IA year in Review

In 2019, Iowa farmers went from wet fields and flooding to a late harvest, presidential politics to international trade and ASF fears.

The past year in agriculture was one many Iowa farmers would rather soon forget.

While the year brought a few highlights, issues with flooding, trade wars and politics left many producers looking to 2020 to hit the reset button and start fresh.

Watching trade

Iowa farmers got an early Christmas present in mid-December with the news of a partial trade agreement between the United States and China, part of a two-year saga that saw tariffs skyrocket, exports take a hit and commodity prices plummet.

While the “phase one” deal had yet to be officially signed, there is optimism this agreement which allegedly includes Chinese purchases of $40 billion of U.S. agricultural products, will move forward.

“If it does go through, it’s going to be very beneficial to all Iowa soybean producers,” said Tim Bardole, board president of the Iowa Soybean Association.

However, while commodity groups will be ecstatic to have this major export market back, there may have been some long-lasting damage done.

“We’ve spent decades building the market that was there, but I don’t think anyone thinks it will all come back anytime soon, and probably never to where it was,” Bardole said. “But if we can get China buying soybeans again, it’s a big boost to our state.”

Hogs and biosecurity

Another big potential winner in the U.S.-China trade deal is the Iowa hog market.

China was ravaged by African swine fever for the past two years, cutting a large percentage of the country’s herd. However, imports of U.S. pork didn’t jump as much as hoped due to large tariffs put in place during the trade war.

“China is a big black hole for protein, and it looks like they are going to open up for more pork, so that’s exciting,” said Colin Johnson, Extension swine specialist with Iowa State University. “2020 is going to be all about China. That’s the key.”

With a deal in place, hog export activity is expected to be abundant, which will help match some of the record slaughter that producers have seen. There have been weeks of nearly 2.75 million hogs slaughtered, Johnson said, and if packers can continue to manage the heavy loads, it would be good for all pork producers.

Due to concerns about ASF coming into the United States, Iowa farmers have been focused on improving biosecurity this year, Johnson said. Concerns about the disease even led to the cancellation of the World Pork Expo in Des Moines this past June.

“(Biosecurity) has been the headliner for most guys,” he said. “It doesn’t affect just our daily management practices but our supplies. Anything we do to enhance daily security helps every day against common endemic diseases.”

Prevent plant

While trade agreements make for happy news, many Iowa farmers were hit hard by weather and flooding in 2019.

Farmers along the Missouri River dealt with extreme flooding that caused houses, grain bins and equipment sheds to collapse, while major highways were shut down. The cleanup has been rough for many farmers, with some needing the help of an air boat or kayaks to get to certain parts of their fields.

Aaron Saeugling, ISU Extension agronomist in southwest Iowa, said more than 300 farms in his coverage area had to take prevent plant for 100% of their acres this year because they simply couldn’t get a crop in.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working to fix some of the broken levees along the Missouri River, but farmers are saying their work is not going to be done nearly in time for the next planting cycle, which will put them at risk for additional flooding in the spring of 2020.

Refineries take hit

In June, a move to make the ethanol blend E15 available year-round was welcomed, but many biofuel plants have struggled in 2019, with several going idle.

When the Siouxland Energy Cooperative in Sioux Center, Iowa, went idle in September, they cited Small Refinery Exemptions as the major culprit, indicating they “undermined the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

Thirty-one Small Refinery Exemptions were granted by the Environmental Protection Agency this year, allowing oil refineries to continue producing without using the required amount of ethanol or biodiesel blends in their product. This fall, President Donald Trump promised to have his administration look at these waivers, but the EPA’s proposal for 2020 blending requirements drew a lot of criticism from corn lobbyists.

As the year comes to a close, U.S. lawmakers agreed to extend the biodiesel tax credit, which had ceased at the end of 2017. The extension is going to bring the credit through 2022.

“It’s important because (biodiesel) is such a young industry compared to oil and even ethanol,” Bardole said. “That is something that is really needed for biodiesel plants to be able to keep the investors they need, and the tax credit helps with the certainty.”

Weather pushes planting

After a rainy fall of 2018, farmers across Iowa were behind schedule last spring, with a lot of field work still needing to be completed. Anhydrous supplies were short in many areas, with farmers lining up outside of co-ops to fill their tanks when possible.

That, combined with rain throughout May, put a delay on a lot of planting in the state. The rain was so persistent, Mahaska County farmer Michael Jackson said “farming for the month has been canceled.” It forced many producers to plant crop well into June.

Then, the weather shifted toward extremely dry in the summer months in some areas, causing an even bigger headache for farmers. Portions of southeast Iowa were covered in the U.S. Drought Monitor later in the season.

But after snow covered the state in late October, when combines were rolling in the field, soybean yields were much better than anticipated, many farmers said. Winfield, Iowa, farmer Marc Benson said he was in the upper 60s this fall on some of his beans that were planted in June, which surprised him.

“For June beans, that’s pretty good,” he said.

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