Iowa benefits from the state’s agricultural balance

September 16, 2014

As all good drivers know, balance is important when you are headed for a rough patch. And balance is what Iowa agriculture has, thanks to its robust livestock sector to go with legendary crop production muscle. It’s good for farmers, it’s good for rural communities and it’s good for the whole state of Iowa, which relies heavily on farming for jobs, tax revenues and economic vitality.

pigs910A recent report showed that livestock in Iowa added $31.6 billion to Iowa’s economy and is responsible for nearly 123,000 jobs. That’s not loose change. And interestingly, the balance of crops and livestock is something that not a lot of other states can claim, even here in the Midwest.

It’s no secret that farming in Iowa and around the country is headed for a rougher economic patch. The big reason: falling prices for corn and soybeans as big crops promise to fill bins and more than satisfy demand from local, national and international buyers. Lower crop income is bound to be tough on the Midwest state economies, which have benefited from the strong earnings in agriculture during the past five years or so.

Still, a recent government forecast highlighted the fact that strong livestock returns will buffer the farm income decline.eggs

That means Iowa, which leads the country in pork and egg production, should fare better than its neighbors. In addition, a vibrant livestock sector creates more business for Iowa’s Main Streets because livestock farmers tend to buy more of their supplies close to home. And, because livestock is more labor intensive than crop farming, it creates more jobs and builds the tax base.

Livestock vitality is not universal in the Midwest. Other states have seen their livestock sectors decline over the decades and have come to rely more heavily on crops. A good example is across the Mississippi River in Illinois.

cattle shadeDon’t get me wrong, Illinois is a tremendous agriculture state with terrific soils and farmers. It can rival Iowa in corn production and often vies with Iowa as the top soybean state.

But the Land of Lincoln, with far fewer hogs, chickens and cattle, just can’t match Iowa’s chops in livestock production.

A big difference has been Iowa’s approach to livestock regulation. Unlike many other Midwestern states, Iowa regulators have worked with farmers to create regulations that protect the environment, but take into account the daily operational demands of a farm. And Iowa livestock farmers are continually working to find ways to do things better for the environment, their neighbors and their communities. Here are some good examples.

Yes, the economic road is bound to get tougher for agriculture and Midwestern state economies. And in those times, Iowa’s balance is a very good thing.

 Written by Dirck Steimel. Dirck is Iowa Farm Bureau Federation news services manager and editor of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.

 

 


Raising food is hard work

August 27, 2014

tomatoMy legs are dotted with black-and-blue bruises. My right elbow is criss-crossed by red scratches. I’ve got a small rash on my wrist that I keep itching, and there’s a swollen mosquito bite on my bicep – which, by the way, is so sore that it hurts to reach for the mouse next to my keyboard as I’m typing this.

Yesterday, I got a crash-course in what it’s like to grow food – not as a hobby in my backyard garden, but to actually feed a family, or rather, several families.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy. And gives me a true appreciation for the hard work that all kinds of farmers do every day.

I’m volunteering this year for Farm Bureau’s Giving Garden, a project for the United Way of Central Iowa. The United Way asked the Farm Bureau home office in West Des Moines to set aside a little space on its campus to grow a garden and supply fresh produce to the Food Bank of Iowa.

So far this year, the Farm Bureau Giving Garden has grown and donated more than 800 pounds of produce for local food pantries. More than 60 employees at Farm Bureau Financial Services and the Iowa Farm Bureau are volunteering their time in the garden.

This week, it was my turn to work in the garden. Most weeks, there isn’t a lot to do but pick a few weeds and run the garden sprinklers.

What I didn’t realize was, after a hot and humid weekend, all the tomatoes are ripening at the same time. That’s right – all 30 tomato plants were loaded with tomatoes so ripe they almost burst when you touch them.

And not all the tomatoes were pretty. Some were soft, rotten and covered with mold. I had to pick tiny slugs off several tomatoes.

Plus, over the summer, the tomato vines grew together into a tall jungle, with no space between the plants. So I couldn’t walk the rows to pick the tomatoes. I had to crawl on my hands and knees, underneath the canopy of vines, to pick the tomatoes from the center rows.

Every time a wire tomato cage scratched my elbow, I remembered that I’m due for a tetanus shot. When I got home and whined to my husband about how my arms hurt after carrying 30-pound crates of tomatoes, he said, “Then what good are all those bootcamp classes you’ve been taking?” (Admittedly, he has a point.)

Needless to say, I learned a lesson yesterday. Gone is my fantasy that someday, if this writing gig doesn’t work out, I can become a tomato farmer and set up a roadside stand.

It also reminded me that tomatoes don’t just show up at the grocery store, looking shiny, red and perfectly round. Someone’s got to pick those tomatoes, not just for an hour over their lunch break, but as a full-time job (although farms that grow canning tomatoes do use mechanized tomato harvesting equipment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJbDIaqK50U).

