bushels of soybeans travel through the Panama Canal annually, making it the No. 1 U.S. commodity moving through the canal. Grains make up the largest cargo by commodity moving through the canal with petroleum and container cargo rounding out the top three according to numbers released by the Panama Canal Authority.

Those numbers are expected to increase once the canal expansion is completed. Canal officials told the group they expect the total volume of goods transported to double once the expansion project is complete.

“Currently, 70 percent of shipments through the canal either originate or are destined for the U.S.,” De Marotta said.

Ed Ulch, an STC board member and Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) director, also attended the meeting. He agreed with Steenhoek that it’s important for farmers to see the canal.

“This (the Panama Canal) is one link of the transportation chain, and we aren’t going to be able to take advantage of this unless we hold up our end of the bargain, so to speak,” Ulch said. “We need to do the things needed in the Gulf to be able to accommodate the big ships and the larger loads to be more efficient.”

Karey Claghorn, ISA chief operations officer, has visited the canal several times and echoed the importance of the waterway for farmers. During this trip, she was also able to see the importance of the canal when it comes to national security.

“In my opinion, food security is an important part of national security so the canal is critical to move products around the world,” Claghorn said. “But to see the Navy warship move through the canal, we also see the importance the canal plays in getting our military around the world in an efficient way.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news

 

 

Global labor issues present a big problem

The pace of this year’s harvest in Iowa combined with the record-setting yields can stress the labor of any farming operation. Making sure that help is available to run equipment and haul grain is important in keeping the wheels of harvest moving.

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Recently farmers from around the world met in Des Moines to discuss important issues they face with their farming operations. All agreed that labor issues are a major concern.

Fourteen farmers gathered to take part in the Global Farmers Roundtable and World Food Prize Symposium last week. The farmers from countries spanning five of the seven continents said that farm labor supply, farm labor costs, and labor work ethic can be a limiting factor in the future for their operations.

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Levi Wood, a grain farmer from western Saskatchewan, Canada, has difficulties in finding labor due to the pressures that other industries place on the labor force.

“We’re competing against other industries. In Canada, those industries are mining, oil, and gas. It’s a barrier because even people that grew up on a farm or work on a farm can make $80,000 to $100,000 U.S. dollars a year at 18 with no skills,” he said.

In India, low wages have forced laborers to find other jobs to sustain a living. That puts farmers in the difficult position of choosing expensive machinery to do the work or limiting the size of the farm because of the labor shortage.

“We cannot pay wages that are deserved by farmers,” Balwinder Singh Kang, a farmer from India said. “Expenses have increased so it limits how much can be paid. I don’t think $500 a year is enough for a worker to live and feed a family. But even if we are willing to pay more we can’t get the people to come.”

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Farmers in Argentina and Australia are facing a pull of labor from small rural towns to the larger cities according to Maria Beatriz Giraudo Gaviglio of Argentina and Sarah Sammon of Australia.

“We lose a lot of our youth to the big city which is four hours away. So we start with a lack of availability for helpers,“ Sammon told the group.

The story is the same in Argentina according to Gaviglio.

“Everybody wants to live in the cities these days,” she said. “We need people living on the farm, but they prefer to live on less money in the city. The government also gives subsidies for people that don’t want to work.”

To help with the problem, she has been proactive in working with other farm groups in Argentina to create training centers in small cities to help train workers that might not have the opportunity to go to universities in the city.

“The problem is limiting our production, and it is a very big problem in my country,” Gaviglio said.

Kees Huizinga, originally from the Netherlands, has farmed in Ukraine for the past 12 years. He raises soybeans, winter wheat, and other row crops along with 850 dairy cows and 750 sows, farrow to finish. He currently employees 350 people. For his operation, he sees a large labor pool to draw from but he feels the workforce is not motivated to work because of government incentives.

“In Ukraine there is enough labor but there is a shortage of jobs,” he said. “There is an enormous workforce, so it comes down to management. We have to stimulate people to work. We have to spend time teaching people the jobs and then retaining them.”

Kang sees the issue of labor as a crisis in his native country of India with ramifications around the world. He believes that it goes beyond a labor shortage to the willingness of farmers to keep farming.

“In 10 to 15 years no one will be willing to farm if things continue,” he said. “All of these things are problems we are facing. Labor is not there; technology is not there it is all combined together.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean 

 

Overcoming “flatlander” syndrome

By Joseph L. Murphy

How do you overcome flatlanders? Those people who shrug-off science and embrace misinformation. The people who thought you would sail off the edge of the world until explorers armed with science proved the earth was round.

