Ask Paul Lasley to describe the past decade in agriculture, and he uses one word: “Volatile.”
“The volatility and suddenness of some of these events was just unbelievable, and they took their toll on agriculture,” says the Iowa State University Extension sociologist.
The period from 2010 to 2019 saw volatility in commodity prices, weather and markets. Massive flooding in 2011 and 2019 devastated farms and communities along both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as their tributaries in several Midwest states. Drought was also an issue over the past decade.
After a strong start to the decade for commodity prices, corn and soybean prices tumbled over the past few years after record yields filled bins. Numerous trade disputes over the past two years contributed to price volatility for crops and livestock.
Advances in technology helped farmers work more efficiently. Improvements in machinery, hybrids and genetics resulted in better yields and larger pig crops, among other things.
“I think the weather extremes are what a lot of people will remember about the past decade,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, who was elected to his first term in 2018.
“We dealt with floods in 2011 on both sides of the state and places in between, then the devastating flooding in southwest Iowa this year. We had major drought issues, particularly in 2012 and 2018. We continue to see this trend of extreme weather events, so we have to work to become more resilient in the face of this change.”
Adversity is nothing new for farmers, Lasley says. The past decade, however, dealt blows that damaged even the hardiest of humans.
“At times, it seemed like we were in a sea without a rudder and were being tossed from side to side,” he says. “We had a series of uncontrollable events. We went from record income to record losses in five years. There is a lot of frustration in the farming community. The past decade really took its toll on a lot of people.”
While the past decade had its share of devastation, there was also good news. The profitability over several years, especially 2013 and 2014, caused many farmers to reinvest in their operations.
“We saw farmers invest in new technology, new buildings and added acres,” says John Lawrence, vice president of Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach programs.
He says investment was made in other ways, including additional programs at ag schools in the Midwest.
“We saw growth here at Iowa State, and not just because farming was cool again,” Lawrence says. “We have young people who are tech savvy that are going to be in demand in agriculture.”
The livestock industry also saw reinvestment, he says. Two new pork processing facilities were built in Iowa over the past decade. More cattle are being fed under a roof, partially due to nutrient runoff concerns along with the benefit of keeping animals out of the elements.
Naig says technological advances over the past decade have been staggering.
“We have seen these improvements in precision agriculture, measuring fields down to the smallest parcel,” he says. “We are going to be able to use precision ag more when it comes to conservation as well.”
Livestock diseases continued to be an issue over the past decade. Nearly 50 million birds died as a result of an avian influenza outbreak in 2015, including nearly 30 million birds in Iowa alone.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) killed millions of pigs in 2013 and 2014. Now the detection of African swine fever in China over a year ago has U.S. ag officials on high alert, and stepped-up precautions included the cancellation of the World Pork Expo in June 2019.
“What we have seen from all this is a heightened awareness of biosecurity,” Naig says. “We are preparing in the event of a foreign animal disease here at the state and industry level.”
Lawrence says technology has also advanced when it comes to renewable energy.
“Not just ethanol, but with biodiesel, wind and solar,” he says. “We are seeing farmers use solar energy to power their buildings and shops.”
The past decade also brought a boom in the local foods concept and industry.
“We are really seeing a maturation there,” Lawrence says. “We see great support for community supported agriculture, and it helps provide more avenues for people to get involved.”
Consolidation in agriculture has continued over the past 10 years, Lawrence says.
“Farm sizes have continued to increase, and seed and chemical companies continue to merge,” he says.
Multiple states have invested in water quality projects to help decrease nutrient runoff. More farmers have turned to cover crops to help improve water and soil quality, and to provide additional resources for grazing.
More and more ag customers are looking at sustainability.
“I think this is something that is emerging, that you need to be able to show how you farm sustainably,” Lawrence says, adding customers such as McDonald’s are listening to consumers who are more interested in how their food is grown.
Global trade has resulted in some uncertainty, Lasley says. After being elected in 2016, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. Increased tariffs with several trading partners, including China, resulted in a shrinking export pool for commodities.
Recently, an updated version of NAFTA, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. A bilateral trade agreement with Japan has been tentatively reached, while “phase one” of a trade agreement with China has been negotiated.
Lasley says the farm community typically rallies when faced with adversity. He is hopeful farmers are able to weather this latest storm.
“Midwesterners are resilient, but are reliant upon the ag economy,” Lasley says. “The last few years have been tough. Let’s hope things start to improve in 2020.”