Profit changes minds

Art Cullen

Congress returns to the Capitol after the midterm elections with a vow to pass a farm bill before the end of the year. House and Senate agriculture conference committee members have been huddling in recent days, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but reports Monday indicated that conferees continued to quibble, at least, with plans to cut conservation and nutrition funding. President Trump reportedly is anxious to sign a bill.

It remains to be seen what sort of hash they cook. Sen. Chuck Grassley last week expressed his doubts that a farm bill will get passed before the new Congress is seated. That certainly would not be the end of the world. Great harm can be done by lame ducks in a hurry.

The House Republicans have not given up on cuts to conservation funding, and they want to hassle food stamp recipients who don’t have a lobby. But the Democrats took over the House, and it would behoove House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conway to lay down his arms and negotiate in good faith with Rep. Colin Peterson, the ranking Democrat.

Nobody really knows what will come out of this hushed and rushed process. It probably will turn out about the same as the last farm bill, which was passed two years late by the Republican Congress, and that bill was pretty much a copy of the previous farm bill. In short, let’s pass a bill that protects food stamps, conservation funding and crop insurance. That’s what Iowa needs and expects.

 

The farm bill is needed even though it props up a system that doesn’t work. Iowa farmers have been losing money six years in a row growing corn and soybeans that fewer hungry mouths want. The markets tell us so. The farm bill helps lessen the pain. It does not stop the steady exodus of people from the land or the steady flow of our soil down the Mississippi River.

We had the opportunity this week to spend a couple days at the Iowa Organic Conference sponsored by the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. We talked with a farmer from Waverly who is grossing $150,000 off 83 acres growing a heritage seed corn that his father developed. A cattleman from Harlan is feeding three families off 700 acres. We heard another farmer at supper talking about how all his friends who are raising corn and beans conventionally are stressed to the max. He is doing fine using a rotational grazing program. And, we recall a friend from Lincoln, Neb., who used to farm 7,000 acres and lost money consistently until he switched to grazing cattle on 700 flat acres of grass. He pulled up to our office last summer driving a new electric Cadillac. He would never go back to chemical agriculture.

And why should he? Organic corn growers are getting three times the price over a conventional corn grower. In Ohio, a farmer using rotations and cover crops has all but eliminated chemical use. His neighbor’s corn input costs are $500 per acre, according to author David Montgomery, a geologist from the University of Washington who wrote the book “Dirt,” among others. The no-till rotational farmer has cut his costs to $320 per acre, and now is clearing $400 per acre by getting off chemicals. Iowa State Extension Vice Provost John Lawrence notes that the average organic farm in Iowa posts gross revenue per acre of $1,000. The numbers of organic farmers, and sustainable farmers who make limited use of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, is growing rapidly. It is about the only way a young farmer can get in to the business these days.

 

What does a farm bill mean to these producers? Other than providing for organic certification, not a whole lot. The farm bill provides a safety net to those slowly strangled by the ag supply chain that relentlessly seeks to reduce farm numbers, and which is rapidly eroding rural communities.

We would not have to fight for conservation funding if most of us weren’t itching to plow up the river bank and hill, the lake bank and vale. We wouldn’t need the level of crop insurance that taxpayers now support if producers were harvesting $1,000 per acre in gross income. Instead, the ag chemical complex that calls the dance is putting tremendous stress on a third of Iowa farmers. We keep losing them every year, these young aspirants in debt, and just assume it is a cost of doing business.

We shouldn’t have to depend on Congressional dysfunction to take care of our supper. We don’t have to. Iowa farmers are figuring it out. The Practical Farmers of Iowa are now attracting crowds of 1,000 to their field days on regenerative agriculture. These guys are making money. When you have the head of Iowa State Extension talking up profit prospects from non-chemical agriculture, there’s a change offing in the wind. It’s called profit in agriculture.