Teaching ag today goes way beyond corn and cows

April 26, 2016

SE-Polk-jan-16,-20131   Do you know a high schooler who’s looking for a bit of career advice as high school graduation nears? Maybe a bright young man or woman who just isn’t quite sure what direction to pursue as they prepare to head off to college?

Well, I’ve got an interesting suggestion: How about studying to become a high school agriculture teacher?

Teaching ag these days, as I’ve discovered talking with a lot of folks in the profession, is a very interesting and rewarding occupation.

Ag teachers today shepherd students through subjects that go way, way beyond learning about crops and livestock. In ag-related classes students learn about the latest in genetics and biotechnology. They immerse themselves in knowledge about water quality and other environmental subjects sure to be big in the coming years. They explore local food systems, as well as learn about food production all over the world. And they experiment with cutting edge technology, like drones and remote controlled vehicles and other high-tech machines.

Sibley-Ocheyedan-FFA-Class1And there’s something else that’s great about studying to be an ag teacher: there are jobs in this field after graduation, plenty of them.

The demand for agriculture teachers in Iowa, and around the Midwest, is very strong and getting stronger. That’s because school districts have seen a surge in high schoolers interested in ag-related fields that dovetail nicely with the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and schools are adding classes to meet that demand.

As Joshua Remington executive director of the Iowa FFA foundation put it, “We have school districts in the state now that would like to start agriculture education programs, but they just can’t because they can’t find a teacher.”

And it’s not just rural school districts that are beefing up their ag education programs. Iowa’s urban centers are also seeing the value in offering ag classes. In the Des Moines metro area, for example, suburban districts, such as Waukee and Dowling Catholic, have already added agricultural studies programs, while the urban Des Moines district now employs two agriculture teachers at its Central Campus magnet program.  Other metro area schools have expressed interest in adding an ag teacher, Remington said, if they could find a teacher.

Boone-FFA-1APR-10,-20131Add it all up, it’s a cool career choice with a very good chance for a job at the end. I’m way too old to know the latest lingo among high schoolers in 2016, but back in my day we called that a “slam dunk.”

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







Iowa Envirothon showcases tomorrow’s innovators today

April 18, 2016

Marshalltown1Back when I was a student, I relished the opportunity for a class field trip to leave the school campus to see something new and different. Each trip was an adventure and provided a learning experience that couldn’t be replicated in the classroom.  It also meant a day without quizzes, tests and homework.

Last week, students from a dozen high schools across the state gathered at Springbrook State Park in Guthrie Center for the 20th Annual Iowa Envirothon.  The Iowa Envirothon, sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau since its start in 1996, isn’t your average field trip.  The Iowa Envirothon, put on by the Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI), is a team competition for high school students which extensively tests their knowledge of natural resources and critical environmental issues.

For the 15 high school teams that competed this year, the Envirothon wasn’t the kind of field trip I remember taking in school; this one included vigorous written tests of environmental knowledge, critical thinking, hands-on investigations, teamwork, and the always intimidating, public speaking portion, including an oral presentation in front of numerous judges. The students’ hands-on investigation and team exercises were designed to answer questions from five categories: Aquatics, Forestry, Soils, Wildlife, and Current Environmental Issues.  Volunteers with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and several other organizations provided guidance to students during the competition.

In Iowa, we are blessed with naturally fertile soils which provide some of the best farmland in the world, yet challenges remain as farmers and other landowners continuously work to improve soil health and water quality while being stewards of the land. How to address and tackle environmental challenges in the state has been a focus of many committed stakeholders and is an important issue for many Iowans.  Having a program that provides an opportunity for high school students to gain awareness and get involved at a young age is encouraging for our future!

St. AnsgarIt was refreshing to meet dozens of solution-seeking youth, who have a shared interest in conservation and continuous improvement of the land, and gives me a great deal of optimism for the future. The dialogue at the Envirothon was civil, forwarding thinking, and focused on collaboration, unlike the finger pointing and contentious legal battles, brought by those from previous generations, who could stand to learn a thing or two from these kids!

While chatting with students passing from one station to the next, I wanted to learn more about what drives them and find the source of their passion for the environment. Several students live on a farm or in rural Iowa and have an inherent passion for the land.  Others excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum and were encouraged by a teacher to participate in the competition.

