Failing infrastructure, an emerging issue for many Americans, is hardly news for the NCGA. Corn growers have decades of experience working at the state and federal levels to improve the transportation systems that underpin modern agriculture, from rural roads and bridges, to railroads, and especially inland waterways.
Greg Guenther, a former NCGA Corn Board member from Illinois, remembers the early chapters of the waterways issue: “Rod Weinzierl [longtime executive director of Illinois Corn] called me one day. I’d been to just one meeting, and he said, ‘there’s this group called the Midwest Area River Coalition working on river issues, and I want you to go to their meeting and see if this is something corn growers should be involved in.’
“So I went and listened, and at the end, I called Rod and said, ‘These guys are serious. I think we ought to talk to them.’”
The Illinois Corn Growers Association became one of the first commodity groups to join the Midwest Area River Coalition (MARC 2000) campaign for new, expanded locks on the Mississippi-Missouri system, and Illinois corn leaders advanced the issue to NCGA’s Corn Congress for consideration.
“Some of the other states didn’t see how improved locks would benefit them,” Guenther recounts. “We had a lot of meetings and showed how every time you break apart a tow to go through a lock, it costs, and if we can reduce that cost, it’s going to help reduce transportation costs.
“Our theme was ‘a rising tide lifts all ships – if you improve things on the river, it benefits everyone in the corn industry.”
Improving the Mississippi and Illinois locks and dams quickly became an NCGA priority, and since then, Guenther has been to a lot of meetings, public and private, working on behalf of corn growers, not only for river improvements but on issues of river management.
Iowan Warren Kemper was also in the front lines on river issues.
“We used to go up to Washington, and NCGA members would visit in every congressional office. Five or six states of growers would team up and cover 40 or 50 offices in a day, two or three of us at a time.
“Usually the reception was good, because the staffers knew they would have to brief their bosses for the votes but they didn’t know anything about the river,” he recalls.
“It seemed like such an obvious thing,” says current NCGA President Garry Niemeyer, of Auburn, Ill., who also worked the locks issue. “We were trying to get the message to Congress that the locks were built for 50 years and were already 70 years old and crumbling.”
For years, corn growers organized barge tours of the locks so farmers, officials, and media could see the need first-hand.
“We had huge crowds,” Guenther remembers. “We would have speakers and do tours of the tow boat to familiarize people with the challenges of the river industry. One year we even had a fax machine set up for people to fax a message to their congressmen right then in support of the locks.
When opponents challenged the calculations underpinning the need for river improvements, it prompted a new strategy. “Everything we had done for four years just crumbled into the river,” Niemeyer remembers. “We just had to sit down and say, ‘What we’re doing isn’t working. How do we get where we need to be?’
“And we decided we needed to find someone else to build an alliance with.”
That decision led to coalition-building “outside of everybody’s comfort level,” he says.
“We decided to look into a labor union that would build the new locks, and the group that seemed most open to working with us was the carpenters union. We decided to take a chance to do this.”
It turned out to be a historic decision.
Niemeyer remembers walking into congressional offices with union representatives in the first joint lobbying effort in Washington: “Staff would look at us and say, ‘are you guys here together?’ And we said, ‘Yes, we are. We’ve formed a coalition and we want to build some locks.’”
The next step was harder: bringing environmental allies on board to support river improvements.
“They have a completely different agenda than we do,” says Guenther. “Some were adamantly opposed to any upgrades.”
At one contentious Corps meeting where other pro-improvement spokesmen played “good cop, bad cop” roles, Guenther’s assignment was to be the “voice of doom.”
His message: “There’s plenty of river and we can do all this [locks plus environmental programs] if we just pull together, but we’re going to do what it takes, and if there’s blood on the floor when we’re done, so be it – we’re going to get our locks.”
Finally in 2007, the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy joined in supporting an NCGA plan that included extensive environmental restoration, and lock improvements were authorized as part of the Water Resources Defense Act (WRDA).
Kemper was there the day WRDA passed the House and Senate: “There was a bunch of amendments to try and kill it. I was outside at the elevator where the senators go up and down to thank all the ones who helped us.
“When WRDA finally went through the Senate, I was in the back row of the gallery and I just pumped my fist up in the air and said, ‘Yes!’”
NCGA won a second overwhelming victory in Congress after President Bush vetoed WRDA.
“We had 406 congressmen and 83 senators in support,” recounts Niemeyer. “You just don’t get support like that anymore on legislation.”
Yet today, NCGA is still battling for improved locks, this time in an effort to get funds to pay for the work – a task complicated by the recession and the drive to reduce government spending.
“When Obama was elected, we had spent a tremendous amount of time with him on locks and dams,” says a disappointed Niemeyer. “We thought it would be easy to work with his administration. Art Bunting and I went to D.C. to see if we could get funding [in the stimulus bill], only to find out they were only doling out money for shovel-ready projects.
“Because ours was not done with pre-engineering, we weren’t eligible.”
“I’m still fighting the battle, and we still haven’t got our locks,” says Guenther.