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

 


I discovered the secret to Iowa’s farm legacy at the Iowa State Fair

August 18, 2014
Young Iowa farm family

Nick & Emily Knepper family

If Nick and Emily Knepper aren’t taking shortcuts, none of us should.

The Kneppers brought their young family of six to the Iowa State Fair to receive one of the record 88 Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Awards presented last week.

Yes, that’s four kids, including a two-month-old, at the Iowa State Fair.

Honestly, I would have waited to receive my award in the mail.

But the Kneppers, who raise hogs and cattle and grow corn and soybeans in Delaware County, don’t seem to duck challenges. They use precision equipment to apply fertilizer to their fields; they practice no-till on many of their acres to avoid disturbing the soil; and they plant grassy strips in their fields to help prevent runoff from reaching our water.

Holding his youngest child, Nick explained why his work to protect Iowa’s soil and water is so important to him.  “It’s important for us, now and in the future, to protect what we’ve been given so it’s there for future generations.”

If that doesn’t sound familiar, you may want to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with the way Iowa’s farmers go about their business.

Or just stop by the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Awards next year. Notice the number of young and multi-generation families, and you’ll understand what’s motivating farmers to work harder (and smarter) to protect the environment.

 Young Iowa farm familyYoung Iowa farm family

And if you’re still not convinced that farmers are committed to doing what’s right for future generations, through good times and bad, head over to the Century and Heritage Farm Awards ceremony at the Iowa State Fair.

This year a whopping 344 family farms received Century Farm Awards (for turning 100 years old) and 86 farms received Heritage Awards (for turning 150)!

You can’t fake sincerity, commitment, and sound conservation practices for 100 years.

So if someone should try to convince you that farmers are willing to sacrifice our land and water for a short-term gain, just raise an eyebrow and present them with a ticket to the 2015 State Fair.

By Zach Bader . Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.


Roads not great for bikes, worse for Iowa’s economy

August 6, 2014

I got on my bicycle and rode four days of RAGBRAI this year. It was a great time, despite a little rain in Bremer County and very sore backside by the time I dipped my front tire in the Mississippi River at Guttenberg.RAGBRAI

RAGBRAI really highlights so many of the great things about Iowa. Riders enjoyed a full-frame view of the beautiful Iowa countryside (which my legs can verify is definitely not flat — no matter what some non-Iowans still believe). They saw every size and type of farm and, maybe best of all, they experienced the famous small-town Iowa hospitality.

About the only disappointment was the condition of many of the rural roads and bridges we rode over.

It definitely underscored for me the importance of improving Iowa’s rural transportation infrastructure. It also verified that an increase in the state’s fuel tax is the fairest way to raise the additional funding, approximately $215 million per year that Iowa needs to adequately care for its roads and bridges.

When you are bumping along on a bike, you really get a feel for how much work is needed. For every good road we saw on RAGBRAI, it seemed like there were two or three that were beaten up, rutted and full of cracks. And many of the bridges looked like something out of the era when most bikes had fenders and cars sported tailfins.

Of course, it’s not important to repair roads and bridges for a bike ride, even one as big as RAGBRAI. But improving roads and bridges is critical for Iowa farmers, small-town businesses and the entire rural economy.

Iowa has not increased its fuel gasoline tax since 1989, maybe not the tailfin era, but a time when repairing roads and bridges was significantly cheaper. The dire need for road repairs, and the lack of funding, has prompted some counties to borrow money and issue bonds to pay for infrastructure. That’s a dangerous trend which will put more pressure on property taxpayers, because they are the ones on the hook for the debt.

The bottom line: An increase in the gasoline tax is the fairest way to assure that everyone who uses the roads pays their share.

That includes people from other states who likely crossed Iowa to get to the starting point or finish line of RAGBRAI. It just makes sense that they pay their fair share for infrastructure upkeep.

 

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is Iowa Farm Bureau News Services manager and editor of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.


A 99 percent reduction in herbicide use? One drone made it possible!

July 30, 2014

Wouldn’t it be great if drones hovered above us, spying problems on every square inch of ground?

Oh, really?

You don’t think so?

Octocopter drone for farms

Kevin Price shows Adair County farmer Randy Caviness an octocopter drone.

Last week I attended Iowa Farm Bureau’s Economic Summit, which included a presentation by Kevin Price of RoboFlight (a company that specializes in aerial imagery). Price and his colleagues use unmanned aerial systems (i.e. drones) to provide farmers with data they can use to improve their farm practices.

Here’s where it gets good!

Price shared a story of a Kansas farmer who sprayed his entire 120-acre cornfield to fight a Canadian Thistle (weed) infestation. Later, he learned that he could have used data from a drone to target his problem areas and spray less than one acre, saving him money and exposing the land to less herbicide.

I’ll spare you the mental math. The farmer could have reduced his acres sprayed by a whopping 99.167 percent!

Like most of us, farmers aren’t anxious to have drones monitoring every aspect of their lives. But the prospect of using groundbreaking precision technology to protect the land and water makes them downright giddy!

