Fairfield Ledger

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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 23, 2018

Ag secretary visits Fairfield

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Sep 05, 2018
Photo by: ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, right, addresses a group of residents Tuesday morning at Maasdam Barns in Fairfield. Also pictured is Jake Swanson, special assistant to the secretary.

Iowa Secretary of State Mike Naig stopped in Fairfield Tuesday morning to visit Maasdam Barns and field questions from about a dozen residents.

Naig is a few months into his role as ag secretary, a position he assumed in March after former ag secretary Bill Northey resigned to become U.S. Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. Before becoming ag secretary, Naig had been Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture since 2013.

Naig said that he’s received so many questions about trade everywhere he goes. The U.S. is locked in a trade dispute with China where both countries have placed tariffs on the other’s goods. China imposed a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans and other farm goods in July. Tariffs figure to hurt soybean prices by suppressing demand. The Chicago Board of Trade reports soybean futures have lost about $2 per bushel in value from April when the tariffs were announced until early July when they were just over $8.50 per bushel.

According to Bloomberg News, China consumes approximately one-third of the world’s soybean crop, so its actions loom large on the soybean market. Soybeans also represent a large share of U.S. ag exports to China, accounting for 60 percent of the $20 billion in farm goods America sells to the Asian giant.

What can a state secretary of agriculture do about any of this?

“One of my roles as secretary of ag is to be an advocate for our Iowa farmers,” Naig said. “We can work together with other secretaries and commissioners of ag from other states, but we also work together within Iowa officials such as the governor and our congressional delegation. We want to speak with one voice, which will help us effectively advocate for our producers.”

Naig mentioned that the other major trade policy concerning farmers is NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA is a trilateral agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada signed in 1994 that lowered trade barriers between the three countries. Though the agreement is still in effect, Canada and the United States are each hoping to renegotiate parts of it. Reuters reported that one of the sticking points is U.S. demand for greater access to Canada’s dairy market, which limits imports to protect its dairy farmers.

“Ideally, we would have Canada come to the table so we could have a NAFTA 2.0,” Naig said.


Cover crops

Another issue Naig touched on was conservation, particularly for cover crops. Cover crops are usually planted in the fall on farmland. They are designed to reduce soil erosion and have been shown to increase yields. Common cover crops include crimson clover, rye and oats.

Naig said Iowa farmers can receive money from the state to plant cover crops and perform other water quality improvements such as no-till, strip till, or a nitrification inhibitor when applying fertilizer. He mentioned the newest program gives farmers a reduced crop insurance premium for planting cover crops. He said the program was a tremendous success.

“Just under 200,000 acres were enrolled in the first year of that pilot program,” he said.

Public comments

Jim Flinspach, a local farmer who belongs to Jefferson County Farm Bureau, attended the meeting and asked Naig about improving trade relations with other countries and improving the local infrastructure that takes those exports to market.

“We’re faced with another year of overproduction,” Flinspach said. “The harvest prices are already reflecting that. They’re very low. This will be almost a carbon copy of 2017.”

Flinspach said it’s always hard to hold a crop for three-quarters of a year until the following summer when the prices are better.

“You have to keep the crop in good condition, and that’s a challenge in itself,” he said.


Trade, not aid

Flinspach spoke about the federal aid that’s coming to farmers hurt by trade wars. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Aug. 27 that farmers will receive $4.7 billion as compensation for foreign countries’ retaliatory tariffs on their goods. USA Today indicated that soybean farmers will get most of that, $3.7 billion, while pork producers will get $290 million and cotton farmers will get $277 million. That sort of aid from the federal government is not really what farmers want, Flinspach said. He said farmers don’t want to go back to being paid to “do nothing,” referring to the old set-aside program from 40 years ago when farmers were paid to set a percentage of their acreage aside for conservation uses.

“It’s a public relations nightmare,” Flinspach said. “I want to grow a crop efficiently on the ground I have and I want to market it.”

Flinspach said he felt it was fair that the government compensated farmers hurt by the tariffs, but added that it’s not a long-term solution.

“It’s too close to welfare, and most farmers don’t like that,” he said.

John Sandbothe, regional manager at Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said it was good to hear that trade is one of Naig’s top priorities.

“As farmers, we’re looking for trade, not aid,” Sandbothe said. “We need to expand our markets because we are a global organization. [Naig] definitely understands what our concerns are and that now is the time to build trade that’s fair for everybody.”

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