New trade opportunities are essential to give farm income a much-needed boost at a time when crop prices are below the cost of production, members of the Iowa Farm Bureau Ag Leaders Institute told lawmakers last week in Washington, D.C.
Corn prices at country elevators in Iowa last week were more than $1 per bushel below the cost of production for many farmers, said Barry Christensen, a Howard County Farm Bureau member.
The group urged lawmakers to support bringing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) forward for a vote. The TPP would raise farm income by an estimated $4.4 billion annually, according to American Farm Bureau Federation estimates.
"Any new export markets we can get are definitely going to help sell more product and raise prices," Christensen told Iowa Rep. Rod Blum.
The Iowa farmers also emphasized the importance of basing regulatory decisions on science, which they said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is ignoring in its proposal to effectively ban atrazine use and implement the controversial Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.
The trip to the nation’s capital marked the culmination of a year-long training effort for the two dozen members of the Ag Leaders Institute, now in its 19th year. The program provides policy and leadership training for Farm Bureau members from across the state.
In Washington, the members met with all four of Iowa’s U.S. House members as well as Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst. They also met with U.S. agriculture department and trade officials and visited the Embassy of Vietnam, one of the 12 countries involved in the TPP.
In addition to discussing trade and EPA regulations, the Iowa farmers urged members of Congress to protect the crop insurance program and extend tax credits for small wind and solar energy projects.
They asked Iowa’s Congressional delegation to overcome negative attitudes toward trade by rallying support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will help level the playing field for U.S. agricultural exports to fast-growing economies across the Pacific Rim.
The TPP will boost demand for many Iowa-grown farm products by reducing or eliminating tariffs on U.S. beef, pork, poultry, soybeans and dairy.
"We had a record corn crop on our farm last year. It’s not going to be quite as good this year, but we still have a surplus," said Matt Burt, who farms in Marshall County. "We need to open up more markets to sell our crops in more countries."
Andrea Svoboda, a Buchanan County Farm Bureau member, said increased ag exports would also help ag manufacturers like John Deere, which has laid off nearly 2,000 workers in Iowa and Illinois over the past two years.
"They’re hurting bad," she said. "We’ve got to get the prices up so we can get those jobs back."
It’s important for the United States to set the ground rules for global trade with the developing countries in the TPP, added Sarah Rickelman, a Grundy County pork producer.
"If we’re not there, someone else is going to set the rules for us," she said.
The Iowa farmers also expressed concerns with the EPA’s apparent disregard for science-based evidence in a proposal to impose more restrictions on atrazine.
Atrazine reduces costs and enables conservation tillage by controlling weeds, said Iowa County Farm Bureau member Jessie Prizler, a corn and soybean farmer and Pioneer seed representative.
"It does a very, very good job out in the field," she said. "We’re very cautious with it. We’re putting it in the right place, and we’re not overusing it."
Taking away the ability to use atrazine would raise the cost of production between $30 to $60 per acre and force farmers to use harsher chemicals or increased tillage to control weeds, said Brett Peelen of O’Brien County.
"In our area, we use it as a conservation tool to control a wider range of weeds at a lower cost on minimum-till ground," he said. "If I wasn’t able to use atrazine, my breakeven cost goes up, and it becomes extremely difficult to farm."
Farmers also reiterated their concerns with the EPA’s attempts to expand its jurisdiction over farmland with the WOTUS rule it passed last year.
"WOTUS is very scary," said Noah Coppess of Cedar County. His farm is intersected by a drainage ditch with a number of tile outlets. "We might have to get a permit for each and every one of them," he said. "That would very much limit our ability to fertilize our crops."
Undue regulations also raise farmers’ costs, said Joe Sperfslage of Linn County.
"We understand we’re always going to deal with regulations," he said. "There’s a difference between science-based regulations and political-based regulations. We can live with science-based regulations."
As Congress begins discussions regarding the writing of the next farm bill, crop insurance must remain a focal point of the farm safety net, said Randy Francois of Delaware County. It’s especially important for young farmers who have less equity than established farmers, he said.
"I don’t have enough cash on hand to buy inputs. My banker knows I have crop insurance, so he is comfortable lending it to me," he said. "I use that as an important risk management tool on my farm. Without it, I wouldn’t even know where to start."