With the passing of a difficult and tumultuous year, all of us in Iowa agriculture are looking ahead to the promise of 2021. However, just as a farmer will look over his or her shoulder to see progress made during planting, I look back at 2020 and am awed by the resilience of Iowa’s farmers.  

We’re stronger now because of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, severe weather and other unprecedented events in 2020.

Important lessons

We learned many important lessons in 2020.  

One was the critical need to extend high-speed internet service to rural areas of the state. That need was clear when the pandemic forced schools to switch to virtual formats, when hospitals and clinics expanded telehealth and when we all relied on the internet to connect with family. Those needs highlight the importance of our work for universal broadband access through the collaboration of federal and state agencies, along with private companies.

Broadband access is also critical for revitalizing our rural communities. The pandemic shined a spotlight on the appeal of living and working in rural communities, which would benefit from an influx of young people and families pining for more open spaces. 

Broadband is a critical element for turning that migration to rural communities into a reality. 

Stronger supply chain

Another key lesson from 2020 was the need to strengthen our food supply chain, especially for livestock farmers. As the pandemic slowed meat processing last spring, many Iowa livestock farmers were caught with no outlet for their market-ready hogs and cattle. That difficult experience shows we must work with all sectors of the food supply chain to ensure safe, accessible food and make certain that all players, including farmers, are adequately compensated.

We also saw gains in meat processing, especially in the number of smaller processors and lockers that stepped up to meet the growing demand for local meats. The pandemic highlighted these direct-to-consumer opportunities and the need to streamline policy and regulations to enable more livestock farmers to offer this option. Small scale farmers must have access to all the benefits shared by large scale operations.

Value of risk management

The year’s weather disasters, the widespread drought and the devastating derecho clearly showed the value of risk management tools and the importance of having a robust crop insurance program.

The lessons, and resilience, we learned from 2020 will help guide us as we work through the many challenges we’ll face in the New Year, such as withstanding a renewed push for environmental regulations, ensuring international market access, protecting biofuel demand and extending broadband access.

A look ahead

With a new administration in Washington, we’re likely to see increased pressure for regulations on how and where we farm. The Iowa Farm Bureau will continue to work with the American Farm Bureau Federation and others to make sure that any proposed regulations make sense, are not overly burdensome to farmers and can reasonably accomplish their goals.

We can expect a push for carbon trading, as lawmakers and regulators work to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Farm Bureau will work to ensure that farmers get credit for adopting improvements which have already significantly reduced GHG emissions and that they are adequately compensated in carbon trading markets. 

Biofuels need to be part of the solution as the U.S. works to reduce its carbon footprint. Farm Bureau will work to protect the Renewable Fuel Standard as it moves toward reauthorization in 2022. 

The promise of 2021

Even in winter, it’s easy to see some green sprouts of optimism poke through as we flip the calendar. Crop prices have shown unusual late-season strength on tighter supplies and strong export demand. Through our work to expand export and domestic demand, the foundation has been laid for improved crop prices in 2021. 

We’ll also rely on strong  risk management tools, such as a robust crop insurance program, which have been invaluable in providing a secure safety net for farm income.

Looking ahead to 2021, we’re encouraged by continued strong demand for real meat and dairy products, as consumers add essential protein to their diets to help strengthen their immunities. That was evident in our most recent Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index®, which showed 70% of Iowa grocery shoppers say they are likely to increase their consumption of meat and poultry upon learning that zinc helps immune systems function properly and that meat and poultry are key sources of zinc.

Another very encouraging sign is farmers’ continued success at lowering their environmental footprint while increasing food production. Today, all of agriculture accounts for around 10 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By contrast, transportation accounts for 28% of GHG emissions and electricity accounts for nearly 27%. With the technology available today, agriculture is on a trajectory to reduce its GHG emissions by 50%. Those efforts have helped reduce water consumption, reduced soil erosion and increased wildlife habitat.

In Iowa, the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council showed that farmers planted more than 2 million acres of cover crops in 2018 (2019 numbers still being verified) — a 26% increase from the previous year and an astonishing increase when you consider that the state’s farmers planted fewer than 10,000 acres of cover crops a decade earlier. Cover crops help sequester carbon in the soil while also protecting water quality by keeping our precious soil in place. Iowa State University research has showed that phosphorus losses from Iowa fields by 22% since the 1980s and early 1990s, while soil loss is 28% over the past three decades. Now, farmers and their partners at ISU, in state government and in agribusiness, are applying that same proven approach to address Iowa’s nitrogen challenge. And that’s just the beginning. Farmers are continuously improving their practices, adopting the latest technology which enables them to do more using fewer resources. That is essential in a world with a growing global population. 

Iowa Farm Bureau’s work, as well as our efforts with the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), was essential in helping our members navigate 2020’s challenges. I’m confident our strong foundation of collaboration at both the state and national levels and unwavering grassroots efforts will help guide our continued work as we look at the promise of 2021.