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ND wheat leader loses on key votes, Minnesotan elected to chair Wheat Export Trade Education Committee

(Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Mikkel Pates, Agweek, 02/03/03: FARGO, N.D. - North Dakota's Alan Lee is chairman-elect of U.S. Wheat Associates, but the organization may be different than the one he joined.

Lee, from Berthold, N.D., who takes the national post this summer, lost on votes last week at an industry meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., that take away some of his authority.

Historically, the U.S. Wheat board of directors also serves as the board for Wheat Export Trade Education Committee. At the meeting, WETEC got a new board and Lee was voted off of it, along with Keith Kisling of Burlington, Okla. Bruce Hamnes of Stephen, Minn., was elected the new chairman of WETEC. Jim White of Colfax, Wash., will be vice chairman and Randy Wilks of Burlington, Colo., will be secretary-treasurer.

A bit of background: U.S. Wheat Associates is the checkoff-funded arm of the wheat industry. By law, it pays for wheat research and promotion but not political lobbying. The group gets funds from state groups, including about $600,000 a year from the North Dakota Wheat Commission for a budget of $4.1 million, which is matched with $10 of federal money.

WETEC is a separate entity, but closely related. It provides technical information to U.S. Wheat, especially in matters regarding trade.

Merger talk

At the meeting, some states proposed merging U.S. Wheat with three other groups - the National Association of Wheat Growers, WETEC and the Wheat Foods Council. This issue has been discussed for more than a year, but most heavily since last summer. There were a series of related votes on this issue. Each wheat state votes on the resolution, but votes are "weighted" based on annual wheat production.

First, the delegates voted in favor of a resolution to consolidate the four groups. Voting for the resolution were Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota and Washington. Opposed were North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nebraska and Oregon. Abstained was North Carolina. Not voting were Kentucky, Wyoming, Maryland and Virginia.

Immediately after that vote, the same delegates voted to dissolve a previously formed "consolidation board" of three members from each organization. In its place they formed a new four-person board to consider the consolidation and to hire a consulting firm on the issue.

The new committee will report back at the spring U.S. Wheat board meeting in March.

Alan Lee was not immediately available to comment for this story. Larry Lee of Velva, N.D., chairman of the North Dakota Wheat Commission, also attended the meeting. Larry Lee says the consolidation momentum is a defeat because the North Dakota group wants any consolidation to be based on a cost-benefit approach.

"I'm concerned about the blurring of missions and in some cases about our matching money," Larry Lee says. "U.S. Wheat receives between $2.50 to $3 (from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agriculture Service) for every dollar we invest in our attempts to sell and export grain."

Larry Lee says it's possible WETEC could fall under the authority of either U.S. Wheat or NAWG on the way toward an ultimate consolidation of the four groups.

Biotech debate

A debate over biotech wheat played a role in the power struggle, Larry Lee says. Alan Lee has been aligned with those who have urged caution on genetically modified wheat, warning that foreign buyers don't want it.

"I think it's a big issue," Larry Lee says. "U.S. Wheat is very cautious, very concerned about its market and market base. We have a producer demand (for GM wheat) out there that is, shall we say, demanding that U.S. Wheat finds a way to market biotech wheat, even though we have customers out there that have resistance to it."

Larry Lee, who describes himself as "pro-biotech, personally," says the industry has to have "some stewardship" in the introduction of biotech wheat. "It's trying to move much faster than market acceptance," Larry Lee says.

Monsanto officials repeatedly say they won't commercialize Roundup Ready traits in wheat until key U.S. and foreign markets accept it. Other groups are debating whether it can be kept sufficiently separate in the marketplace to avoid contamination of conventional varieties and seed lines.

In the past year, U.S. Wheat officials riled some producer groups by reporting survey data that indicate foreign buyers don't want to buy biotech wheat.

Biotech wheat is a controversy in North Dakota, where some farmers think the Roundup Ready trait is a prelude to "designer" wheat varieties with specific milling or consumer traits.

Larry Lee says U.S. Wheat is working toward a policy that would result in only one industry spokesman on biotech wheat - Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Council and chairman of the U.S. Wheat's biotech committee.