California and Arizona pest control advisers and farmers may believe they only must peddle hard to keep ahead of the changes and challenges facing agriculture within their own states.

After listening to leaders of three national agricultural leaders, members of the California Association of Pest Control Advisers at their 30th conference in Anaheim, Calif., realized they must peddled much harder to also stay ahead of national and international challenges to California and American agriculture.

Executives Jay Vroom of CropLife America; Ford West of The Fertilizer Institute and former California pest control adviser Jim Thrift now with the national Ag Retailers Association left the CAPCA crowd almost breathless when they detailed the agchem and fertilizer industries and agriculture today and tomorrow.

National security issues continue to dominate nationally.

Regulations through the Department of Homeland Security will play a continually larger role within agriculture from new screening regulations for truck drivers to a slew of unfunded mandates farmers and ag retailers will soon have to meet to make sure chemicals and fertilizers do not fall into the hands of terrorist, said Thrift.

“I do not know exactly what all the changes will be, but I can tell you there will be change…security issues will have a major effect on your business,” said Thrift. There are 13 new divisions being set up within DHS, and agriculture will represent one of the most comprehensive ones.

For example, when the screening rules go into effect for truck drivers, Thrift said the American Truckers Association estimated 3 percent to 8 percent of truck drivers currently licensed to carry hazardous material will lose their licenses through the more stringent screening process. And it will become even more difficult to find qualified drivers in the future.

Thrift added that these new security rules are coming more from the perception of the threat of agricultural chemicals than the actual threat. Nevertheless, the rules are real.

Ammonium nitrate

Al Qaeda trains for terrorism attacks with ammonium nitrate, according to West, and that makes it imperative that the federal government and the fertilizer industry know who controls the world's ammonium nitrate supply and where it is stored.

West added that much of world's nitrogen and urea supplies are in the hands of nations other than the U.S.

“Six years ago China imported six million tons of urea. This year China is exporting 2 million tons of urea, an eight-million-ton shipment in the supply of urea in less than six years,” said West.

China is now the largest consumer and producer of fertilizer in the world, said West. It uses 40 million tons of urea annually compared to 4 million tons in the U.S.

With the cost natural gas in the U.S. the highest in the world, American nitrogen producers are being forced out of business, and the U.S. now imports more than 50 percent of its nitrogen supplies

Thrift said the high cost of natural gas is a result of the national Clean Air Act that put coal fired electrical generators out of business. “That is why we are paying 40 percent more for natural gas than we were 4 years ago,” said Thrift.

However, energy is becoming a bright spot in America's future.

Renewable energy

Vroom admitted he was skeptical about the potential for ethanol and biofuels, but has become a “real convert” that renewable energy from agriculture could play a major role in U.S. energy need, particularly with ongoing turmoil in other oil producing nations.

Thrift also believes rising energy costs represent an opportunity for American agriculture to produce more ethanol and biodiesel.

All three said federal support for American agriculture is changing from direct subsidies to funding for conservation efforts.

“We think direct payments support to farmers have become obsolete and probably outlived their usefulness,” said Thrift This support will be replaced by government support of conservation programs like developing best management practices for the highest fertilizer efficiency possible.

Vroom said the shift from direct payments to conservation support began with the 1996 Farm Bill, and he expects conservation to become a bigger part of the federal farm program in the future. This change is being partly fueled by the World Trade Organization and the issue of subsides within the WTO.

Fertilizer efficiency has already increased dramatically, according to West who said 58 percent more corn was produced in the U.S. in 2003 than in 1980 using 2 percent less nitrogen than in 1980. He expects that trend to continue with federal farm conservation funding.

The change and challenges are coming seemingly faster than ever but Vroom and the others are optimistic American agriculture will not only survive, but thrive.

“I think the future is bright because America is the leading innovator in the world in producing high quality food and fiber,” said Vroom.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com