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‘Phenomenal’ place

By Staff | Dec 13, 2012

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey speaks Wednesday afternoon during the Farm News Ag Show in the Career Education Building at Iowa Central Community College.




FORT DODGE – Iowa is a phenomenal place. If you don’t believe that, ask Bill Northey, the state’s secretary of agriculture.

Northey was the fourth and final speaker on Dec. 5 at the Farm News Ag Show on the Iowa Central Community College campus.

Vern Chalstrom, of Fort Dodge, listens to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey on Dec. 5. Chalstrom is retired from farming on land near Moorland.

With 40 people looking on, he touted the state’s ability to produce more corn, pigs and cattle “than 3 million people can use.”

He touted the rich soil that is conducive to growing enough food, even in the 1850s to ship products to Chicago. Northey said Iowa’s productivity was, in part, why Chicago grew with new facilities to process Iowa’s ag products.

He said there continues to be more ag opportunities for Iowa as demand for corn, soybeans and swine grows around the world.

“We sometimes don’t sense how important Iowa is to folks in other countries,” Northey said.

  • China is the biggest buyer of U.S. soybeans.
  • Japan is the biggest buyer of U.S. pork and corn.
  • Korea is a growing customer of U.S. and Iowa ag products.

Northey inferred that if Iowa couldn’t produce the amount of grains and meat it does, that impact would be felt everywhere.

“Two out of every three Iowa acres are planted in corn and soybeans,” he said. “You just don’t see that in other states. We sometimes take it for granted.”

Even Canada’s 30 million acres of small grains – wheat, millet and corn – cannot match the total tonnage that comes off Iowa’s 13.7 million acres of corn, without counting another 9 million acres in soybeans this year.

“If Iowa was a country,” Northey said, “it would be the fourth-largest corn producer in the world, behind China, the 27 countries that make up the European Union and Brazil.”

The U.S. is still the world’s leader in total corn production and Iowa produces roughly 20 percent of the U.S. total.

He said commodity prices are supported by export customers and the ethanol industry.

“No wonder we have land prices like we’ve never seen before,” Northey said.

“And it’s not just land. Goodyear invested $100 million for an expansion to its Des Moines-area tire plant, expanding its employee pool. It’s the largest tractor tire manufacturing plant in the world,” Northey said.

Likewise, Pioneer has built a 400-person research facility in Johnston, because the ag economy is as vigorous as it is, he said.

Iowa’s ag economy grew, he said, even through the country’s recession, going from $12 billion sold off Iowa farms in 2006 to $30 billion in 2011.

In 2012, he said the state average corn yield fell from 172 bushels per acre to 139 due to the drought.

“We’re short of crop,” Northey said, “but one of the best stories is, we got production under tough times.”

Iowa sustained a similar drought in 1988, when the state average that year was 80 bushels per acre, he said.

“It’s phenomenal.”

Northey said in 1960, farmers had a 75.5 statewide corn yield and thought that crop-growing technology had reached its limit. Now, double that yield is typical.

“I believe there is more upside to the technology and products,” Northey said.

As an example, he said the dairy industry has robotic milkers, where cows enter the parlor when they want to be milked.

He said getting more than two or three daily milkings from a quality cow actually increases production.

In addition, the system’s sensors measure the milk for somatic cell counts and if the cow is developing mastitis, it can pinpoint which quarter of the udder is infected.

“Technology allows us to be more productive,” Northey said, “but also frees people to do more work and to work later.”

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