lowell carlson

LOWELL CARLSON

Guest Columnist

Iowa’s great good fortune is that the state has a quarter of the entire country’s supply of Class I farmland. In short, Iowa has the market cornered on land most of the rest of the United States would kill to have.

Agriculture is one of the major drivers of our economy here in far eastern Iowa, but there are troubling signs the engine needs some adjustment when it comes to diversification and demographics. 

Instead of a variety of crop and livestock enterprises to help weather periods of low prices, drought and biological challenges, our agricultural model is one of specialization, concentration and immense capitalization. 

An example of just how challenging that model could be was the 2015 bird flu outbreak that saw millions of turkeys and poultry destroyed. Iowa ranks eighth in turkey production and fifth in processing. The avian influenza responsible for the losses was a significant blow to producers and processors that year in an industry tied all too closely with seasonal demand, Thanksgiving.

The Iowa Business Council’s annual “Competitive Dashboard Report” released earlier this year gave the state poor marks for diversity and demographics in agriculture. We ranked only average in economic growth, education, workforce training and governance, health and wellness.

Here in the immediate area we recently passed a sobering milestone. Brutal market conditions in the dairy industry are steadily eroding a vital segment of our farm economy. There are now just slightly over 25 actual dairy operations in Jackson County. Output remains steady in most cases but is ever more concentrated in fewer, larger operations.

That has a ripple effect beyond the farm gate. When a dairy goes out of operation, that’s one less good electric customer, one less feed and equipment customer, one less veterinarian customer. You get the picture. It’s a similar landscape in neighboring counties as well.

Iowa currently ranks 30th in the nation for population growth, an indicator we are exporting our educated children and whole families. We rank 36th in the nation for the rate of population holding a bachelor’s degree. In short, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to reach our potential and meet the needs of a hungry world.

The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation, a consortium of ag interest groups promoting basic understanding of the industry point to the huge disconnect between consumers even in Iowa and knowledge of broad aspects of farming.

One of those key factors is diversification of agricultural products — this at a time when corn and soybeans produced in industrial style agriculture has come to dominate farming in much of Iowa. The state leads nationally in the production of corn, soybeans, pork and eggs.

By contrast, a state like Washington recognizes over 180 crops farmers and ranchers produce in significant commercial volume and value. Granted, the two states have different assets in climate, population and access to markets. From delicate berry crops to potatoes and alfalfa in high density bales for export, diversification empowered agriculture in the Evergreen State.

Washington is the new California when it comes to wine production. Significant new blueberry production is being launched in Washington as the berry gains in public acceptance and awareness as a healthy food alternative. 

Just the opposite is occurring here in Iowa. Even in traditional crops already in the mix here we are witnessing declines. Iowa recorded record low acreages of oats, hay and wheat in 2016-2017. That comes at the same time we witnessed record high acreages of corn and soybeans in 2016.

The damaging price effect of the trade war with China only added to the misery. Despite the president’s belief that trade wars are easily won, our trading partners have alternatives.

Two years ago Mexico was Iowa’s and Illinois’s biggest single customer for No. 2 yellow corn. After that country predictably reacted badly to the administration’s mantra Mexico would pay for a wall on the border corn buyers quietly but steadily shifted purchases. Argentina and Brazil were more than willing to fill new orders even though costs were higher in some cases than the American product.

We are perhaps the world’s best corn and soybean growers. Iowa farmers and processors are experts and acknowledged as such. Introducing potential new crop and livestock, developing consumer demand, creating processing and distribution, it’s difficult and risky. 

With the average age of farm operators perilously close to 60 years of age it is a sign we are not bringing the next generation into farming at a rate that says there is room for newcomers. 

Diversification is a worthy objective. To achieve it means mastering so many details. Corn and soybeans are two crops for which our systems of production, transportation, processing and distribution are finely tuned. 

Diversification might provide benefits yet undiscovered. 

The introduction of minimum till and no till corn and soybeans reduced the use of fossil fuels, loss of surface water and topsoil. 

What if some crops, food and feed crops, moved back to their traditional production area in Iowa? What if we didn’t transport fresh produce thousands of miles to Fareway’s and Bender’s supermarkets in Maquoketa and Bellevue. What if we actually knew the farmer who produced that food?

We are headed toward a future in farming on such a scale that operations have little connection with local suppliers, main street businesses, but rather deal on a level comparable to factory production.