An advocate for ag
BUCKEYE – With all the talk about the nation hitting the fiscal cliff, Annette Sweeney knows Iowa farmers will be facing their own fiscal cliff if the estate tax is allowed to soar to 55 percent.
The recently-elected Iowa Agri Women president thinks back to her own experiences after her father passed away in the early 1980s.
“The estate tax was the biggest challenge I faced when I took over the farm,” she said, “especially since there was no spousal exclusion.” Sweeney, 55, farms with her husband, Dave, south of Alden near Buckeye.
“Today, the estate tax has the power to cripple American agriculture,” she said. “It impacts everything that farm families work so hard for all their lives, and it also affects our ability to provide a safe, affordable food supply.”
Estate and property tax issues are at the top of Sweeney’s mind in her new role with Iowa Agri Women, a non-profit coalition of farm, ranch and agribusiness women in Iowa.
She’s also focused on rural health care and sharing the positive story of Iowa agriculture.
“Farmers are doing a great job protecting water quality, for example, and they continue to seek new solutions,” said Sweeney, who is a member of the Southfork Watershed Alliance and helps monitor water quality. “This is one of many areas where it’s important to communicate accurate information about modern crop and livestock production.”
Rooted in agriculture
One of Sweeney’s biggest goals with Iowa Agri Women is to create an “adopt-a-lawmaker” program in Iowa.
It’s a natural fit for Sweeney, a state representative who chaired the House Agriculture Committee and represented House District 44, which covers all of Hardin County and the rural areas of Marshall County.
Supporting agriculture is a lifelong passion for Sweeney, who lives in the same Hardin County farmhouse where she was reared. She grew up milking cows, gathering eggs, pitching manure, walking beans and helping her father, Valie Ioerger, set the cultivator and planter.
Although she taught junior high English, speech and drama in Peoria, Ill., after graduating from Concordia University in 1980, Sweeney always knew she wanted to come back to the farm.
After her father’s death, the transition happened much faster than expected. At age 25, she moved back to the farm and learned how to navigate in a man’s world.
When she tried to buy her first cultivator, the seller didn’t take her seriously. “I didn’t take offense,” Sweeney said. “I just thought, ‘If you won’t take my money, I’ll find someone who will.'”
She credits the local elevator manger and the family’s attorney with helping her learn the business of agriculture, including grain marketing. She also managed the family’s herd of purebred Charolais cattle and expanded her skills to include artificial insemination.
Sweeney appreciated the hired men who helped her keep the row crop and cattle operation running.
While there were plenty of challenges, like a malfunction in the grain drying system in the fall of 1985 shortly before her wedding, Sweeney completed the harvest with three days to spare before her nuptials.
“I wanted to succeed, because I felt this was a way to honor my parents, who had worked so hard on this farm.”
This same drive has also fueled Sweeney’s interest in politics, which can be traced almost as far back as her interest in agriculture. She’ll never forget Wilbur Molendorp, her government teacher at Radcliffe High School. In 1974, he organized a group of students (including Sweeney) who lobbied at the state capitol for electoral reform.
“He was a great teacher who inspired me,” said Sweeney, who was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 2008.
During her time at the state house, Sweeney became an advocate for Iowa agriculture. She introduced the Ag Protection Act, which was approved 40-10 in the Iowa Senate and 69-28 in the Iowa House, and makes it a crime for individuals to fraudulently gain access to a farm with the intent to cause harm.
“Iowa’s farmers take the welfare of the animals in their care very seriously,” said Sweeney, a third-generation cattle producer and former executive director of the Iowa Angus Association. “The Ag Protection Act reinforces the right of Iowa’s farmers to produce a safe food supply without being exposed to ever-accelerating political extremist criminal activity.”
Providing a voice for agriculture remains a passion for Sweeney, who would like one woman from each county in Iowa to be involved with Iowa Agri Women to discuss current issues and stay engaged with the legislative process.
“Agriculture is our No. 1 business in Iowa, and women are a vital part of this,” said Sweeney, who recently attended the Executive Women in Agriculture meeting in Chicago and the National Agri Women Conference in Denver, Colo. “I’m excited about the role that Iowa Agri Women can play, because there’s a wealth of possibilities out there.”
For more information on Iowa Agri Women, e-mail IowaAgriWomen@gmail.com.