MOFB President Blake Hurst joins Eric to talk about why rural road infrastructure has become so important to agriculture, and Spencer Tuma recaps President Trump’s State of the Union address and discusses the portions that related to agriculture and rural America.


Eric: [00:00:11] Welcome to Digging In with Missouri Farm Bureau. I’m Eric Bohl, Director of Public Affairs. We have two guests for you today. First we’re going to talk with our President Blake Hurst who recently spoke with the Highway Commission here in Jefferson City, and he’s going to fill us in on his comments regarding rural roads and their importance to agriculture and rural Missouri. And then we’re going to talk with Spencer Tuma, our Director of National Legislative Programs about the State of the Union address that President Trump just gave and how it relates to Missouri agriculture. So let’s get started. [00:00:40][28.5]

Eric: [00:00:45] We’re talking to Blake Hurst, the President of Missouri Farm Bureau today. We just returned from the Highway Commission where you testified before the commission about the importance of rural roads to the agricultural community. What were some of the things that you went over with the commission when you had a chance to talk with them? [00:01:04][18.2]

Blake: [00:01:04] Well it was indeed a pleasure to get to talk to them. The commission is obviously a five member board that sits on top of the Missouri Department of Transportation budget and helps make a lot of decisions about what their future plans are going to be. So it is really important for Farm Bureau to have our voice heard in front of that commission I talked about the importance of agriculture, and we had just, as most of people listening this podcast know, we have in the past year or two helped fund a study that talked about the economic contributions of agriculture to Missouri. The fact that we do 88.4 billion dollars of economic activity and are responsible about 10 percent of the employment in the state of Missouri. And so if the commissioners remember nothing else about my presentation, I hope they remember those two things. [00:01:55][50.7]

Eric: [00:01:56] Well those are pretty important stunning numbers, and when we look at those numbers of 88.4 billion dollars in revenue that that agriculture and forestry and related industries generates, that is about 15 percent of the total in Missouri. So it’s just hearing the number itself sounds like a lot until you put in context of the rest of the state it’s hard to see just how much that is but that’s a huge slice of of what Missouri does overall one of the things that I think is interesting that we’ve been trying to work on a little bit in the past couple of weeks with a study that’s about to come out from the University of Missouri is adding value to those products that we produce already. What’s the current state of adding value to the products we produce and what do you think we can gain to make this industry even bigger? [00:02:50][53.6]

Blake: [00:02:50] Well we you know we’re proud of the fact that a lot of food is manufactured in the state of Missouri we brew a lot of beer here. We feed a lot of animals here, poultry in particular, but all those things add value to the crops that are grown in our field or in our pastures and our crop fields. But we don’t capture all that value. We still ship a tremendous amount of of agriculture produce out of the state to be processed further. On this study that you referenced thinks that there’s a chance that we could capture another twenty three billion dollars in economic activity if we keep some of that food manufacturing closer to home. As I pointed out to the commission this morning, the first thing that people who might be willing in financing or building one of those plants, the first thing they’re going to ask what are the roads like, what’s the transportation, how do I get the stuff to my end customer and to the consumer. And if rural roads are not in good shape, they are going to locate here. So it’s as simple as that. [00:03:53][63.2]

Eric: [00:03:54] And that’s why it was important to talk to the commissioners today is because what’s unique about agriculture compared to some other industries in Missouri that are of similar or close to the same size is the geographic dispersement of agriculture makes it so that you have to have a lot more miles of roads to deliver products to market than if you had say a factory that’s pumping cars out every day and you’ve got semi trailers loading those on and taking them away from the factory to be delivered to dealerships. You see maybe a hundred loads come off that lot on one day and seems like a lot. Well you probably see many times that much happen in agriculture but it’s not all at one one point. It all comes from a bunch of fields all across the state. You know maybe 10 million acres or something that are being planned across the state. So that’s why it seems like it’s more important to to have those broader farm to market roads taking better care of. What was your point to the commission about those farm to market roads and how they need to be addressed? [00:05:00][65.5]

