Pioneer Hi-Bred set up a very interesting and informative backdrop recently when dedicated its sparkling new $40 million plant genetics research facility in central Iowa. On a stairway next to where company officials and state leaders cut the ceremonial opening ribbon (green, of course) stood dozens of researchers all dressed in white lab coats and safety glasses.

The event in Johnston was a great illustration of all of the science and high technology in farming today. But the long line of well-educated researchers was an even better illustration of how agriculture remains a driving engine behind Iowa’s economy.

The numbers bear that out. Propelled by strong gains in the farm sector, Iowa’s personal income growth in 2011 was the second strongest in the United States and well above the national average. Iowa’s personal income growth was up 6.8 percent in 2011 and was behind only one state, North Dakota. And as Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad pointed out at the Pioneer event, North Dakota’s gains are based mostly on oil drilling.

For years Iowa’s government officials and lawmakers have lamented the state’s so-called brain drain, worried that educated young people were fleeing the state in droves. To stem the brain drain, many consultants urged the state to look in new directions, like high-tech, manufacturing or even movie making.

Those sectors might be pieces of the puzzle. But the old mainstay—agriculture—remains the primary brain-magnet for Iowa.

You can see it all over the state. Seed genetics companies like Pioneer and many others are drawing talented people from all over the country and the world to work in the state. They are taking advantage of the close proximity to the world-class research at Iowa State University and many of the country’s best farmers.

And the economic growth magnet goes way beyond seed genetics.

For example, an agricultural tire manufacturer based in the Czech Republic will soon hold the grand opening of its new plant in Charles City. The tire maker is investing $52 million in the northeast Iowa plant and will employ more than 150 people.

To the west at Fort Dodge, agribusiness giant Cargill continues to build its Fort Dodge corn wet milling plant. Other companies have already started to locate near the Cargill plant to take advantage of the synergies.

The new Valley of the Moon turkey hatchery is sending birds around the country and the world. And a Dutch company Lely is beginning to build robotic milking machines in Pella, adjacent to another leading Iowa agriculture equipment manufacturer, Vermeer. (Yes, robotic milkers. Our ancestors would never believe it!)

The bottom line is that when you see economic development in Iowa these days, there’s a pretty good chance it’s connected to agriculture.

Ag’s contribution to Iowa’s economy is not lost on the state’s leaders, like Branstad.

“Agriculture and agribusiness are really the strength of the Iowa economy right now,” he said at the Pioneer ribbon cutting. “It wasn’t that way when I was first governor back in the 1980s and I have to tell you, it’s a lot more fun now.”

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the news services manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.