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Farmers air concerns over uncertain future

By Staff | Dec 18, 2009

Ron Buse, a Calhoun County Farm Bureau director, who farms near Lake City, signed two hats following Bill Northey's town hall meeting in Rockwell City. The hat signing activity is part of Farm Bureau's "Don't Cap Our Future" campaign, which stresses to lawmakers how cap-and-trade provisions will hit farm families hard.

ROCKWELL CITY – Uncertainty is the key word that Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said he has heard repeatedly as he completed his third annual tour to visit each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

“There’s a lot of nervousness about the future as I travel the state,” said Northey, who conducted a town hall meeting Tuesday in Rockwell City. “With a $1.8 trillion federal deficit, the threat of higher taxes and the potential for more regulation on business and agriculture, Iowans are facing a lot of uncertainty. I commonly hear urban and rural people say, ‘Maybe I won’t expand for awhile, because I want to wait and see what happens.”

The town hall meetings, which were open to all residents and provided an opportunity for Northey to discuss agriculture and the issues facing Iowa farmers, generated much conversation.

Calhoun County area farmers said they were “very concerned” about proposed cap-and-trade provisions in the climate change bill in Washington, D.C., which they fear will hit families hard.

Local Farm Bureau members also stressed that the bill would create an energy shortage and reduce food production.

Farmers were also alarmed by a recent announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, threaten the public health and welfare of the American people and that these gasses fit within the Clean Air Act definition of air pollutants.

Farmers also remain concerned about the possibility of new taxes targeting livestock producers’ so called, carbon footprints.

“The Clean Air Act was set up to address smokestacks and proven sources of pollution,” Northey said. “EPA’s recent announcement is very different from the Clean Air Act’s original intent. To me, that’s a huge stretch and I think this issue is very serious.”

Ag department deals with budget cuts

Within the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, state budget cuts have brought significant changes to the way the division serves the people of the state. “We’re scrambling to get the work done that needs to get done,” Northey said.

IDALS’ budget has been cut a total of 23 percent since the beginning of fiscal 2009, reducing the budget from $22 million in FY 2009 to its current level of $16.8 million. This level of funding is approximately the same as IDALS’ appropriation for fiscal year 1994.

“We will spend less money in this fiscal year than was spent 16 years ago, all while state government has grown approximately 48 percent in the same period of time,” Northey said. “Many roles in IDALS, from meat and dairy inspectors to the state veterinarian’s office, are critical. Our argument to the state legislature is that there’s not much more the agriculture department can give without serious cutbacks.”

Between layoffs and unfilled positions, IDALS will be down 44 positions following the layoffs announced in early December from the department’s authorized level of 408 full-time employees, which is 10.7 percent reduction in the department’s workforce.

IDALS’ staffing level of 364 full-time employees is a historical low for the department, Northey noted, and represents a 23 percent reduction in workforce since 1991.

To meet these challenges, IDALS is finding new solutions by working with the private sector. This fall, for example, the Iowa Weights and Measures metrology laboratory moved to Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls. The state’s lab certifies that weights and liquid measures used to calibrate commercial scales and measuring devices are accurate and includes grocery scales, gas pump meters, truck scales and grain moisture meters.

Thanks to the ECC collaboration, Northey said, service companies will not have to drive out of state to calibrate their weights.

In addition, he said, the new lab will offer Ellsworth students a unique opportunity. Ellsworth will be one of very few colleges in the country to offer students the opportunity to study metrology for future career opportunities in business and government.

“With the budget challenges facing the department, this is a positive collaboration that will ensure this important service is still available to Iowans and allow Ellsworth Community College to offer a new course area,” said Northey, who noted that the change saved IDALS about $100,000.

Ag production equals opportunity

The productivity of Iowa’s farmers also offers a bright spot for the state’s economy, Northey said. In the 2007 census, total cash receipts for agriculture reached $20 billion, up $8 billion from the $12 billion recorded in the 2002 census.

Iowa’s livestock sector plays a key role in this economic success, said Northey, who cited one north central Iowa farm with 2.5 million layers that produces 2 million eggs a day and supplies all the eggs for all the McDonald’s restaurants west of the Mississippi River, including Hawaii and Guam.

“Livestock production is certainly a way to grow,” said Northey, who noted that Iowa remains a great place to raise cattle and hogs. “We will get out of this current recession not by government spending, but by ag production.”

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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