Blake: [00:05:00] Well we we talked with them about you know I used our farm as an example if we have a good crop if we have enough rain in the summer and yield what we hope to yield it takes about 800 loads to get our crop from the fields to our bins and then the same amount of trips to take those corn and soybeans to get to the elevator to the processing plant over the rest of the years and that’s 800 semi trucks fully loaded. So that’s sixteen hundred trips generated by just our farm. And when the highway department, one of the interesting thing is as we talked about this presentation and got ready to go over, when they measure miles traveled, they measure road miles of vehicles, they actually are monitoring our cell phones when we drive by. They’re checking the cell phone signal and counting is that one vehicle. When I drove into Tarkio the other day to pick something up at the at the auto parts store I followed a Mini Cooper. I’m pretty sure, which is a very very small car, I’m pretty sure that person had a cell phone laying next to him in the seat just like I do in my pickup or we do when we drive our trucks. But as far as the Department Transportation concerns the same amount of traffic, but it’s a tremendous difference in the amount of wear and tear on the roads and the economic importance of the trip, not discount whatever Mr. Mini Cooper driver was doing, but just to point out when I’m hauling 900 bushels of soybean to the market that’s a tremendous amount of economic activity to be produced with those soybeans already happened in my field and to be produced in those soybeans as the guys drive them down to St. Joe and they’re processed in oil and meal and all the things that soybeans are used for. [00:06:49][108.8]

Eric: [00:06:50] Yeah. And if if your farm which generates as you say a conservative estimate of at least sixteen hundred semi fully loaded semi’s a year moving on and off the farm to to move your crop. If that was a factory it would probably get bent over backwards to get new roads built for it to make sure that the trucks could deliver the products there and take them to market. But when it’s farms the factories that we make our products in and it’s really just land that’s spread out all over the place and so these roads don’t get the same treatment because you don’t see it all in one day. What do you think that the department could do better to maybe build some, make a better use of the money that they’re putting towards our roads now? [00:07:34][43.9]

Blake: [00:07:34] Well we in our comments, we pointed out that it might be possible and might be desirable to designate the rural freight corridors, or the farm to market roads, that see the heaviest use from corn, soybeans, timber, cotton, rice, whatever the product might be, that see the heaviest use for agriculture products headed toward their final destination and concentrating their maintenance on those roads. One of the sort of catch 22 situations, as Director McKenna pointed out the maintenance is in the same fund as snow removal. So in years like this one when we’ve had a lot of snow, a lot of weather, and a lot of damage to the road because of the weather, we spend more on snow removal and actually have less left for maintenance. We’d like to see that maintenance budget be a part of the budget. Not maybe quite so dependent on how much snow happens in December so that we can get our roads repaired during the construction season. [00:08:35][60.8]

Eric: [00:08:36] All right really the the years that you need it the most are the years you had the least because of the snow. Like you say there are a lot of roads out there that got pretty torn up over the past few weeks. There’s big snows on the plows going over them. There’s a lot of asphalt that needs to be repaired. So that definitely is an issue that’s concerning. One of the questions I thought was interesting that one of the commissioners asked was about, and I think there is confusion on this point, how much fuel tax farmers actually pay into the fuel fund, the road maintenance fund, because there are some parts of our fuel that it just gets exempted from that tax because it doesn’t use the roads. What is that breakdown in your operations? [00:09:19][43.7]

Blake: [00:09:20] Well we obviously pay road tax on on our personal vehicles, on our farm pickups that we use to drive into the field or driving into the repair shop and then again on those sixteen hundred trips we make in our semi trailers. So we’re paying about federal and state together about 40 cents a gallon. We figure it’s somewhere between six and eight thousand dollars a year in road taxes just for our farm. Hundred thousand farms across the state of Missouri you kind of get an idea of the amount that farmers contribute to that road fund. [00:09:53][33.3]

Eric: [00:09:54] So the things that are actually exempted from that are what? [00:09:57][2.3]

Blake: [00:09:57] Well the combine driving in the field, the tractor pulling a planter, obviously we don’t pay road tax on those gallons because they’re not doing any damage to the roads. [00:10:07][9.6]

Eric: [00:10:08] So that seems to be a misconception that some people have that just because there are some portions of agriculture that don’t have to pay into that fund that doesn’t mean that all of it is, it’s really just when you’re not on a road. One of the other issues that we talked about is that there are some other states that have designated some other roads as farm to market roads and other states that have found ways to identify those freight corridors. Have you seen a movement towards maybe something like that happening in Missouri that the the Department of Transportation may highlight some roads that are the most valuable economically to rural Missouri and that we could maybe put a special designation on make sure that they’re well taken care of? [00:10:54][46.2]

Blake: [00:10:54] Well it’s just it’s an idea. I think that’s been percolating for a while. The Department Transportation is well aware of the challenges we’re facing in rural Missouri. And this is really the only way that we can keep agriculture moving given our present funding stream. So I think it is inevitable that they will move that direction. [00:11:15][20.4]

Eric: [00:11:15] And that’s one more, one last thing that we will touch on is the funding streams. We spent a lot of time last fall trying to support the Proposition D that would have added funding into the road fund. And you mentioned that quite a bit in your remarks and they asked you some questions about that. You know, what you see as the future. What do you see as the future of that funding stream? [00:11:40][24.4]

