Naig talks land and livestock during first visit to Dickinson County Fair
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and State Senator Dave Rowley of Spirit Lake shared a laugh after the group grabbed some lunch during Naig's visit to the Dickinson County Fair. (Photo by Seth Boyes)
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig caught a glimpse of everything from the kiddie tractor pull to sheep grooming ahead of the overall showmanship competition during his first visit to the Dickinson County Fair last week.
"I'm impressed with the facilities," Naig said. "I'm always struck by the fact that you don't build a fair like this immediately. It takes a lot of leadership, and I really want to commend the board and all the 4-H leaders and everybody that's involved in this."
The secretary went on to say some in the public might not fully realize a robust agriculture community surrounds the Lakes Area's well-known recreation and tourism industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated about 187,000 acres of Dickinson County — about 77 percent of its total area — are used as farmland. In 2021, Dickinson County's famers produced nearly as many bushels of corn for grain as the county has year-round residents, according to USDA statistics, and the county produced another 13,500 tons of corn for silage that same year — nearly 2 percent of the state's total corn silage for 2021.
"Northwest Iowa is so important from an agriculture standpoint — some of the most productive land in the world, and also a place where we see the value of livestock," Naig said.
There were about 20,000 head of cattle and calves in Dickinson County in 2020, according to USDA stats, and that number grew by about 1,000 the next year.
Fair organizers told Naig they've recently seen a dip in livestock numbers during the county fair competitions. They said many of the local students who participated in the Dickinson County's 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs graduated in the last two years, and fair organizers noted it is often the senior members who exhibit several animals in multiple competitions. On the bright side, organizers did say upcoming class sizes give them reason to believe livestock numbers at the fair will rebound within a few years.
Naig was able to speak with several young exhibitors he met while walking the fairgrounds last week. He said the youth were focused and determined as they cared for their animals — some of the young people were preparing for the fair's overall showmanship competition as they chatted with the secretary.
"The things they're doing here at the fair just give them a little insight and a little window — maybe a little excitement and some passion starts to build — and that leads to a career in the future," Naig said.
And many in the ag industry are currently keeping a weather eye on the markets, according to Naig. He said multiple factors are prompting some producers to mitigate unpredictability as best they can.
"Nobody likes uncertainty in their business," Naig said. "The pork industry in particular, you've got producers losing money per head on every animal they sell. You've got dairies that are really under pressure in terms of pricing. And things like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and those types of things actually impact our grain markets right here."
Naig said other factors, such as weather, are beyond the individual farmer's control, and Mother Nature hasn't been blessing Iowa's farmers equally.
"We're dry in places, and yet over much of the state we have seen some really beneficial and timely rains, so that's always a mixed bag, but that's certainly on people's minds," Naig said.
A Monday crop condition report from Naig's office said the dry yet cool conditions allowed for about 6.3 days suitable for fieldwork the week of the secretary's local stop. The report said much of Iowa — from the northwest to the southeast portion of the state — saw little to no rain the previous week, with the average rainfall across the state measuring less than a quarter inch — typically the average would be almost an inch of rain, according to Naig's office.
Naig said Iowa's farmers are also watching potential policy changes as Congress drafts an updated Farm Bill — the federal bill is rewritten every five years, and the current version is set to expire in late September. Naig said pork producers in the Hawkeye State are also expressing concern over the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold California's Proposition 12, which places restrictions on how pork producers who wish to sell to the Golden State must raise their animals. Specifically, the regulations would prohibit operations from confining certain animal breeds in a "cruel manner," according to information from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
"Of course, what that ultimately does is drive up the cost of production, which drives up the cost of food," Naig said. "And really I would argue it's wrong that one state, just using their market power, should be able to impose their preferences on another. That's really what it comes down to — what's interstate commerce and what's protected?"
Naig noted during his discussions with county fair organizers and local state legislators that many of Iowa's pork producers would potentially need to borrow money in order to comply with the minimum space requirements under Proposition 12. However, he pointed out farmers can only guarantee their lenders an operation will be in compliance until the next time the law potentially changes, which Naig felt might make it difficult if not impossible for Iowa farms — especially small operations — to secure such funds.
While the Supreme Court's decision didn't close the book on Proposition 12 as Naig hoped the court might, it did open the opportunity for Congress to address the situation legislatively, which he feels is a step in the right direction.
"It's pork production today, but just let your mind run," Naig said. "Imagine what one state could try to impose on another if this is all allowed to stand. It's food production today, but it will certainly be other things tomorrow if this is not corrected."
He went on to say, despite the challenges ag producers are currently facing, the need for farmers — including those in northwest Iowa — is widespread. And he still foresees a productive future for young people, like those he met at the Dickinson County Fair, who are considering careers in agriculture.
"Demand's never been greater," Naig said. "This is important. This is meaningful work. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world, confronting those challenges than right here in Iowa, and I also think agriculture is all about innovation and all about change and trying to deal with the challenges that are before us. I always try to boil it down to thinking, at the end of all of this, what we do in ag is supplying food and ag products to a consumer, and that consumer is here — right here in Dickinson County, Iowa — and then it's also a consumer around the world. And that work's never been more important."