Many students have plans to study environmental science in college and envision a future working with the land in some capacity, either as a farmer, researcher, or another hands-on ag-related profession. Regardless of what career path these students choose, the future is bright with this next generation of problem solvers.

After seeing the students embrace and excel in STEM-based curriculum and point to collaboration as the driver of continued environmental improvement, I left the State Park with a firm belief in the optimism and conviction for the future generation; these kids will play an integral role finding solutions for challenges we face. The future is bright.

By Andrew Wheeler. Andrew is public relations coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Spring is time for new life on the farm

April 12, 2016


lambs1  It’s fun to walk the dog around my Des Moines neighborhood these days because there are signs of new life everywhere you look. Daffodils and tulips are blooming. Parents are taking their bundled-up newborn babies out for the first stroll of the season. And the older neighborhood kids are breaking in their new bikes, skateboards and softball mitts.

There’s also plenty of new life on Iowa farms this season. Soon, as the weather warms a bit, farmers will plant their corn, soybeans and other crops. (Watch out for the slow-moving red and green equipment when you are driving on rural roads.) But even more exciting are the spring-born animals on the farms.

Baby lambs and goats usually come first. Then there’s the new calves. It’s always fun to see the wobbly-legged newborns following their mothers through the pasture.in-dry-bedding1

Spring is also the season for baby chicks, which means it’s a very busy time for Hoover’s Hatchery in the north central Iowa town of Rudd. For more than 70 years Hoover’s has sold baby chicks to farmers and backyard chicken raisers all over Iowa, and actually all over the United States. The hatchery still delivers most of its chicks the old-fashioned way—direct to the customer through the mail. (Which is why you might be hearing a little peeping at your post office.) You can read more about Hoover’s here.


Through the rest of the spring, and into summer and fall, farm families will be feeding and caring for this spring’s newborn animals. Often that privilege goes to the youngest members of the family. Parents know that caring for lambs, calves or chicks is great way to teach kids strong lessons in responsibility, discipline and compassion.

Those lessons have been repeated from generation to generation each spring on Iowa farms, and they are still going strong today.

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

The #1 reason Iowa is “Farm Strong” (in a blowout)

April 4, 2016

FamilyHogBarnIt’s settled – decisively.

Nearly 1,000 people entered our Farm Strong “Merch Madness” contest (for merchandise autographed by Iowa State Cyclone coaches Steve Prohm and Bill Fennelly) and voted for the number one reason Iowa is “Farm Strong” – the farm fact that best symbolizes how agriculture strengthens Iowans (whether they farm or not).

Nine facts were provided, along with a write-in option, but one fact soared above the rest, winning 41% of all votes and more than tripling the output of the runner-up.

The champ: 97.5% of Iowa farms are family farms.

The impact agriculture has on Iowa’s economy (with 1 in 5 Iowa jobs stemming from agriculture), the renewable energy farming supplies, and the innovative work farmers are doing to protect our land and water all received lots of votes – hundreds, in fact – but the statistic that still hits closest to home for Iowans is the 97.5% of Iowa’s roughly 88,500 farms that are family-owned .

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



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No foolin’ me, there’s plenty happening in Iowa agriculture

March 29, 2016

It’s April Fools’ week, which means I’m always leery about opening text messages and emails from my family and friends, many of them pranksters.

Welcome-To-Mason-City-WestHowever, my work inbox is a different story. Looking at recent emails reminds me of the people I’ve met, the farms I’ve visited, and just how much farmers are taking an active role not only on their farms, but in their communities.

At first glance, there’s an email regarding the addition of a pork processing plant in Mason City in 2018. The new plant is expected to lift market prices for area pig farmers. It’s expected to create nearly 1,000 jobs when it opens mid-2018, and 2,000 jobs when the plant reaches its full capacity. It will help farmers, the Mason City community and all of Iowa.

My email inbox and its corresponding calendar reminds of my recent visit to Nora Springs to visit Dean Sponheim, who is highly regarded in the Rock Creek Watershed for being proactive in his approach to water quality. He first added strip tiling and strip cropping practices to his farm to make it more efficient. Then, he started seeing the benefits from a conservation standpoint. He added cover crops to benefit from the nutrients in the soil. Now, those nutrients are being used by the cereal rye he’s planted instead of being picked up and blown away with wind erosion.

