Sunday, March 18, 2018

Six Takeaways I Brought Home from Australia

I was among a group of twenty six Iowa farmers who had the opportunity to visit Australia the first two weeks of March.  The land “down under” is 16 hours ahead and I had my days and nights and seasons all turned around.  I quickly discovered though that as many things are different there, farmers across the world have many things in common.

Consumer’s Market Australia grows a lot of non-genetically modified crops including soybeans, canola, and wheat to reach the food grade markets in the Pacific Rim.  These have GM counterparts, but for instance GM canola receives a $50-75 a ton discount.  We visited an 18,500 cattle feed yard focused on both Wagyu beef and Angus beef for the rest of the world.  Their mission was producing “Quality rather than quantity.”  While there are large scale farms, Australia as a whole seems to concentrate on premium products in smaller volume.
Traceability Australian farmers seem to have embraced traceability.  I am not sure if it’s because of necessity or the market opportunities that made it palatable.  Cattle and sheep have electronic ID tracking which follow them birth to processing.  For instance, that traceability allows consumers in Tokyo to know exactly where that steak came from (this was available to us at a restaurant we visited in 2016).  Grain is also identified and tracked.  The soybean farmers we visited indicated that was very important for the soybeans being accepted for food use.
Marketing Challenges Farmers is Australia seem split on marketing crops in any manner before they are produced.  Weather plays havoc on production and without affordable crop insurance its farmers are split on selling futures or forward contracting any production until it is in the bins.  Basis is another challenge for farmers with wide swings due to transportation in many cases. 
Weather and Climate  The Darling Downs area west of Brisbane boasts that it is one of the most fertile soil regions in the world, but rainfall and climate limit production.  We even heard stories of children growing up and not seeing their first rain drops until they were five or six years old.  We saw the other extreme of sugarcane and soybeans planted in raised beds near Grafton to improve drainage then fields left fallow by Toowoomba to recharge soil moisture for the following year.   It’s a land of extremes.
Infrastructure It starts at the farm.  Generally, on farm storage is increasing, but its small 3,000-5,000 bushel hopper bottom bins.  Most cash crops are exported and the ports can range from a few hundred miles to several thousand.  Rail is not extensive and trucking can range from $1 to $3 plus per bushel.  Port facilities vary with time of year and can be very extreme in their loading capabilities.
Succession Planning  There are fewer and fewer young people planning to farm and those that do have some major challenges.  According to farmers we talked with along the way a high minimum wage, $21 an hour, there are mining industry jobs paying from $75,000 a year and up making the challenge to farm seem less appealing to many.  There are no beginning farmer programs in Australia, and it’s common to need 30-40% down payment for financing.   

Farmers in Australia are generally like most of us here in the USA.  They enjoy what they do and have a resilient personality to withstand the markets, weather, government, and whatever other challenges are ahead.  Our Australian counterparts have their own challenges and opportunities.  We all have goals and obstacles to grow our business, capture better markets, and ultimately find a succession plan for future generations.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Not My Circus

After 146 years, the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus is ending the greatest show on Earth.  Last week’s announcements cited many reasons for the closure, but it seemed many circled back to issues with activist groups.  These groups had been holding ongoing protests at performances around the country and were successful in ending certain popular acts.   While there are very distinct differences between a circus and a family farm; it’s a reminder of the influence activists can have on what many consider an American institution.  

Activists are becoming smarter when choosing their battles by taking small steps to much bigger and much more detrimental goals for agriculture.  Instead of attacking family farms producing hogs in Iowa, activist chose to start a legislative movement in states where hog production is less known.  There are several examples like the fight to eliminate gestation stalls, activists targeted 10 states like Maine, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.  Hog production in these states is much less important than Midwest states, and most voters have no connection to local hog farmers in their communities.  

Then look at the ballot initiative in California to ban poultry cages.  That law rippled across the country because it applied to all eggs sold in California.  The voters in one state, mostly unfamiliar with the care and husbandry of chickens, changed the way egg producers do business across the country.  The activists agenda was able to creep across the country unchecked then by a majority of voters or lawmakers.

It’s important that farmers stay in tune to what is going on in the state and federal legislatures this time of year.  While agriculture groups have their own policy proposals to make food production better and safer for our consumers, we can’t lose sight of activists’ proposals.  Their wish lists are long and come on many fronts.  Many proposals do not attack their goals directly, but lay the ground work to erode the ability of hard working farmers to raise livestock to feed the world. 

