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Northey meets with old friends at Ag Ventures Alliance annual meeting

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 04/11/2013 9:10 AM

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MASON CITY, Iowa —Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey spoke to friends last week at the Ag Ventures Alliance annual meeting in Mason City. Northey, who farms near Spirit Lake, served on the organization's board for six years before he was elected ag secretary.

"I'm seeing good friends," Northey said. "This was an important part of me understanding other pieces of agriculture that I didn't understand a lot of," Northey said.

Northey has traveled throughout Iowa, the country and the world as ag secretary.

"It causes me to realize how lucky we are to be a part of Iowa agriculture," Northey said. "We have some of the best soil and even last year, the worst year to grow crops in 50 years, we saw 20 to 25 percent yield reductions. Last October we took a group of international World Food Prize visitors to an Iowa corn field during harvest. We were moaning about 130 bushels yields, and they told us that was at least twice their normal yield. We kind of take that for granted."

Even with the production problems, the state was the fourth-largest corn and soybean producer in the world. Only four countries produce more hogs than Iowa.

The technology used to raise Iowa commodities is also sought throughout the world. South Korea's swine genetics, feed and buildings are from the U.S. Midwest. While in China, Northey visited an egg laying facility modeled after a facility in north central Iowa.

As agriculture moves forward, volatility is a concern.

"No one knows if we'll have $4 corn or $10 corn this fall," Northey said. "Just seven years ago we had $2 corn. It's a challenge to manage this."

The growing impact of agriculture on the Iowa economy is mind boggling, Northey said.

In 2002 agriculture was 25 percent of the state's economy with $12 billion in cash receipts to farms from crops and livestock. That grew to $30 billion in 2011.

"You've seen what has happened to land prices, and there's some new steel as farmers replace equipment," Northey said. "That income reverberates around the state with a huge economic impact."

The world needs what Iowa produces, Northey said. China didn't soybeans 15 years ago. Today it imports 60 percent of all the soybeans that are traded.

"That has had a huge impact on everyone who touches agriculture," Northey said. "We hope we'll get a good crop this year, and continue to meet that demand."

The regulatory cloud is another challenge.

"One that concerns me is water quality, nitrogen and phosphorus," Northey said.

As an alternative to regulation, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the DNR and Iowa State University worked for two years to find tools to give farmers to farm in ways that will reduce the environmental impact.

The proposed Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is about allowing farmers to come up with solutions, Northey said. It lets farmers figure out how to use cover crops, timing of nitrogen, bioreactors and wetlands in their operations to address water quality concerns. Cost-share, demonstration and education projects and partnerships with private industry will be a part of the strategy.

"We were very nervous that if we didn't do anything, the government would step in with regulation," Northey said.

Northey cautions that continued state and federal investment in new agricultural technology is vital. China will invest $450 billion in agricultural research in the next 10 years. By contrast, the USDA invests less than $2 billion per year.

"I don't know what that means, but I do know that the Chinese look at agriculture as a something that is absolutely strategic and significant," Northey said.