Dean,-left,-and-his-son,-Josh-Sponheim1Inside my inbox, a reminder that Iowans are providing safe food and donating it to those in need. A press release from Iowa Select Farms highlights the contributions its company has made to charities and food pantries. The company has donated 22 tons of pork to food pantries within the last year. Farmers I visit often talk about the extra care they take on their farms to produce safe food. The food they grow on their farms not only feed their families, but their employees’ families, their friends, their communities, and the food pantries in which they contribute their pork, beef or poultry products.

And there’s also a press release about the Todd and Denise Wiley family in Benton County. Todd, Denise and their four children operate a farrow-to-finish hog farm near Walker. The have nearly 1,100 sows and market between 27,000 and 28,000 pigs a year. The Wiley family is the most recent winner of the Gary Wergin Good Farm Neighbor award, which recognizes farm families who go above and beyond in care for their livestock and their communities. The glowing nomination from a local FFA advisor touts the family’s involvement in the community—serving on numerous boards and helping to coach the next generation of agriculturalists in the community’s FFA chapter. The family is active in educating the community about modern livestock production and regularly brings animals into schools and donates them to the FFA to farrow as part of an exhibit at the county fair.


Stacie feeding hogsWhile it’s easy to be fooled by activists who say that ‘big ag’ is out to destroy us, I know the people and companies who make up agriculture. I hear from them all the time. I know the people who make decisions in the family-owned farms, who work tirelessly to care for newborn animals while raising families of their own. And I know the care and commitment it takes for these farmers to not only raise animals and their children—but also care for those in their communities. I know this because I’ve not only read the press releases, but I’ve been to the farms and rural communities to see first-hand. It’s real and that’s no foolin’.

Bethany Baratta is the ag commodities writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.


The “Final 4” Reasons Iowa is “Farm Strong”

March 28, 2016

FarmStrongBracket700400Your odds of picking a perfect NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket were 1 in 9.2 quintillion.

Your chance to win “Farm Strong Merch Madness” (merchandise autographed by Iowa State Cyclone basketball coaches Steve Prohm and Bill Fennelly) is much, much better.

And if you work, eat, or drive a car in Iowa, there’s really no conceivable way you can lose (unless you’re looking for a reason to quit – right, LeBron?)

Just vote on the number one reason Iowa is “Farm Strong” – the farm fact that best symbolizes how agriculture strengthens you and your family (whether you farm or not).

The field of contenders includes 9 facts that demonstrate Iowa’s farm strength – ranging from farming’s economic contribution to its environmental impact – and a write-in option for “dark horse” facts that didn’t make the cut.

Based on the votes we’ve tallied thus far, here are the Final 4 reasons Iowa is “Farm Strong” (in no particular order):

  • Iowa agriculture and ag-related industries support 1 in 5 Iowa jobs.
  • 97.5% of Iowa farms are family farms.
  • Iowa leads the nation in producing ethanol and biodiesel, renewable fuels grown on Iowa farms that burn cleaner and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
  • Farmers are constantly adopting new methods and technology for growing safe, wholesome food and protecting the environment, including the use of GMOs – which allow farmers to use less pesticide and grow food with better nutrition.

And here’s the case for each fact, heading into the final days of voting:

Iowa agriculture and ag-related industries support 1 in 5 Iowa jobs.

Agriculture and ag-related industries account for 418,777 Iowa jobs (21 percent of the state’s total), according to the 2014 Iowa Ag Economic Contribution Study, which uses data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture. They also contribute $112.2 billion in economic output (accounting for 1/3 of Iowa’s economy). Most Iowans don’t live on a farm (fewer than 5 percent of Iowans farm), but we’re all strengthened by the economic activity that occurs on Iowa’s farms.

97.5% of Iowa farms are family farms.

This one surprises some people. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 97.5 percent of Iowa’s roughly 88,500 farms are family owned. Critics of today’s farmers like to portray farming as dominated by “corporations” with little regard for their animals, the environment and consumers. Yes, some families choose to structure their farms as LLCs (limited liability corporations) to help manage the sizable risk associated with farming today, and the equipment and barns they use don’t look like those used by farmers in past decades. But the motivation to pursue these improvements (including barns that keep animals protected from extreme weather conditions year-round and technology that allows farmers to spray and fertilizer their crops more precisely) stems from farmers’ desire to do things right (for their neighbors, their animals, and the environment) and pass a thriving farm on to future generations.

