As we close out 2015 and prepare to flip the calendar to 2016, it’s a good time to review some of the major events that affected Iowa agriculture in past year. There was certainly a wide range of events that we covered extensively in the Spokesman during the past year. Here are some of them:
The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit
The central Iowa water supplier, led by its CEO Bill Stowe, filed a lawsuit in federal court against drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties over water quality issues in the Raccoon River. The lawsuit, officially filed in March, is misguided and threatens to slow the momentum that Iowa farmers are making in improving water quality through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, said Craig Hill, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation president.
While the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit is likely to drag on for years and will do nothing to improve water quality, many Iowa communities are collaborating with farmers to improve water supplies. Those efforts, including one by Cedar Rapids, have been lauded by many officials, including U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the U.S. Corps of Engineers, tried to implement the controversial rule in August but have been stopped by a temporary court injunction. Farm Bureau, other ag groups and many lawmakers say the rule is a power grab that has the potential to put almost every acre in Iowa and much of the farmland in other states under the jurisdiction of the agencies. The WOTUS rule, which was designed to clarify what is a "water of the United States" under the Clean Water Act, has only added ambiguity and has the potential to add red tape and delays for farmers to do normal farm work, such as fertilizing, applying crop protection chemicals or building conservation structures. In another chapter to the WOTUS rule saga, the General Accounting Office said last week that the EPA broke the law with its social media and lobbying campaign to build support for the WOTUS rule.
Transportation infrastructure bill approved
In a bipartisan vote, the Iowa Legislature passed, and Gov. Terry Branstad signed, a measure to provide an additional $215 million per year in badly needed funding for Iowa’s deteriorating roads and bridges. Long a Farm Bureau priority, the road funding measure will pump approximately $72 million per year for Iowa’s secondary and farm-to-market roads and bridges.
Under the infrastructure funding measure, which took effect March 1, Iowa’s fuel tax was increased 10 cents per gallon, the first increase since 1989. Farm Bureau supported the increase because it makes sure that all road users, including out-of-state drivers, pay their share. The additional funds are in a constitutionally protected Road Use Tax Fund, which can only be used for roads and bridges. The measure will also keep counties from borrowing and bonding to finance road repairs, a practice that threatened to put property taxpayers at risk.
Avian flu slams Iowa
Egg and turkey farmers, mostly in the northwest and north-central parts of Iowa, spent much of the spring and summer battling the deadly disease. They were forced to euthanize more than 34 million birds. A study showed that avian flu cost Iowa nearly 8,500 jobs, nearly $1.2 billion in reduced economic activity and more than $425 million in value-added income.
It wasn’t until November that state officials lifted the quarantine on all of the commercial farms affected by avian flu.
Lower commodity prices pressure farm finances
Crop and livestock prices were sharply lower in 2015 compared to prior years, putting severe pressure on farmers’ margins. A tougher farm economy drove down land prices, as well as cash rents. It also is forcing farmers to make financial adjustments to lower long-term costs and make their operations sustainable, ag lenders said.
Some of the primary ways to reduce long-term costs include reworking real estate and machinery debt to lengthen loan periods and adjust annual payments, renegotiating land rental agreements to lower levels and finding ways to reduce overall family living expenses, the lenders said. However, they cautioned against trimming crop input costs, such as seed genetics, fertilizer or other inputs, which could reduce yield potential and hurt farmers’ finances over time.
International trade deals move forward
After years of effort, negotiators finalized the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would link the United States into a free trade block with 11 other countries and would encompass 40 percent of the world economy. The trade deal, farm leaders said, will be instrumental in reducing barriers and leveling the playing field in established markets, such as Japan. Earlier in the year, Congress passed Trade Promotion Authority or TPA. The authority is considered an essential tool for passage of large trade deals.
Other key events of 2015
• The EPA’s move to reduce biofuel requirement under the Renewable Fuels Standard.
• A varied, but mostly favorable growing season which produced robust corn and soybean yields in most of Iowa.
• The repeal of the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law on meat after Canada and Mexico won a trade ruling against it and threatened sanctions.
The Iowa Farm Bureau also lost a great champion in 2015 when Dean Klecker passed away at age 82. As president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and later the American Farm Bureau Federation, Kleckner was a strong voice for agriculture who worked tirelessly to increase farm income, break down trade barriers and ensure the acceptance of agricultural technology to feed the world and protect the environment.