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IDALS adjusting to budget cuts

By Staff | Mar 11, 2011

Jim Dougherty, left, who farms near Lake City, and Jerry Chizek, center, Region 6 Extension education director with Iowa State University, visit with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey on March 1. Northey stopped in Rockwell City to meet with local citizens and discuss current ag issues — from grain exports to state regulations.

By Darcy Dougherty Maulsby Farm News staff writer ROCKWELL CITY — Budget cuts continue to challenge the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to do more with less, and Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said he’s stretching the dollars as far as he can. “The system is still working, even if we don’t get to do all the things we’d like to do,” said Northey, a fourth-generation farmer from Spirit Lake who stopped in Rockwell City on March 1 to visit with farmers and other local residents. “We’ve been able to keep important services intact, like meat and dairy inspection.” IDALS’ budget has been cut by more than 20 percent in recent years, meaning the department has approximately $5 million less to work with now than it did a few years ago. While IDALS had 407 employees three years ago, this has dropped to 332 people, said Northey, who noted that IDALS has not refilled positions as people have taken early retirement or pursued other career opportunities. Since IDALS’ budget is expected to be flat in the coming year, this means the department will likely have 15 to 20 fewer employees a year from now, said Northey, who noted that there are fewer staff available to help with various programs, such as helping new farmers markets get established. This requires new solutions to continue to provide important services, added Northey, who cited the example of soil technicians. While IDALS used to employ more than 70 soil technicians, now there are only about 37 in the state. Although many counties used to have their own soil technician, now it’s common for two to three counties to share a technician to help design grass waterways and terraces to protect soil and water quality. IDALS is also looking at different options to complete other important work. The Iowa Code, for example, specifies that IDALS staff must check every gas pump in Iowa every 12 months. Due to budget limitations, however, the department has been stretching this to 13 months. “The state Legislature knows this, and they know why it’s happening,” said Northey, who noted that officials are evaluating whether it makes sense to change the 12-month requirement.

Nervous times in ag? Such concerns are among the many issues on farmers’ minds, said Northey, who noted that volatile commodity prices continue to be a hot topic. “While it’s nice to have these grains prices, it’s also kind of a nervous time in agriculture. “Ethanol has taken a lot of hits politically lately, the food-versus-fuel debate has re-emerged, and there are plenty of farmers who sold $4 corn off the combine last fall who feel pretty silly about that now.” Since exports play a key role in U.S. commodity prices, Northey is looking forward to joining Gov. Terry Branstad and other officials on a trip to Korea and China in June. Northey said he hopes the Korean Free Trade Agreement will pass both houses of the U.S. Congress soon, since the agreement will decrease the duties of products shipped to Korea, including U.S. pork. As China continues to modernize its livestock production systems, this is also creating opportunities for U.S. grain that can be fed to Chinese hogs, poultry and dairy cattle. “China wasn’t in the grain market like this 10 years ago, and this one of the big reasons why we’re seeing high grain prices today, especially with soybeans,” Northey said. Closer to home, Northey continues to explore new ways to share the story of Iowa agriculture. He said it can be as simple as inviting a friend from town to ride along in the combine at harvest, or it can be as elaborate as Open Farm Sunday, which the United Kingdom has instituted one day each summer to encourage the non-farm public to visit local farms and learn about modern agriculture. “I’d love to figure out how to do something like this here. “People are vulnerable to misinformation, especially about agriculture, so we need to show them what goes on at our farms and be willing to answer their questions.”

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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