Blake: [00:11:40] Well we took a survey. We had several hundred members at our Annual Meeting in December took a survey of some public issues of those members. One of the questions we asked, we asked actually a couple of questions about Proposition D, obviously broad support among our members for the Proposition D, we were happy to see that, but that’s reflected in our resolutions which we passed again this year calling for more funding. Farm Bureau members understand the problem and are willing to do what they can to fix it. But, in the comments in that survey, there was some confusion, as you’ll remember, Proposition D was actually adding income, adding revenue for state Highway Patrol. I think there was some confusion about whether that would or would not help the roads, some feeling the state patrol is perhaps adequately funded even if the roads are not. And I think that they lost some support because people didn’t fully understand how Proposition D would have worked. I had the chance to tell the members of the commission about our survey and to talk about how some of the things that I mentioned are what our members are thinking about Proposition D. [00:12:58][77.4]

Eric: [00:12:59] Yeah and that that’s something that that farm bureau has been supportive of for a long time. You did mention that every successful change increase to the fuel tax that would fund these rural roads has been supported by Farm Bureau members in the past, and we anticipate the Farm Bureau is going to continue to support providing more resources towards this. So we’ll see what comes out of the legislature, if anything, this year, or in the next year or two, to try to address the issue because the fuel tax hasn’t been increased for more than 20 years. [00:13:31][32.5]

Blake: [00:13:32] Yeah well, you know one of the problems is people driving down the road can see the Department of Transportation, MoDOT, doing things they don’t like. They can see people perhaps not working as productively as we would like as we work on our farms. But I’m always reminded of something Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said many years ago: “You don’t go to war with the army you’d like, you go to war with the army you have.” We’re going to fix our roads with the Department of Transportation we have. As You mentioned it’s 20 years since that funding has been increased in that time labor, medical costs, and certainly the costs of construction materials have increased many times. We’ve got to fix a problem. Nobody likes to talk about taxes. No farmer wants to pay more given our financial situation, but it is inevitable that we’re going to have to increase revenue if we want to continue to have roads that serve agriculture well. [00:14:28][55.9]

Eric: [00:14:29] Well, I appreciated your comments at the commission this morning and thank you for talking with us about them. I think that we’ll have to continue to push on this for a long time to make something happen. [00:14:38][9.2]

Blake: [00:14:39] All right. Thank you very much. Thank you. [00:14:41][1.4]

Eric: [00:14:42] Spencer Tuma is our Director of National Legislative Programs, and we just got finished with the State of the Union address that Donald Trump was supposed to give a couple of weeks ago, but had to get rescheduled because of the government shutdown, and Spencer you were the lucky person who got to watch the whole speech last night. So what are some of your big takeaways from the speech and how it affected agriculture? [00:15:03][21.0]

Spencer: [00:15:03] Well just to clarify, I didn’t actually get to go to D.C. and watch this speech I had to watch it on my phone on my kitchen table because our TV was actually, our satellite was down because of the weather I assume. You know it was a really interesting speech. I thought it was a very unifying speech and kind of my personal opinion there. The speech, he spoke for a long time, it took about an hour and a half. It was a very long State of the Union address. [00:15:26][23.0]

Eric: [00:15:27] It was one of the longer ones that we ever really had actually. [00:15:29][2.0]

Spencer: [00:15:29] Yeah, but he hit on a lot of really important topics for agriculture and for rural America and seemed to really tout a lot of those things as legislative victories and priorities. [00:15:38][9.1]

Eric: [00:15:39] And a lot of those really do apply to agriculture, and, of course, that’s what we’re going to try to focus on today and see how, out of that hour and a half, what may really affect our members in this. I think he started off by talking a lot about the first couple of years and some of the wins, right? [00:15:54][14.7]

Spencer: [00:15:54] Right. So he kind of opened the speech with kind of going through different legislative and regulatory priorities that the administration has had since President Trump was elected, and kind of taking things off the list. So one of the first thing he mentioned was the raising of the exemption on the estate tax, or the death tax, as we commonly referred to it at Farm Bureau. And the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was passed in late 2017, that actually raised the level of estate that would qualify for the estate tax upon a person’s death. And he specifically mentioned the real world impact that has on family farms and ranches, so that was a big victory. Of course we’d like to see it rolled back altogether. Congressman Jason Smith, I know that’s a priority for him. He has a bill to that effect. He also mentioned, President Trump, the passage of the 2018 farm bill as a big bipartisan victory at the end of last year. [00:16:48][53.8]

