Updated 2 p.m.—In an interview with High Plains Journal, North Dakota Grain Growers Association President Jeff Mertz filled out more details about the state organization’s departure from National Association of Wheat Growers. As a primarily spring wheat producing state, North Dakota has issues uniquely different than much of winter wheat country.
Much of the issue, he said, came from the adaptability and flexibility of NAWG in working with North Dakota on issues that are of concern to spring wheat growers. Spring wheat’s timing of harvest and its marketing emphasis on quality over yield means that issues like vomitoxin and falling numbers are more concerning for their members than a member, say, in Oklahoma or Texas.
“In the early 2000s, we had issues with quality because of vomitoxin and falling numbers and how that affected wheat,” Mertz said. “Southern states, and rightly so, didn’t understand because they’d never had to deal with vomitoxin in their wheat, or fall numbers because it’s dry at harvest. Well, up here we get rain in our harvest.
“Fast forward a few years, and suddenly vomitoxin was found in winter wheat, and PNW has falling numbers issues, and suddenly quality is an issue,” he continued. “Well, North Dakota was the canary in the coal mine. We were the first to bring it forward and it just fell on deaf ears.”
North Dakota, Mertz said, is No. 1 in wheat production in the United States, and No. 1 in exports. And this, despite losing acres to drought and even to competing crops like corn.
“In 2017 we were in a drought in North Dakota and we were losing acres at that time, so we looked at our dues for NAWG and realized that if we had any crop failure at all, we would be hard pressed for operating funds for our own state,” Mertz said. So, the state delegation approached the NAWG board and went on what is called “half dues” in 2017 and 2018. The situation was still dire for 2019, so when the board met in March, North Dakota proposed a plan to go to half dues again to the Operations and Planning Committee, he said. That plan was voted down in committee, and so the NAWG budget, he said, was based on North Dakota coming back at full dues status. The delegation didn’t feel that would be fiscally responsible to the farmers they represent, Mertz said.
“It’s North Dakota farmers’ money and we felt we weren’t getting a return on investment as we should for a national organization,” Mertz said. “North Dakota lost a vote at the table, so that left us with just one vote. We were paying half dues and still we were the third-highest paying state there and we only had one voice at the table.”
Going forward North Dakota will utilize its paid lobbyist in Washington, D.C., even more than it has in the past. The state chose to pay for a lobbyist on its own because there were more issues that pertain to the state’s farmers that just weren’t getting attention by the national organization. For example, Canadian trade, the Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative, wetland issues pertaining to the Prairie Pothole region, and more.
“When we as a state board were discussing this, this decision didn’t come lightly, but it was an unanimous decision,” Mertz said. “It’s just a difference of philosophy.” Instead of choosing to go into arrears, Mertz said that North Dakota felt that borrowing money to pay national dues without a clear sign that wheat acres would increase and bring membership dollars back to previous levels was fiscally irresponsible.
“This may happen with other states,” he said. Wheat acres continue to decline in the U.S., and this may be the first sign that change is needed at the national level.
“We look at return on investment,” Mertz said. “Just because we’ve done something 10 to 20 years doesn’t mean we should do it the same way going forward. I’ve always said new ideas don’t come when times are good. They come when times are bad.” Figuring out innovative ways to do the lobbying for North Dakota grain growers better, cheaper and with the same or better outcomes is what the state board is focusing on now.
Updated 11:41 a.m.—The North Dakota Grain Growers Association issued a statement from its president, Jeff Mertz, May 7, regarding its withdrawal from the National Association of Wheat Growers.
“After months of careful consideration, the North Dakota Grain Growers Association has decided to withdraw from the National Association of Wheat Growers. Although we’ve enjoyed a beneficial partnership with NAWG since 1977, in recent years we’ve seen a decline in support for issues specifically affecting North Dakota. Considering North Dakota has consistently paid some of the highest dues out of all states represented by NAWG, we believe we’re no longer seeing an adequate return on investment and have decided not to renew our contract that expires June 30, 2019. NAWG still provides value to producers on a national level. However, our foremost focus is on North Dakota farmers, and at this time we believe we can better represent their best interests by investing our resources elsewhere.”
11:30 a.m.—The National Association of Wheat Growers announced May 7 that the North Dakota Grain Growers Association “has decided to withdraw their membership from the National Association of Wheat Growers, effective June 30, 2019, the end of NAWG’s current fiscal year.”
In his statement, NAWG President Ben Scholz said “NAWG leadership and staff did everything possible to address NDGGA’s concerns.” The efforts included private briefings, improved communications among the staff, board and states, and even using a third-party facilitator to address issues in North Dakota.
In March, Red River Farm Network, a radio station covering North Dakota agriculture, reported that the conflict started in 2008, according to NDGGA President Jeff Mertz. In that March 1 interview with Red River, Mertz said that in 2008 the state association was close to getting a quality adjustment from the Risk Management Agency—it just needed a letter of support from NAWG to show its congressional delegation, which was delayed.
“Despite tremendous effort and NAWG conducting hundreds of meetings with members of Congress and the Administration on behalf of all our states including North Dakota, NDGGA leadership has indicated they will leave NAWG,” Scholz said in his statement. “As the President of a trade association, it always disappoints me when one of our members isn’t pleased with productivity.
“In this case, NAWG went above and beyond to meet the concerns of NDGGA by giving them a national voice on Capitol Hill,” Scholz continued. “NDGGA chose to put their own priorities ahead of the national organization, which is not how a national association can run effectively. The past two years North Dakota put their interests ahead of all wheat growers across the country by withholding half their dues, making it difficult to carry out the overall mission of the organization.”
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In that March 1 interview with Red River, Mertz said that NDGGA dues for NAWG in 2019 would be nearly $250,000, or 80 percent of the state association’s annual budget. Even though in 2017 North Dakota paid half of the required dues because of drought, that same proposal was rejected by the NAWG board this year, he said in the interview with Red River. Meanwhile, North Dakota has sought a bylaws change to base representation on the NAWG board of directors on production numbers.
“It is unfortunate that a major wheat-producing state, who provided unique insight into national policy and influenced others in the industry, won’t be moving forward with NAWG,” Scholz said.
This story is breaking and will be updated as new information is gathered.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].