How else would you explain their rapid adoption of GPS and soil sampling technology to reduce fertilizer usage or their willingness to spend millions of their own dollars on science and technology-based practices that help reduce runoff?

Yes, there are important air traffic and security concerns to address before farmers can begin utilizing this powerful aerial technology on a large scale, but for a couple hours last week they allowed themselves dream of the future possibilities.

Dr. Norman Borlaug (father of the innovative plant technology that sparked the Green Revolution and saved one billion lives) knew that technology belonged in the hands of entrepreneurial farmers who would use it to make improvements.

We’d be well served to quickly iron out the issues surrounding this promising new technology, and (as Dr. Borlaug said in his famous last words) “take it to the farmer.”

By Zach Bader . Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.


Dear EPA: Does my backyard belong to you?

July 17, 2014

When my wife and I bought our home a couple years ago, we envisioned a backyard for kids and dogs – a fence, a swing set, and a nice lawn.

A new proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has me looking at our yard differently.

According to the Clean Water Act, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, EPA has authority to regulate “navigable” water – you know, water that floats a boat. But EPA has proposed a rule that would define the agency’s jurisdiction much more broadly – to also include land that could potentially retain water for any period of time (e.g. puddles and ditches).

That’s a problem.

You see, in addition to the fence, swing set, and lawn, my backyard also features a low-lying area that collects waters and channels it away from the yard a couple times a year – minutes or hours after a series of major storms.

Will EPA regulate the water in my backyard?

It looks just like the rest of my yard 364-plus days out of the year.

Will EPA regulate my backyard?

But it does meet my layman’s definition of occasionally retaining water. So I’m wondering – does it belong to me or EPA?

If my yard “belongs” to (i.e. is under the authority of) EPA, does that mean I’d have to obtain a permit to construct a fence, spray weeds, or build a swing set? Would I be subject to a penalty if I didn’t?

It sounds far-fetched, right? Why would EPA want to nose around my backyard and issue fines?

I’m not saying they will – of course, I’m hopeful they won’t. I’d like to believe EPA when they say they’re only trying to enact a rule that “clarifies” the requirements for farmers and other landowners. Unfortunately, the written rule delivers a foggy message.

And before you write this off as my personal problem, think of other land and structures in Iowa that are typically dry, but may retain water after a series of storms. It shouldn’t be too hard to think of examples after all of the rain we’ve received this summer.

You may doubt that EPA will assess fines in many of these instances, but do you really want to grant the agency new, expansive authority to do so?

EPA is accepting comments on its proposed rule through October 20. Learn more about the proposal and how you can comment on it here.

By Zach Bader . Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.


Iowans witness China’s changing tastes in mega mall

July 16, 2014

Nineteen Iowa farmers and a couple Farm Bureau staff members recently participated in Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s (IFBF) 12-day International Market Study Tour to China. In China, participants learned about Chinese culture, as well as opportunities and challenges for Iowa agricultural products.

Iowans at Eurasia mall in China

Iowans visit the Eurasia mall in Changchun, China

One of the goals of the just completed IFBF International Market Study Tour to China was to gauge changing consumer habits in the world’s most populous country. We wanted to get a feel for how buying habits will change as China’s economy continues to expand, more people move to cities and citizens demand better stuff.

The Iowans’ visit to a mall in northeast China provided a pretty good glimpse of that.

The Eurasia mall in the city of Changchun in northeast China is ginormous, covering come 600,000 square meters or nearly 6.5 million square feet. By comparison the Mall of America in Minnesota’s Twin Cities in relatively puny, coming in at less than 5 million square feet.

Everything is big about this Chinese mall, which opened in 2000. It has 10,000 store fronts. Some 30,000 people work there and they help rack up total gross sales of approximately $20 billion per year for the mall.

The Eurasia had everything Americans would expect to see in a mall, and a lot more.

One entire floor was dedicated exclusively to furniture, every imaginable style of it, to appeal to China’s growing affluence and the government’s rush toward urbanization. The furniture selection is so vast that the mall’s management piled the Iowans into electric ATVs to drive the visitors up and down the halls to get a good look at it. It really was too far to walk.

Iowans visit Eurasia mall

Another interesting area for all of us Iowans was the supermarket on the first floor. It almost felt as if we all had been teleported to a supermarket in suburban America as we walked through brightly lit aisles chock full of packaged foods, fresh produce and dairy products.

Iowa farmer in Chinese supermarket

Roslea Johnson checks out Eurasia mall’s supermarket

It provided evidence that China’s growing middle class is starting to shop more like westerners, a trend that has clearly been accelerated by a string of food safety scandals in China.

But perhaps the most curious part of Eurasia mall was the top floor. There was every type of entertainment up there, from an IMAX theater, to bumper cars to a golf driving range. There was also an area where kids could study careers, earn pretend money and then spend it to help them learn how to be better and more demanding consumers.

And when people in a country the size of China start to spend more and demand better food and other products, the effects are going to be felt all the way to Iowa, and everywhere else in between.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is Iowa Farm Bureau’s News Services Manager.


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