As a new year begins, many of us set intentions to lead healthier lives, often focusing on food.

Don’t worry—I’m not here to tell you what to eat or avoid in the coming year. That’s a deeply personal decision. However, I do want people to consider what makes these endless choices possible: farmers.

While I may not possess a crystal ball, experts lead me to foresee a mix of promising opportunities and challenges for these dedicated farmers in the upcoming year:

1. Ag technology adoption will increase.

Agricultural innovation is transforming the sustainable production of food, fuel, fiber, and everyday items.

Technologies like variable rate technology allow for precise planting and fertilizer application, with GPS guidance enhancing accuracy and minimizing waste. An Iowa State University survey found that 56% of 1,000 farmers use these methods, and 20% plan to integrate drones and digital tools to provide targeted decisions.

 Innovation extends to livestock farming as well. Climate-controlled barns and automated feeders provide pigs comfortable lives while dairy farms use artificial intelligence to monitor each cow’s health to provide personalized care.

 Although not all farms can afford these technologies, their growing accessibility promises increased productivity using fewer resources to protect our planet.

2. Farmers will continue their commitment to conservation.

Iowa farmers already lead the nation in several conservation practices that keep soil and nutrients on the land. And every year, conservation efforts grow.  

For example, data collected by the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council shows Iowa farmers planted more than 3.8 million acres of cover crops in 2022. In 2009, that number was less than 10,000 acres.

As the name suggests, “cover” crops blanket the land to keep soil and nutrients in place after corn and soybeans have been harvested.

In 2023, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship also announced several collaborative efforts to capture nutrients and sediment at the edge of fields. These “batch and build” projects systematically place proven conservation practices in numerous farm fields at once.  

Considering the current trajectory and the dedication of Iowa's farmers to land and water stewardship, there is reason for continued optimism in conservation progress as we enter the new year.

3. Young farmers will keep exploring diversification.

Land in Iowa is really hard to come by. And when land is available, it can be out of reach financially for young or beginning farmers. 

Through Iowa Farm Bureau's Grow Your Future Award, a competition that recognizes young farmer entrepreneurs, I’ve seen the ingenuity of farmers building their businesses on smaller parcels of land or offering an ag product not available at Target.

From gourmet mushrooms grown for local restaurants, vacation rentals overlooking relaxed dairy cows to “blooming” flower farms—it’s an exciting era of possibility. These opportunities provide farmers with more one-on-one connections with their customers.  

According to USDA data, in 2020, nearly 3,000 farms engaged in direct-to-consumer sales, a 50% increase from 2015. As more people seek to understand how food is grown and who is growing it, there’s a lot of opportunity for farmers to forge successful businesses based on relationships and trust.

4. Support for real meat in Iowa will stay strong.

Most often when I see a headline related to a fake meat, milk or egg company, it’s about their profits tanking. Meanwhile, USDA data shows Americans’ meat consumption in 2023 hovered around 222 pounds per capita, an increase of nearly 22 pounds since 2014, and is expected to rise in 2024.

The Iowa Farm Bureau’s Food & Farm Index, a survey of Iowans with primary grocery shopping responsibilities, shows 97% eat real meat weekly. (And of those who gave real meat a try, more than half said they weren’t likely to consume it again.)

The Index showed many Iowans recognize meat as a healthy choice, which dietitians, like Dr. Ruth MacDonald at Iowa State University, notes is true. “[Animal proteins] are great sources of nutrients that maintain and enhance the immune system, such as vitamin B12, iron and zinc, which are not well absorbed from plant-based foods,” she says.

 While I believe all foods can be enjoyed, I’d put money on the loyalty to the real deal remaining strong. 

5. Farmers will navigate income challenges and uncertainty.

Pig farmers in Iowa lost an average of $23 per animal in 2023. Forecasts show pigs farmers will continue to lose money well into 2024.

Likewise, forecasted returns for farmers who raise cattle to market weight are expected to remain negative for much of the year. While crop farmers experienced a few good years, prices are leveling out creating tighter margins amid high interest rates.

We’re also coming up on an election year, and every hopeful candidate has a priority. Sometimes those priorities support farmers; sometimes it creates hardship. As it stands, a new Farm Bill—a piece of legislation that helps provide food security for Americans and risk management programs for farmers—has yet to be written.

 In the past few years, farmers have rolled with the punches of supply chain challenges, global conflicts, drought, fertilizer hikes, trade deficits and more. But they remain resilient under pressure and dedicated to their mission of maintaining their family farm legacy.

With this in mind, whatever foods you choose to eat this year, my wish is for everyone to know it was sustainably grown with animal care as a top priority. No matter what curveball agriculture gets thrown this year, these hardworking men and women will do their best to meet consumer needs.

That’s not a prediction—but a promise.

Learn more about author Caitlyn Lamm here.

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