Farming the ditches

You could not find a group of people more sensitive to farmers than the Pocahontas County Board of Supervisors. Still, Supervisor Louis Stauter of Fonda at the board’s July 22 meeting raised a ruckus about farmers planting in public right-of-way, according to our friends at the Pocahontas Record-Democrat. “It’s just getting ridiculous,” the farmer-politician told his fellows on the board. “Some of them, you can damn near reach out the window and grab the stalks!”

This is not a problem confined to Pocahontas County, perhaps one of the most intensively-farmed neighborhoods in the world.

Drive down any blacktop or gravel road in Buena Vista County and see the black mud rolling into the ditches and creeks. Pretty soon they’ll be harvesting corn out of the center line of the Varina Blacktop or D-15 (the Nemaha Road).

Not to mention the way that folks plant up to Powell Creek, where corn stalks typically rush every spring into Storm Lake.

Or Cedar Creek in Pocahontas and Palo Alto counties, where corn is planted right up to the bank for miles at a stretch.

Eventually all that soil, laden with phosphorous and nitrogen, is dumping into the Gulf of Mexico and killing huge swaths of aquatic life.

Enter Stauter, who wants to do something about it.

He asked the board to draft a policy that would penalize farmers who farm into the county right-of-way. Presumably that should include drainage ditches. It already is illegal to plant in right-of-way. No doubt the engineer, a hired man, would like policy guidance from the elected supervisors.

The simplest way to correct the problem is to have county crews mow down the scofflaw corn, Stauter said, and send the farmer a bill for mowing expense.

That would cure the problem.

Buena Vista County should follow what happens with our good neighbors to the east. It sounds like a pretty slick program. We have tried every incentive to get farmers to plant or at least not disturb important filter strips and grassways that help hold soil in place. They are squatters on taxpayer-owned land when they farm into a ditch or a creek. The law should be enforced.

Stauter has found the way.

A soft landing for ag?

It would appear the smart money believes agriculture is in for a “soft landing” starting this year, slowing down considerably from the go-go years of 2007-2012. “I don’t think there’s any question 2014 is a year of transition for agriculture,” Jim Knuth of Farm Credit Services told the Iowa Farm Bureau Economic Summit. “We don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but we don’t expect the next decade to look like the last one. We believe 2014 is the beginning of a soft landing for agriculture.”

That may be so. Near-perfect weather in the buckle of the Corn Belt will produce record yields in Northwest Iowa. That has driven down corn prices to under $4 per bushel — corn was twice that price just a few years ago. Knuth chalks it up to a confluence of unique weather and market phenomena that created something of, well, a bubble. The landing should be soft because balance sheets have seldom been stronger with so much net income over the past 10 years.

Knuth is right to say that we cannot know the future. We cannot know, really, what China is thinking. China’s corn buying activity heated up markets more than ethanol or even drought. The Chinese spotted a low trend line in row crops and pounced, driving prices up. The same exact thing could happen tomorrow. We just don’t know what the Chinese trigger price is. And, we do not know if we will be plagued with drought next year; we do know that we can expect more volatile weather and price volatility because of climate change.

It could be that we are making a brief retreat, trying to find some level of market stability, before we take the next step up.

Farm operators may be taking the same view. They are not backing off that far on agland purchase bids just yet. The farmland market remains strong. Cash rents probably will drop for next year. That is to be expected. But those holding a longer view of agriculture appear to be relatively bullish in their approach to a purchase.

If anyone can tell us what the Chinese intend to do with corn and livestock over the next three years, we could take a pretty good stab at where the corn market will be.