Eric: [00:16:48] Yeah and that was like the the last thing that happened basically before the shutdown so it’s really the last big win he’s had was to get that farm bill passed just before the end of last year. [00:16:57][8.5]

Spencer: [00:16:57] Right. Yeah. And he also mentioned regulatory cutbacks. I think the goal when President Trump took office was to eliminate two regulations for every one that was proposed to be put on the books. I’ve heard something, and it varies by agency, but in some agencies that’s as much as 22 regulations omitted for every new one proposed. So he was really proud of that. [00:17:20][22.4]

Eric: [00:17:20] And you know I’ve seen some fact checks on some of those claims by the administration. I think that some of his numbers are trumped up a little bit, for lack of a better term. I think there is still no doubt that they have done a lot more deregulatory actions than regulatory actions and so it’s a positive. It probably is even larger than that two to one no matter how you’re measuring it. So those are big positives. And you mentioned the estate tax. That’s also something that Senator Blunt’s been leading on as well to continue to whittle that down because as far as we’re concerned it needs to go away completely. The more effort and more movement we can make towards that the better, of course. Then there are proposals by people like Alexandria Koziol Cortez who want to increase it. So it’s a real battle of wills right now. But it sounds like in the first couple of years of the Trump administration there were some good wins for agriculture that you pointed out. [00:18:15][54.1]

Spencer: [00:18:15] Yeah The death tax, you know that seems like something that should be a pretty easy win, but there are a lot more politics behind it than people might generally think. [00:18:22][7.1]

Eric: [00:18:23] And if you hear someone from farm country describe it, they described a lot differently than someone from an urban core, one of those members of Congress, they just see it very differently, coming from different angles. Beyond the things that he’s already accomplished, there were a lot of things that he talked about wanting to get some action on and some things that are needing congressional action. One of those was on trade and talked about USMCA. What were his his his points on that? [00:18:51][28.3]

Spencer: [00:18:51] So the President did lay out some priorities related to international trade and other issues. He first kind of gave an update on where things are at with China. Of course the U.S. government and the Chinese government are currently in negotiations. They kind of have a deadline of March 1st to make some progress on those negotiations. President Trump didn’t really make any promises but he seemed confident that things were moving forward and then moved into calling on Congress to pass the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. He called for swift passage of that to help expand American agriculture, specifically. [00:19:26][34.7]

Eric: [00:19:27] And that would be great to get that done. The biggest fear right now is that if that doesn’t happen that he’ll withdraw entirely from the existing trade agreement. [00:19:36][9.5]

Spencer: [00:19:37] Right. That that would not be a good thing. Yeah absolutely not. [00:19:39][2.2]

Eric: [00:19:40] The existing agreement isn’t really all that bad for agriculture overall. Now there are some issues with it that need to be addressed but in large part it’s a lot better than withdrawing from it and having nothing left. [00:19:50][10.0]

Spencer: [00:19:51] Our goal overall would that it would be a smooth transition from the old NAFTA to the new USMCA with no lapse in the free trade agreement. [00:19:57][6.2]

Eric: [00:19:57] Right, absolutely. And then another thing that we’ve talked about quite a bit he brought up is infrastructure. And did he call for any specifics on that or what were his his comments on that? [00:20:08][10.8]

Spencer: [00:20:08] You know, he didn’t really give a lot of details on specific proposals but did mention that infrastructure was a priority and a necessity for the administration. That got a lot of cheers from both sides of the aisle, democrats and republicans alike seemed to recognize that that is an issue. One other thing he mentioned that really struck me, in addition to infrastructure, was that the president is placing a renewed priority on healthcare. So he specifically mentioned lowering the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs and specifically protecting preexisting conditions, which was a huge issue in the 2008 midterm election. [00:20:43][35.0]

Eric: [00:20:44] Yeah, that’s for sure. That was kind of the main point that Senator McCaskill tried to hit. Now Senator Hawley on during their campaign and apparently wasn’t successful and effective in her attacks, but it sounds like he’s definitely going to try to push harder on that and that’s something that we’ve noticed from our members, as you and I talking to people, and the Farmometer Survey that we did at our annual meeting in December, a lot of people did identify healthcare as one of their top concerns. They’re running their farm operation really because most of the individual payers, or most of the people who have a farm, a small farm especially, a family farm, don’t have health insurance through anyone else. They have to go buy it on the open market. And that’s the people who are getting hit the hardest right now and particularly in rural areas. So it comes at us from all sides and in agriculture. [00:21:34][49.9]

