The Elbert Files: Farming myths
It’s spring cleaning time, when we throw out things we no longer use or need. This year, let’s also get rid of some myths that clog up our ability to make rational decisions.
At the top of my list are several farming myths, starting with “Iowa feeds the world.”
We never have, and it’s embarrassing to make that claim today when Iowa farmers can’t even adequately feed Iowa.
Few Iowa farmers grow fruits, vegetables, nuts or wheat – categories that make up much of what 21st-century Iowans eat. Most grow corn and soybeans, which are used to feed animals and industry (think ethanol and plastics).
Yes, Iowa’s corn and soybeans are fed to cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys, which we do eat. But even in Iowa, most of our meat is raised and processed at locations beyond our borders.
Farming in Iowa today is composed of niche businesses. It is technology-driven and relies heavily on evolving science, which farmers are quick to adopt when they believe it will increase profits. Otherwise, they can be slow learners.
Neil Hamilton illuminates the problem in his recent book, “The Land Remains.” Hamilton grew up on a farm in southern Iowa and directed Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center for 36 years before retiring. He understands the history of farming in Iowa from draft horses to auto-pilot tractors.
He spent 45 years studying U.S. soil conservation practices and lays out six “myths we tell ourselves” that “lull us into a sense of complacency” and prevent farmers from making meaningful changes that could help clean up several problems.
His first myth is “soil conservation isn’t a problem.” Soil loss in southern Iowa is 5 tons an acre per year, Hamilton noted, which is down from 6 tons 40 years ago. Most of that improvement, he added, came from conservation practices begun in the 1980s that are no longer in place.
Second myth: A 5-ton loss is tolerable because the natural rate of replacement is 5 tons a year. Not anymore, Hamilton said. The replacement rate today in many locations is closer to half a ton a year.
Third myth: Nearly all farmers have a government-approved conservation plan in place. Most do not, Hamilton said, adding that many plans written in the past are no longer followed.
Fourth myth: Conservation plans are required to participate in federal farm programs and for crop insurance. The sad truth, Hamilton said, is “mandatory rules are not very rigorous and pose few restrictions on most farming practices.”
Fifth myth: Protecting the soil is a main concern of farmers. Hamilton said that while many farmers say they care, only a small percentage have invested in meaningful conservation practices during the past decade.
Sixth myth: Even when soil losses occur, yields are not much affected. Hamilton compared this with someone who has money in the bank thinking they can spend foolishly.
One final farm myth I’d like to dispose of is that the United States has a positive agricultural trade balance, meaning we export more food than we import.
That was true from the time this country was founded – think tobacco exports to Europe – until very recently, with food exports experiencing huge gains after World War II.
During the 21st century, however, consumer demand for year-round fresh fruits and vegetables and an increasingly diverse population wanting ethnic foods led to a nearly fivefold increase in agricultural imports.
USDA data released in February shows the United States was a net importer of agriculture products for the first time in 2020. Farm exports regained the upper hand for the next two years, but our agricultural trade balance is projected to go negative again this year and continue to widen through 2032.
The gap for 2023 is projected at $9 billion, with $190 billion of exports offset by $199 billion of imports. By 2032, the USDA says, the gap will widen to $18 billion, with $182 billion of exports and $200 billion of imports.
Getting rid of these myths will make it easier to address the real challenges of farming in the 21st century, including climate-induced changes to growing zones.