Iowa leads the nation in producing ethanol and biodiesel, renewable fuels grown on Iowa farms that burn cleaner and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

The renewable energy grown right in our own backyards is also misunderstood. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), biodiesel reduces greenhouse gases (GHG) by up to 86% compared to petroleum diesel, while Yale University found that ethanol reduces GHG by up to 59% compared to gasoline.

Not only that – alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel help make our country more energy secure. According to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, as ethanol use has grown, dependence on imported petroleum has declined from 60 percent to 28 percent.

Farmers are constantly adopting new methods and technology for growing safe, wholesome food and protecting the environment, including the use of GMOs – which allow farmers to use less pesticide and grow food with better nutrition.

Did you know that farmers use GPS and other precision technology to apply fertilizer more exactly? Or that GMOs allow them to use less pesticide and grow food with better nutrition? The technology on today’s farms is creating change that we can all appreciate.

Check out all of the facts and vote for your favorite (or write in your own) by March 31 for a chance to win “Farm Strong” merchandise autographed by coaches Prohm and Fennelly.

We’ll announce the merchandise winners and the number one reason Iowa is “Farm Strong” next Monday!

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

Celebrating Ag Day year-round

March 15, 2016

FamilyHogBarnIt’s National Ag Day, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t celebrate the day.

I don’t celebrate the day specifically because I celebrate agriculture the entire year. I know it sounds corny, but there’s just not enough time in one day to celebrate the depth and breadth of agriculture, especially in Iowa.

When I think about the things to celebrate in agriculture, I think about farmers like Phil Reemtsma, a cattle farmer and veterinarian in DeWitt. Reemtsma also leads the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. I think of his commitment not only to his family, but also to the animals in his care.

I also think about the poultry growers in the state, like Mark Herrig, who was forced to depopulate 43,000 turkeys on his farm due to avian influenza last year. He’s back in the business because of his perseverance and dedication to the industry.

I think about farmers like Dave Struthers, Al Wulfkuhle and Chad Ingels. All are pig farmers and leaders in the industry. And they each have their own way of caring for and raising their pigs.

I think about sheep farmers who are using science to improve the genetics of their animals. These farmers are leaders in their industry, and are working with technology to build a stronger industry in Iowa.

When I think about agriculture in Iowa, I think about the Farm Bureau members who spend time away from their farms and families to lobby at the Iowa Capitol or even in Washington, D.C. for legislation that would help farmers not only in Iowa, but across the nation. These member-leaders also volunteer their time in their local communities, educating others about what they do on their farms.

Farmers in the state are not only often leaders in the Farm Bureau; they are also leaders when it comes to implementing conservation practices on their farms. Soon, the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman will feature some of those leaders in the state who are working with other farmers in their watersheds to protect their land and water resources. You can also learn about farmers’ conservation efforts at conservationcountsiowa.com .

I think about the strong 4-H and FFA programs in the state, and the Benton Community FFA chapter, which I recently visited. The chapter is a mix of urban and rural students. So they’ve worked to build their program with activities that interest both its farm and non-farm students. And they’re succeeding. They’re earning awards because of the number of activities they’re involved in. In the process, they’re teaching other students in the community that the FFA is more than “the sows, cows and plows.” It’s about leadership, personal growth and development—all qualities that are important whether the students choose to pursue a career in agriculture or not.

I also think about consumers who have questions about agriculture, like my aunts and uncles—many of whom weren’t raised on farms. They have questions about their food, and wonder who they should ask. I hope I’ve talked to them enough so they have an understanding about the practices I see happening when I visit farms in the state. But I also hope they reach out to their state Farm Bureau organizations, and the farmers who make up their organizations in Ohio and Virginia. I hope they know their food is safe. I hope they have some understanding of the protocols that farmers meet on the farm to ensure that the food they put on their plate is safe. I hope I’ve conveyed to them that farmers understand their responsibilities. Farmers grow the food that not only feeds the world—but feeds their families and friends as well.

How are you celebrating National Ag Day? Do you celebrate year-round like me?

By Bethany Baratta. Bethany is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Commodities Writer.


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