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Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey Addresses Iowa Lakes Farm Expo

By Staff | Sep 6, 2012

Under a blisteringly hot Thursday afternoon sun, Iowa Lakes Community College hosted the Farm Expo and Field Day. The Palo Alto Corn and Soybean Association and Iowa Lakes Community College organized the event.

Keynote speaker Bill Northey, a graduate of Iowa State and a fourth generation farmer from Spirit Lake, is serving his second term as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. He is currently traveling the state in a mission to visit all 99 counties. He shared a few of his stories and lessons he has learned in his journey with the crowd at the Iowa Lakes Farm Expo.

Northey acknowledged that many were comparing the current year to the drought of 1988. He said this year was actually worse.

“The heat and the moisture’s worse than ’88,” said Northey, but yields will be far better this year – 140 according to Pro Farmer – compared to 80 in 1988. This year’s projected average yield isn’t that must less than last year’s of 172.

The difference is the technological advances of the last 14 years, one being hybrid genetics. Northey spoke of a Dallas County farmer who dug down six feet to find corn roots soaking up moisture, allowing the corn to keep its green amid the brown countryside.

“That’s why a lot of people are paying attention to what’s going on in Iowa,” Northey said, adding that Iowa produces nearly as many soybeans as China and if Iowa were its own country it would be the world’s fourth-largest corn producer behind the rest of the US, China and Brazil.

However, while Iowa raised 20 million pigs a year, China raised 450 million. “They depend on us for feed for their livestock,” Northey said, noting that China buys 60 percent of US soybeans sold internationally.

Northey also addressed a number of challenges in agriculture.

One would be the corn fungus aflatoxin, which he said was more prevalent in southern Iowa. He urged that farmers with infestations should contact their insurance agent.

Northey also addressed the impact of the drought on the livestock industry.

“It’s a tough time in some of the livestock businesses,” Northey said.

Northey spoke of robotic milkers he saw in northeast Iowa that reminded him of the Farm Progress Show. Little machines allowed cows to walk in when and as often as they wanted. They not only milk them, but also weigh them, take their temperature, feed them, clean their otters and calculate somatic cell count of milk produced. The cows also had sand beds, airflow fans and back scratchers.

“We can do about anything with technology,” he said, adding that Iowa Lakes students will be on the cusp of tomorrow’s ag technology. “What else is going to come in technology to help us do a better job?” He noted that students will get to see and be part of a lot of things change over the next couple of years. “The best and brightest students in the state are in agriculture.”

Northey concluded by sharing the honor he feels each year presenting Iowa’s Century and Heritage farmers. This year 347 Iowa farm families were given Century Farm awards at the Iowa State Fair, making 18,000 since 1976. Another 67 were given Heritage Farm awards for their families remaining on the same soil for 150 years.

Preceding Northey was John Whitaker, Iowa state executive director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

“We’re always looking forward in agriculture,” said Whitaker, acknowledging the special problems livestock producers face.

“We’ve got to keep those producers in business now. We can’t lose any more of those producers. We need livestock in Iowa,” said Whitaker of the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, which have retroactive provisions to continue programs for the livestock industry.

Whitaker commended Iowa’s drawing 18 percent of its energy from wind. In the next 10 years the state needs to develop cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel processes.

“Consumers are used to alcohol fuels now. They’re ready for a second generation,” said Whitaker, adding that the current Farm Bill under consideration looks at the critical need for bioresearch.

Emceeing for the speakers was Tom Brotherton, executive dean of the Emmetsburg campus, who also introduced Ritchie Berkland of the Palo Alto Corn and Soybean Association.