Wade Cowan, President of the American Soybean Association, and Sonia Tomassone,a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, discuss biotechnology issues last week at an ISGA meeting in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Wade Cowan, President of the American Soybean Association, and Sonia Tomassone,a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, discuss biotechnology issues last week at an ISGA meeting in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

That was a question Wade Cowan asked a group of farmers and industry leaders at the end of a three-day International Soy Growers Alliance (ISGA) meeting in China.

It was one of many questions asked during the three-day visit in China as leaders from Brazil, Argentina, United States and Paraguay talked with high level Chinese government and business agencies in hopes of them accepting new biotechnology seeds and farming practices.

Finding an answer to that questions and others seemed simple. Use communications from a unified group of countries to promote the understanding of biotech crops and food safety. But as many representatives of ISGA found, China is setting the pace, and in some cases, making the rules on approving biotech events. That pace and the undefined rules for biotech approvals are causing financial and social shockwaves around the globe according to a White Paper that was released in conjunction with the ISGA visit.

“It matters to all of us that we have freedom to operate and that we have the ability to use the tools in the toolbox,” Cowan said. “When they say it could take seven years to get a trait we can use in our fields, they have effectively taken away 25 percent of your productive life as a farmer. You couldn’t tell a wage worker in town that you would take away seven years of their productivity and knock them down. Science is science and once it is approved it needs to be approved everywhere.”

Through meetings with high-ranking industry, education and government leaders in China, members of ISGA presented information in a unified front to try and streamline the approval process. But to do that they found they have to overcome the fears of genetically modified crops when it comes to the Chinese people.

Wu Kongming, the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, meets with ISGA members last week in Beijing, China. The ISGA promoted GM technology as a key component in addressing global food security issues during the meeting. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Wu Kongming, the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, meets with ISGA members last week in Beijing, China. The ISGA promoted GM technology as a key component in addressing global food security issues during the meeting. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

 

“I understand the conflict lies in the fast pace of research and development of GM events and the delay in approvals in consumer countries like China,” Chen Xuecong, the vice general manager of Sino Grain, said through an English translator. “From the perspective of the importers they have their own process and their consideration is more focused on food safety and the safety of biology. I believe that communications to the public is very important and it is also important for you to provide massive proof to show biotechnology is safe and that it will provide safe food for consuming country.”

That answer, in one form or another, was repeated to each group of ISGA international farmers as they met with the Chinese organizations. Organizations like the Department of American and Oceanian Affairs Ministry of Commerce, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Supervision on Animal and Plant Quarantine.

“It would be a significant improvement if all the ISGA countries together with Chinese industry could work together to create a pilot program for soybeans,” Jim Sutter told Chen Xuecong and others gathered at a meeting.

Chen Xuecong discusses biotechnology issues with members of the ISGA during a recent visit to Sino Grain in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Chen Xuecong discusses biotechnology issues with members of the ISGA during a recent visit to Sino Grain in Beijing, China. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

 

The ISGA, formed 10 years ago from countries representing 95 percent of the world’s soybean production, has been working together in a united front to prod European and Asian countries to approve biotechnology events in an efficient manner. The ISGA representatives that participated in the mission to China know their message is being received, but the actions of the Chinese government are still undefined.

“This week everyone was talking the same language and for me it was impressive,” Sonia Tomassone, a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, said. “We need to present a single paper to everyone we met with to show we have one voice on this issue.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news

Farmers in Mexico value U.S. soymeal

The United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC) is constantly looking for new uses for soy internationally and this week members of Qualified State Soybean Boards (QSSB) were able to see firsthand how markets are growing in Mexico.

Aquaculture has been a buzz worked in the United States lately but it is a practice that has been consuming U.S. soy for many years. Countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Mexico import large amounts of soymeal to grow tilapia and shrimp.

A worker pulls a net to capture fish in an aquaculture tank in Mexico.

A worker pulls a net to capture fish in an aquaculture tank in Mexico.

Molina Farms, in the town of Jamay near Lake Chapalais, is a family farm doing just that. By importing high quality soybean grain from the U.S., they are creating large profit margins for their fresh tilapia sales and fingerling sales.