Spencer: [00:21:34] Yeah, absolutely. It was really interesting to see the president talked about healthcare talked about preexisting conditions and that’s seemed to garner a lot of applause again from both sides of the aisle. Speaker Pelosi, who I think it’s safe to say probably does not want to give President Trump A lot of credit most of the time, as soon as he said preexisting condition she was out of her seat applauding. To me that demonstrates that there may be some hope. I think it will be difficult to get anything done on healthcare. And of course Speaker Pelosi was in charge of the house when the Affordable Care Act was originally passed. So that will be an interesting dynamic. But I did notice that as soon as he said that she was out of her seat. It was just interesting to see. [00:22:15][40.3]

Eric: [00:22:15] Yes seeing that interplay of the actual personalities that human beings in that chamber in the same room with each other where they’re usually not there usually talk to each other across TV cameras. Right. But actually seeing them in the same room is kind of interesting to see the dynamics at play there sometimes. And the other issues that you talked about didn’t relate as directly to rural America or agriculture specifically but he talked a lot about socialism and the culture war issues as well. That seems to be something that’s really just gaining a lot steam and may take away some momentum from some of the issues that we just discussed that we would like to see action on, but it also may provide some cover to get some of those things done. [00:23:00][45.0]

Spencer: [00:23:00] Absolutely. One other thing that he talked about that I forgot to mention, he devoted a large part of his speech to talking about funding for a border wall. Which of course should be obvious, I can’t believe I forgot to mention it. So he did spend a significant amount of time talking about that and really reiterated a lot of the points we heard and that we discussed a couple of weeks ago from the American Farm Bureau Annual Convention. He really focused on crime and the drug problem. That’s the angle that President Trump sees this issue from, and he renewed his promise about securing funding for the border wall in advance of the February 15th potential government shutdown deadline. [00:23:40][40.1]

[00:23:41] And I believe he mentioned that he would like to see us increase legal immigration to the highest levels that we’ve ever had, and, in some ways, that could be very helpful to the ag economy to have a legal immigration system, some sort of a guest worker program where we know who’s coming through the door. And that I think really helps out his argument about a border wall. It’s not that we want to keep everybody out, we just want to be able to funnel them all through the actual front door rather than letting them sneak across the back yard, you know. So I think that again that and those social issues are probably going to take a lot of the oxygen out of the room, in addition to the funding issues, the budgetary and debt ceiling issues that are that are coming right up on us, but that also really can give some cover to Congress to allow them to get some of these other really important things but not as high profile things done while they’re arguing in front of the cameras about some of those bigger issues in the media. So we shall see how this all plays out. It sounds like it was a pretty interesting and fairly well done speech, right? [00:24:49][68.3]

Spencer: [00:24:50] Yeah it seemed seemed very well done. It was very interesting to hear the president’s priorities. I personally would have liked a few more details on the infrastructure package but I’m confident that over the next few weeks and months we’ll hopefully see some of those priority issues kind of rise to the top of the agenda. [00:25:05][15.8]

Eric: [00:25:06] And with such a broad ranging speech nobody is ever fully happy with it, but the fact that we get some of these priorities even mentioned is usually seen as a big win in the D.C. community because they know that that’s what’s on the president’s mind. Because he spends a lot of time preparing for this, even President Trump who doesn’t like to prepare for things and doesn’t like to prepare for speeches, he likes to wing it a lot of times, he spends a lot of time preparing for the State of the Union. And I think that even though he’s only given three of these speeches now I guess the first one was right after his inauguration it wasn’t really technically a State of the Union but I think that was his most well-received speech overall. Everybody across both sides of the aisle seemed to think that was very presidential. And then last year it seemed to go fairly well as well and then this year he seemed to do a pretty good job of calling for bipartisanship and getting some items like infrastructure done that everyone could and should agree on. So hopefully that magnanimity that he showed and the bipartisanship that he showed in those calls can continue and we can see some things move in the right direction over the next few months. [00:26:11][64.8]

Spencer: [00:26:11] Yeah, we certainly hope so. It’ll be interesting to see all of the follow up after this speech. [00:26:15][4.2]

Eric: [00:26:16] Great. All right, well thanks again for taking a look at this and watching the speech last night. Look forward to seeing what happens with it as we move on into the legislative session. [00:26:24][8.1]

Spencer: [00:26:24] Sounds great. We’ll talk to you next week. [00:26:26][1.3]

Eric: [00:26:26] All right thank you. Thank you for joining us this week. This weekend is our Young Farmers and Ranchers Leadership Conference at Tan-Tar-A at the Lake of the Ozarks. If you’re a young farmer, I hope you’re going to be able to make it down there for that conference. It is always a good one. We have a lot of great things on the agenda and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. We look forward to talking to you next week where we will recap what is going on in Missouri agriculture. [00:26:26][0.0]