Addressing Iowa farmers, bankers and others at the Iowa Farm Bureau's economic summit last week in Ames, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack chastised Congress for failing to put together and pass a reasonable farm bill. He said extension of the current farm bill is not acceptable. "That would be rewarding their failure," he said. "They need to come up with a workable bill."
Without a new farm bill, there are no opportunities to enact reforms in policy or to add new programs or to shift funding between programs as things change in the future, he said. There would be no opportunity to fund research that could lead to improved production or improved conservation and land management practices that will result in better soil conservation and water quality.
Pointing out that conservation and water quality are top priorities for the nation, Vilsack said farmers have made great strides in increasing production while protecting fragile farmland and holding crop nutrients in place on the land. "Farmers and landowners use NRCS programs and technical assistance, programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. These programs, funded at least at the current level, plus additional research and development, will be needed to meet the soil loss and water quality goals we have."
Ag secretary says splitting food stamp and nutrition programs out of the farm bill is a bad idea
Continuation of these and other programs must be included in a comprehensive new farm bill, said Vilsack. It also must include food and nutrition assistance programs. "Splitting food support from farm support is not in the long-term interest of farmers," he emphasized. "Most members of Congress don't understand farming or farmers. While they don't understand the need for commodity supports, they can relate to the need for good nutrition, even for those who can't afford good nutrition on their own."
He added, "This is more than a farm bill or a food bill. It's a jobs bill, an energy bill, a rural development bill. It's not just about farmers. Both the food and farm portions of the legislation are needed to create an economic effect that moves all the way up the chain, beginning in rural America."
In addition to the farm bill, impacts of the wild weather, marketing issues and commodity price swings were also topics of discussion at the Iowa Farm Bureau event. Nearly 300 Iowa farmers and agribusiness industry leaders came to Scheman Auditorium on the campus of Iowa State University at Ames July 22-23 to listen to perspectives from national experts on ag policy, commodity marketing, land use trends and climate change.
Many other topics were covered at the summit, including commodity and environmental issues
Many panelists at the event agreed that the U.S. agricultural sector can expect changes in the months to come and only good planning will protect the sustainability of farmers. "The consistent message was that farmers and everyone involved in agriculture need to make long-term plans, and make sure you're grounded in reality," says Dave Miller, IFBF director of research and commodity services. "The reality is there are no guarantees what our yields will be until we're in the fields for harvest."
The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Plan was also on the docket, leading to lively discussion. One of the presenters, Dean Lemke, a natural resources engineer for the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, said media reports critical of the nutrient strategy's voluntary implementation have been premature. "Thirteen of 22 nonpoint source action items are underway now through the state of Iowa's Water Resources Coordinating Council and various agencies to begin implementation efforts to support the Nutrient Strategy's recommended conservation practices."
Lemke adds, "Some of the early steps we're doing looks at nine high-priority watersheds; we're holding field days to educate and encourage adoption of these new science-based crop nutrient management practices, so everyone can see how implementation of these practices can impact water quality." Lemke says Iowa farmers aren't going to solve all the problems in those watersheds overnight, but the progress being made is measureable and there have been improvements over the last 30 years and that progress must be encouraged to continue."
Farmers can expect to see continued wild swings in the weather in future years
Other presentations that encouraged much discussion came from state climatologist Elwynn Taylor. Despite last year's drought and this year's wet, flooded spring, Taylor told Iowa farmers at the conference that they can expect continued wild swings in the weather, thanks to La Nina and El Nino effects.
Farmers also heard about results of an intensive Multi-State Land Use study, which examined two USDA databases which report on land use. According to the USDA Crop Reporting database which relies on on-farm visits, land-use grid surveys and farmer surveys, Iowa had a net conversion of 3,500 acres of grassy habitat to cropland from 2007 through 2012. Acres planted to corn in Iowa were the same in 2012 as in 2007; soybeans gained 800,000 acres, but alfalfa acres declined by 440,000 acres and oat acres declined by 80,000 acres, highlighting that much of the shift in land use is among crops, rather than a shift in land use. The study, conducted by Decision Innovation Solutions, showed farmers in 40 of Iowa's counties developed new wildlife habitat with more land being converted to grassy habitat from cropland than grassy habitat conversions to corn and soybeans. Selected presentations from the 2013 Iowa Farm Bureau Economic Summit can soon be accessed online.