Fingerling sales is the process of selling the tilapia when they are four grams to other area producers to feed out. Molina farms are concentrating on the breeding and genetics of the tilapia to gain a premium from other farmers who don't have the facilities or genetics to start tilapia from the beginning.

The Molina Family Farm also sells fresh fish from their farm. The fresh fish sales are offered directly to consumers in the region. To keep profit margins as large as possible, Alfredo Molina invests in high quality U.S. soymeal for his rations and is also using cutting edge technology for the area.

"We spend about $1.30 per kilo of tilapia in production costs and can sell the live fish for about $4.00 a fish," Molina said, speaking through an interpreter.

Molina showed the group the finishing ponds for the tilapia where about 20,000 fish are grown per 10 foot pond. When the tilapia is ready for market it weighs between 500-600 grams or just over a pound. They use a ration of soybean made up of 40 to 50 percent soymeal. Molina said that U.S. soymeal is preferred, but due to higher prices last year, they had to import from other South American Countries.

The Biofloc system aerates the water, keeping the algae and nutrients from settling on the bottom. The system allows the fish to feed off the remaining nutrients in the water and helps build their immunity. Because of the ecological system farmers need to make sure increased algae doesn't starve the fish of oxygen. Computer systems linked to a recently installed Wi-Fi network monitor oxygen levels and can automatically adjust levels as necessary. In the past, aquaculture farmers would employee a poly fish culture, having tilapia paired in rotation with catfish or shrimp, but that cut down on production of the valuable tilapia. According to Molina, Bioflock system helps him to raise a higher quality fish in less space while increasing the growing cycle.

"The Biofloc system is rough, but we need to master it," he said.

To fill market demand Molina is looking at raising shrimp at his farm, too. He told the group gathered that his working relationship with USSEC will help him to manage the new enterprise.

“It will be trial and error at first but USSEC offers excellent information about feed rations and what other farmers are doing to be successful,”Molina said.

Heather Lilienthal, director of producer services at the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), attended the USSEC tour in Mexico. She said seeing the uses of soy imported from the U.S. was fascinating.

"This was my first opportunity to visit an aquaculture operation and learn how this family is using soy in its feed," she said. "As they expand their operation and adapt to new technology, it reminded me of Iowa farms doing the same thing. Everyone is striving to be more efficient in order to meet growing demand for their products."

Caring half a world away

By Joseph L. Murphy

It started with 16 farmers and soybean association staff members traveling to Asia on an annual trade mission to thank industry partners for their continued patronage of U.S. soybeans. But, for the participants of the trip, I believe it turned out to be much more.

The American group, representing farmers who grow soybeans in Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and North Dakota, not only showed their appreciation for the business, they built friendships and a deeper understanding of their customers’ needs.

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That was the business side of the trip. But I think the trip also etched cultures, traditions and personalities into the minds of the participants; creating memories and relationships that won’t soon be forgotten. I know I gained a deeper appreciation for the U.S. and Filipino servicemen who fought, island by island, to liberate the Philippines during World War II. That bond now, 68 years old, is still held in high regard when talking to the people of the Philippines.

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I also gained an appreciation for the help that we can offer. High-quality soybeans grown in the Midwest are providing protein to a growing world and, last week, farmers also provided relief to victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

Was it worth 10 days away from family, businesses and farming operations? In a time of high-tech gadgets that can bring people half way around the world into the palm of your hand the question could be asked why wouldn’t you just conduct the trade mission via Skype, Facetime or another service?

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For me, it boiled down to the opportunity of learning that, although oceans separate us, we all have similar goals. Whether it was the countless commuters invading the streets in Manila every day or the throngs of people riding their scooters in Vietnam, we all have goals to provide for our loved ones and care for those less fortunate.

I know I will always get teary eyed when I think of the little girl, about the age of my daughter, that I passed one night sleeping in a doorway in Ho Chi Minh City. But I also know that it will serve as a reminder that there are people out there in need and that I should continue to do everything that I can to help.

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It also helps me to know that this trip (and my job for that matter) started with the power of a single piece of grain grown in the Midwest by caring people. Soybeans and other commodities continue to unite people across the globe in a positive way and this trade mission was proof positive of that on many levels.

But, I must admit that while having face-to-face meetings is vital for our trade partners in places such as the Philippines and Vietnam, technology still has its place! As I was a world away, meeting these wonderful people, I was still able to keep in touch with the ones I love in Iowa.

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news