Plugging away at National Assoc. of Wheat Growers

Farm Forum

Ask Bing Von Bergen about the challenge of serving as 2013 president of the National Association of Wheat Growers while also operating his family farm in Moccasin, Mont., and he offers up this anecdote:

“Twenty or so years ago, when I was busiest in my farming, my equipment line wasn’t up to where it needed to be for what I was trying to tackle. I remember sitting out in the field one morning early and knowing what was ahead of me. I thought, ‘There’s no possible way I can get this done.’ I was overwhelmed.

“But I got started. I kept plugging away, putting in long hours, and pretty soon it was done. Then I looked back and thought, ‘This isn’t so bad,'” he recalls.

Von Bergen says the same approach of plugging along is paying off in what’s shaping up to be an eventful year at the helm of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

NAWG, based in Washington, D.C., works with 21 affiliated associations and many partners on a wide range of issues, including federal farm policy and environmental regulation.

Von Bergen has been pulling double duty. Besides serving as NAWG president, he’s also its interim CEO. Former CEO Dana Peterson resigned for personal reasons earlier this year. Von Bergen, who had been helping interview candidates for the post, tells Agweek that a new CEO is expected to be announced in early May.

The failure to pass a new farm bill in 2012 adds another complication to Von Bergen’s year as NAWG president. The farm bill, a huge issue for agriculturalists, was supposed be resolved last year, but remains on the front burner in 2013.

Von Bergen is optimistic that both the Senate and House ag committees will come up with their respective versions of a new farm bill in May.

“We’re confident it’s moving forward. It appears everybody is coming together,” he says.

At the same time, he’s not taking anything for granted.

“I gave predictions before the end of last year that I was positive they’d come up with a new farm bill. So I’m not making any predictions now,” he says.

Crop insurance a priority

Protecting the federal crop insurance program is a priority for NAWG, Von Bergen says.

In the program, the federal government pays a portion of the crop insurance premium, making it affordable to farmers.

There’s an effort in Washington, D.C., to include so-called means-testing in federal crop insurance. Means-testing would require high-income farmers to pay a larger percentage of the premiums, with the government paying a correspondingly lower percentage.

If means-testing is approved, some high-income farmers could drop out of the program, hurting producers who remain in it, Von Bergen and other supporters of the existing crop insurance program say.

Means-testing would “change the dynamics, the pool of people who buy. It would shift higher premiums to the wheat industry,” Von Bergen says. Supporters of means-testing “make it sound like common sense. The people who are really pushing it, I think, don’t understand the complexity of federal crop insurance.”

So-called conservation compliance is another concern for NAWG.

As Von Bergen explains it, supporters of conservation compliance would require farmers who take out federal crop insurance to farm in a way deemed environmentally friendly. It’s uncertain what that would entail for producers, and how readily they could comply.

Farmers, who pay 40 percent of the cost of federal crop insurance premiums, need the ability to protect themselves with insurance, he says.

“It’s more complicated than those who support it make it sound,” he says of conservation compliance.

Keep wheat in the rotation

Bergen, 59, has been raising wheat and barley near Moccasin, in north-central Montana, for 30 years. He’s been a NAWG director since 2009. Besides farming, he’s co-owner of Heartland Seed Co., which specializes in small grain seed, as well as grass and alfalfa seed.

Wheat acreage is on the decline in the Northern Plains, primarily because of increased competition from corn and soybeans.

At NAWG, “We’re confident the major decline is probably behind us. We believe it’s more of a leveled-off state,” he says.

There’s growing recognition that keeping wheat in a crop rotation helps yields, he says.

Von Bergen, who farms with his wife and two college-aged children, began planting this year’s crop in April.

When he’s been away from home on NAWG business, the weather wasn’t favorable for farming. But when he was at home in Montana, the weather has cooperated, he says.

“So I’ve been fortunate that way.”

No matter what the weather brings, “I’ll just keep plugging away. Things will work out,” he says.