I know many people dislike the idea of being politically active; it’s a circus they don’t want to be involved in.  On this inauguration day, I encourage all farmers and agriculture supporters to be engaged in the political process, and be ready during the legislative sessions to speak up and defend our farms from harmful legislation and administrative rules.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Food and Farmers Share #FAKENEWS Battle

Image result for tomato
Last week Hunt’s made the announcement that there products are made with GMO free tomatoes.  I have no problem with food choices, but this is a false choice announcement.  There are no GMO tomatoes.  Hunts, Heinz, Del Monte, or even Trader Joe’s are all the same when it comes to this choice.  Farmers, scientists, and dietitians all cried fouled to this marketing tactic and Forbes magazine wrote a good article debunking the announcement and highlighting the truth. This is just the latest example of twisting facts or exaggerating claims to market to consumers.

I equate this practice to fake news.  Fake news has become a hot button issue after the election with both sides creating headlines from non-credible sources in hopes of swaying voters.  Fake news has become a lightening rod subject for journalists as I found out.  To share my disdain for the inaccurate information, I threw the #FAKENEWs on the Forbes story an ag journalist had retweeted.  I quickly got a reply from the journalist who rightly pointed out the Forbes story was accurate and he did not want that hashtag on Twitter next to his name.  I corrected that error with a new Tweet with the hashtag more accurately placed against the Hunt’s announcement.  This quick exchange reinforced the power of the phrase “fake news” to me.

Journalists will point out that Hunt’s announcement, blogger posts, or internet memes are not really news, but that’s the traditional interpretation.  Most millennials are relying on the internet for news, with social media being their number one source according to a Media Insight survey.   Any media or author that provides misinformation or bias reporting deserves scrutiny as fake news.
Ag has battled fake news for years.  GMO’s, hormones, corn syrup, animal welfare, clean water, and ethanol are just a few of the many favorite subjects of misinformation.  Reporters, bloggers, and internet users share information every day, often without fact checking any of the accuracy.  Most of the time the false or misleading information makes sensational headlines or great clicks bait. Many of us who care about agriculture and food facts respond or re-share the misinformation with our own experiences and facts to highlight the real story. 

In 2017, I resolve to go a step further and hashtag this misinformation #fakenews.  It’s clear to me that credible writers do not want the label on their work, and the phrase's popularity gains more attention to the issues than simply replying with the accurate information.  Why not use #fakenews to help uncover the truth and identify the false information about food and farming?  This may just draw attention to our battle.  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Remember the Good Old Days

No automatic alt text available.Remember the good old days when hogs were raised outside?  Neither do I, well actually I remember those days.  I remember the expression popsicle pig.  There were no climate controlled barns to protect the pigs from the elements, keep waterers thawed, and have feed only steps away.  Everyone is posting about -40 degree temperatures, but its 78 degrees in the barn.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Picking Presidents is like Picking Corn

Years ago John Sununu, Governor of New Hampshire said, “Iowa picks corn, and New Hampshire picks presidents.”  He was chiding Iowa over the first in the nation status in the caucus/primary sweepstakes.  He was half right Iowa picks a lot of corn because we’re number at growing it. Jon Huntsman erroneously used that logic in 2012. If you are like me you are sick and tired of the phone calls, emails, TV commercials, and mailboxes stuffed with political flyers.  On February 1st, it will all be over, but until then we are on the clock to pick our next Presidential nominees.

Iowa’s demographics may not be as diverse as the rest of the country, but we still have a good cross section of people with common sense.  Iowa’s economy is growing more diverse.  It hosts a strong financial and insurance industry and a growing tech industry along with agriculture.   It has a high percentage of small business owners including our farmers which makes taxes and regulations an important issue.  Iowa has a lot of varying views on Presidential qualities.   Neither party dominates in the state, just look at two of the country’s longest serving US Senators Tom Harkin (D), recently retired, and Charles Grassley(R) who have both been supported by voters since the early 1980’s.  The Iowa Statehouse is split as is our US Congressional delegation.

