Thinking farming forward
DES MOINES – Roll back the clock to 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was president, the Beatles performed on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and a new sports car called the Ford Mustang debuted at the New York World’s Fair.
This was also the year when a small group of Iowa farmers organized the Iowa Soybean Association.
Fast forward to December 2014 to the ISA’s 50th anniversary, when the group brought together leaders of Iowa agribusiness to share their perspectives on what the next 50 years might bring.
What will rural Iowa look like by the 2060s? Will soybeans continue to be a major U.S. crop, or will they be grown primarily in other countries?
While the panelists agreed that their crystal balls are a bit cloudy, they did share their visions for the future.
“Two billion people worldwide will join the middle class by 2050,” said Dr. Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto. “I’m optimistic we can provide enough food for this growing population, thanks to plant breeding innovations.”
These advances will be more powerful than anything Fraley’s mentor, Dr. Norman Borlaug, could have imagined, he said
While Borlaug’s plant breeding research accelerated the Green Revolution that revolutionized crop production, boosted food production and saved millions of lives worldwide, the best is yet to come, Fraley said.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg with advances in biotechnology. Just as Dr. Borlaug’s leadership and innovation made a huge difference 50 years ago, we’ll continue to need these skills in the next 50 years.”
The right to operate
As biotechnology has delivered tremendous breakthroughs in the past 20 years, it has become more visible with consumers.
Helping people understand the technology’s benefits is key, said Paul Schickler, president of DuPont Pioneer.
“That involves creating an awareness of what farmers do and how science contributes to safe, affordable food supplies,” Schickler said. “We have a great story to tell about how we can advance food production.”
Often this will require farmers and other agribusiness leaders to step beyond the science and find ways to connect with consumers, Fraley said.
“We must reach out to the 99 percent of people who aren’t involved in production agriculture,” he said, “since this will influence the tools and opportunities we can bring to food production and food security.”
The panelists cited the success of the Iowa Food and Family Project which helps people gain more knowledge about their food and builds greater trust in how farmers grow it.
“The FFP is not only getting the facts out there, but they’re connecting effectively with consumers by inviting people with various views to be part of the conversation,” said Jim Knuth, senior vice president of Farm Credit Services of America.
Strengthening these relationships will be vital to preserving growers’ right to operate.
“I’m concerned about the social and political sides of these issues,” said Harry Stine, president and founder of Stine Seed Co. “I don’t want bureaucrats telling farmers what they can and cannot grow.”
Stine compliments groups like ISA and American Soybean Association who give farmers and agribusiness more clout in the political arena.
“I also believe economics and science win in the long run,” Stine said.
Economics are already shifting some factors in Iowa farmers’ favor. The migration of livestock to the Upper Midwest is a trend that’s accelerating, Knuth said.
“Turkeys, swine, egg layers, cattle feeding and maybe aquaculture someday are all part of this. Iowa is clearly in the middle of it all.”
Economics are also influencing land ownership. Through 2014, more than 90 percent of Iowa farmland buyers were local investors and farmers, Knuth said.
“For many, the holding period is a legacy asset,” he said.
Efficient infrastructure should also be viewed as an asset.
“Our infrastructure is one of Iowa’s and America’s key competitive advantages in the global market,” Schickler said. “We need to continue to invest in this and move it forward.”
As the ag industry moves forward, the farmers of the future will likely operate much differently than their fathers and grandfathers did in the past 50 years.
Farm machinery and equipment utilization business models may reflect a change away from ownership. It’s already happening through programs like MachineryLink, Knuth said.
Big Data is also a game changer.
“This will transform the way we farm globally,” Fraley said. “More precise knowledge of the soil will make us all smarter, more productive and will also make our decisions more environmentally friendly.”
Collaboration is key
Common ground like the environment, increased productivity and food security highlight the need for farmers and agri-business professionals to continue collaborating and innovating, just as they have through ISA for the past 50 years.
No one person can do all this on his or her own, Schickler said.
“Collaboration is critical, both within the ag industry and beyond with non-governmental organizations, consumers and others,” he said.
If this happens, the potential for Iowa agriculture is promising.
“When I look at my crystal ball,” Fraley said, “the role of the Iowa farmer has never been brighter, provided we’re allowed to use these tools.
“This is going to be an exciting industry for years to come.”
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