Flyover State, America’s Heartland, and the Midwest a place where folks cling to their guns and Bibles are anecdotes that have been used to describe Iowa during election cycles.  Iowa represents the best of America, we still hold many of the traditional values our country was founded upon, but we also have many voters that are more liberal in their views- after all someone must still subscribe to the Des Moines Register.  The coasts where the population is dense fret a lot about Iowa’s first in the nation position for Presidential nominations.  Our unique caucus system puts pressure on candidates to visit and meet citizens.  All of the robo-calls in the world are worthless in Iowa if you have not had a town hall meeting at the Pizza Ranch or community center.   Iowans value their opportunity to grill the candidates on food, farm, and issues important to rural Americans. 

The caucus gives Iowans an important role in “thinning the herd” each Presidential election cycle.  Iowa has also been a breath of life to campaigns like Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, both of whom were struggling until caucus supporters turned out for them.  The Iowa Caucus gives us a chance to flex some muscle into the selection process for President.  Each of us should take this opportunity seriously.

We have our issues to evaluate candidates on, and we should also look at the issues that are important to agriculture. If Iowa doesn’t who will?  What are the candidates’ position on the farm bill, clean water act, federal budget, international trade, renewable energy, taxes, and biotechnology labeling?  A lot of these topics aren’t in the debates or advertisements, but they impact us nearly every day.  On caucus night don’t stop with the vote, speak up at the meeting and share your thoughts to make sure the issues important to you are discussed as the party platform is built.  We only have a few days left to have an influence on these issues. 

Don’t let the millions of dollars, hours of volunteers’ time, and thousands of frequent flyer miles go to waste. Let’s carefully consider the candidates on the issues that matter because our decisions will likely put a few campaigns out to pasture.  This is being touted as the largest turnout in the history of the caucus, so make sure you attend and make it a record crop.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Let's SAVE Iowa Schools and Water

Governor Terry Branstad started the conversation of extending the “sunset” on SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) sales tax with a portion of the extension being used for water quality.   The proposal wasn’t what Iowa schools were hoping, but it does increase SAVE funds for schools and provides a tangible option for funding Iowa’s Nutrient Management Strategy to improve water quality.  The SAVE tax was put in place with a “sunset” (expiration) in 2029.  The funds are currently used by schools for buildings and grounds, construction and maintenance, purchases of buses, and technology equipment.   The money doesn’t go towards salaries, supplies, or general operating costs.  Over the years it has been a facilitator for many improvement projects in schools and a catalyst of the 1:1 computer programs throughout the state putting technology in students’ hands at school and at home. 

Education proponents are concerned with the proposal.  Optimistically they envision an extension of the sales tax without strings attached or funds being split with other state programs.  The Iowa Association of School Boards points out that the proposal would cut $4.7 billion from schools through 2049, which assumes that the tax would otherwise be extended unchanged. That’s a big chunk of money by any standard. As a member of our local school board our district of 580 students would lose about $5 million over that time.  I can think of projects that we have discussed that this would fund, and we have not wanted to increase property taxes or even ask through a vote.  There are always buses that need replaced and roof repairs and classroom improvements that would be covered with that revenue.  The Governor’s proposal does provide $21.4 billion for schools over that time which means about $24 million for our district.

There’s growing sentiment in the political class that SAVE will not be extended in its current form for school infrastructure.  The sense of urgency to repair the state’s aging school buildings and reduce property taxes has subsided.  The tax dollars have accomplished many of the urgent needs from when it was introduced.  It’s been questioned at times because of a few facilities and projects were fulfilling wants versus needs.  According to the House Appropriations Committee the state budget has built-in spending obligations that exceed revenue by $54.8 million before new spending proposals are even considered this session.   The SAVE fund extension is likely to have worse proposals offered in the years to come if the state’s budget remains this tight.  If your skeptical that the state government will extend the SAVE tax solely for schools, this maybe a good compromise.  Schools are trading about 5% of their revenue remaining until the current “sunset” expires in 2029 for an additional 20 years of SAVE dollars worth about $14.2 billion through 2049. 

The other part of the debate is funding for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a multi-billion dollar program that addresses water quality issues in Iowa. It's a monumental task with no easy answer.   It has come to forefront after the Des Moines Waterworks sued three Iowa counties over nitrates.  The proposal uses about 18.5% of the SAVE tax dollars along with farmers’ private investments and federal dollars to make improvements in water quality.   According to the Iowa Soil Water Future Task Force the program will – a) dramatically reduce cities’ water treatment and flood damage costs, b) meet the EPA Multi-State Hypoxia Task Force goal of 45% reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus by 2030, c) create thousands of jobs for land improvement contractors, land managers, agricultural information providers, and ag retailers, d) enhance the quality of life in Iowa by providing natural resources protections and increased outdoor recreation opportunities, and f) increase the productivity, sustainability, and efficiency of Iowa’s agriculture.

It would be easier if education and water quality had clear visions of exactly what the money would be spent on over the years.  There are over 300 school districts which receive and spend SAVE money.  Iowa's rural schools have shrinking enrollments, how many buildings will be in use or how many districts are left in 10, 20, 30 years is difficult to predict with each district budgeting and planning independently. On the other hand the Nutrient Reduction Strategy has many components, but where, when, and how many are implemented isn't clear.

The Governor’s proposal has merit and I believe it is only a starting point in the debate.. As a parent, farmer, and school board member it offers funding for two high priorities, but splits them from the same source.  It’s not a question of one or the other, but is the amount right for both and how will each be used.  These are two initiatives that deserve everyone’s consideration and input.   The proposal continues to fund our education system’s infrastructure, a critical piece of our future, at its current level with $10 million dollar increases each year through 2049, averaging around $645 million a year.  Extending the SAVE tax now allows school districts to better utilize bonding for large projects with SAVE dollars to pay off bonds 15 or 20 years.  The proposal uses the balance of the tax revenue to fund a share of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy to improve soil and water quality which is also an important piece of Iowa’s future.  However, if tax revenues do not grow by at least $10 million in a given year water quality initiatives would get nothing.  It;s not a perfect answer.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Thanks Chipotle

I am really sincere when I say Thank You to the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain.  They accomplished more in the last few months by demonstrating that their products are not superior, safer or healthier than farmers did in two years of blogs and interviews.  As a proud, conscientious farmer, I also want to say thanks to Chipotle for demonstrating to American consumers that their marketing claims and attacks on traditional farm practices are wrong.  Chipotle branded itself using all the buzzwords to bring in health minded consumers.  They were throwing “organic”, “natural”, “GMO Free”, “Antibiotic Free”, “Locally Grown”, and about any other catch phrase around  to differentiate itself from every other fast-food franchise.

Chipotle took it one step further by attacking the modern, science based practices we use to raise our beef and pork in a series of internet videos.  They attacked the use of climate controlled hog and cattle barns like my family uses to improve animal health and protect livestock from extreme weather.   The use of antibiotics even those veterinarians prescribe to treat illnesses were demonized, and they attacked the use of FDA approved growth supplements to improve meat quality.  The premise of the stories was that the modern, research based, farming practices made food less safe, not as nutritious, and maybe harmful.  It’s been impossible to find objective, science or health research to back up those claims.

Then Chipotle stumbled with a series of food borne illness outbreaks, something that shouldn’t happen based on the chains claims.  It started with one store, then a few more in the same area.  Two outbreaks involved norovirus, three more were caused by E. coli and the other was caused by Salmonella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Then it spread to 500 people in ten states.  The story created to market the franchise as healthier and safer was unraveled.  The Attorney General in California with the FDA has subpoenaed the records regarding the outbreak in Simi Valley, California. Further calling the chains conduct into question. 

Politics, people, or food the popular marketing strategy is to divide and conquer rather than the actual merits. In this case, a restaurant chain could have had millions of farmers and food producers rallying around them instead of sitting on the sideline, maybe even enjoying watching them fall.  We know that food borne illnesses from restaurants or our homes happen, typically from mishandling food during preparation.  This doesn’t make organic or natural any more or less safe than it was before, but it shows the common truth regarding all our food.    Fresh, locally grown, organic or conventional food must follow the FDA guidelines for safe handling and preparation, and we know from the stats and facts that the US food supply is the safest in the world.  However, they chose to create a divide a go it alone. Thanks for the lesson.  Animal and human health as well as food safety are common bonds the should unite all food raisers and marketers.

I believe in food choices.  I think consumers should have the opportunity to buy the food they wish.  I think that farmers have the right to grow the crops they choose and specialty foods sold for premium, niche markets may get a higher price for their efforts.  But restaurants like Chipotle should not use baseless attacks as a marketing campaign to gain acceptance.  There are plenty of consumers to create a market for all food options; they should be able to choose by facts not crafted stories. 

If you’re looking for “Food with Integrity” as Chipotle claims, I’d trust the 2 million or so American family farmers who have been skeptical if not critical all along and eat somewhere else.

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