Overcoming “flatlander” syndrome

DSC_9216Wade Cowan, President of the American Soybean Association, and Sonia Tomassone,a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, discuss biotechnology issues last week at an ISGA meeting in Beijing, China.

How do you overcome flatlanders? Those people who shrug-off science and embrace misinformation. The people who thought you would sail off the edge of the world until explorers armed with science proved the earth was round.

That was a question Wade Cowan asked a group of farmers and industry leaders at the end of a three-day International Soy Growers Alliance (ISGA) meeting in China.

It was one of many questions asked during the three day visit in China as leaders from Brazil, Argentina, United States and Paraguay talked with high level Chinese government and business agencies in hopes of them accepting new biotechnology seeds and farming practices.

Finding an answer to that questions and others seemed simple. Use communications from a unified group of countries to promote the understanding of biotech crops and food safety. But as many representatives of ISGA found, China is setting the pace, and in some cases, making the rules on approving biotech events. That pace and the undefined rules for biotech approvals are causing financial and social shockwaves around the globe according to a White Paper that was released in conjunction with the ISGA visit.

“It matters to all of us that we have freedom to operate and that we have the ability to use the tools in the toolbox,” Cowan said. “When they say it could take seven years to get a trait we can use in our fields, they have effectively taken away 25 percent of your productive life as a farmer. You couldn’t tell a wage worker in town that you would take away seven years of their productivity and knock them down. Science is science and once it is approved it needs to be approved everywhere.”

Through meetings with high-ranking industry, education and government leaders in China, members of ISGA presented information in a unified front to try and streamline the approval process. But to do that they found they have to overcome the fears of genetically modified crops when it comes to the Chinese people.


Wu Kongming, the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, meets with ISGA members last week in Beijing, China. The ISGA promoted GM technology as a key component in addressing global food security issues during the meeting.

“I understand the conflict lies in the fast pace of research and development of GM events and the delay in approvals in consumer countries like China,” Chen Xuecong, the vice general manager of Sino Grain, said through an English translator. “From the perspective of the importers they have their own process and their consideration is more focused on food safety and the safety of biology. I believe that communications to the public is very important and it is also important for you to provide massive proof to show biotechnology is safe and that it will provide safe food for consuming country.”


Chen Xuecong discusses biotechnology issues with members of the ISGA during a recent visit to Sino Grain in Beijing, China.

That answer, in one form or another, was repeated to each group of ISGA international farmers as they met with the Chinese organizations. Organizations like the Department of American and Oceanian Affairs Ministry of Commerce, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Supervision on Animal and Plant Quarantine.

“It would be a significant improvement if all the ISGA countries together with Chinese industry could work together to create a pilot program for soybeans,” Jim Sutter told Chen Xuecong and others gathered at a meeting.

The ISGA, formed 10 years ago from countries representing 95 percent of the world’s soybean production, has been working together in a united front to prod European and Asian countries to approve biotechnology events in an efficient manner. The ISGA representatives that participated in the mission to China know their message is being received, but the actions of the Chinese government are still undefined.

“This week everyone was talking the same language and for me it was impressive,” Sonia Tomassone, a trade consultant for the Paraguayan Grains and Oilseed Exporters Association, said. “We need to present a single paper to everyone we met with to show we have one voice on this issue.”

By Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager


ISGA pushes for timely approval process in China

China Blog 1Laura Foell meets with U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus before the start of the Forum on Biotechnology and Global Soy Trade Tuesday in Beijing.

While farmers across the United States are in the midst of planting the 2015 crop a group of farmers from Iowa, Texas and Kansas traveled to Beijing, China to take part in the Forum on Biotechnology and Global Soy Trade.

The day long forum, organized by the International Soy Growers Alliance (ISGA), released a peer reviewed white paper detailing the benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops for countries that accept them while also documenting the economic impact of delays in regulatory approval. About 100 Chinese agriculture, state and industry representatives attended the forum.

Laura Foell, a farmer from Schaller and chairman of the United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC), was one of three farmer leaders that traveled to Beijing to discuss the importance of GM crops to their operations. Wade Cowan, president of the American Soybean Association and Bob Haselwood, the Chairman of the United Soybean Board also attended. They joined farmers from Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay as a united front through the ISGA to sponsor the forum.

The ISGA is made up of growers and industry representatives from countries (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Paraguay, Uruguay and the U.S. supplying over 95% of the world’s soybean production who share a commitment to meet the rapidly increasing world demand for quality and healthy soy products produced in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly manner.

“In 2014 we (ISGA) commissioned this white paper. We wanted something we could use to show people the economic impact of slow approvals. This is scientifically peer reviewed and not just hearsay,” Foell said. ”When we are visiting with industry representatives and government agencies it will bring to light the economic and cultural impact that slow approvals have.”

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A member of the crowd asks a question about biotechnology crops during the forum.

The white paper that was discussed at the forum and released to those in attendance is called “The Potential Economic Impacts of Delayed Biotech Innovation in Soybeans” and was written by Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Kenneth Zahringer and John Kruse.

As a unified statement for a streamlined approval process, the foreign ambassadors from each of the IGSA member countries in attendance also addressed the forum.

“I urge everyone here to share notes, share ideas and ask questions,” Max Baucus the U.S. Ambassador to China said. “We need to continue to develop soybean production, soybean consumption and the food needs of the this world.”

In 2014 biotech crops were raised by 18 million farmers in 28 countries. The use of those biotech crops increased crop productivity while reducing land use and fuel use. But slow regulatory approval and zero-tolerance policies have threatened international trade and has the potential to cause price increases according to the white paper.

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Members of the Chinese media ask questions of a speaker at the conclusion of the forum.

The economic benefits from the adoption of new soybean varieties will be large,” Lloyd Day deputy director general of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) told the group while discussing the white paper. “If new traits are delayed in reaching the market they will not only impact farmers and seed developers, but also restrict consumer access to adequate nutrition.”

New technologies provide farmers new tools to manage pests, produce soybeans more efficiently and deliver a higher quality product in a sustainable manner.

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An expert presents on GMO policies in China during the Forum on Biotechnology and Global Soy Trade.

“We can’t allow non scientific opinions to drive the day,” Cowan said. “We’re all in favor of a level playing field and we need to work together to let each market find its level. When you come together in a forum like this you can’t play country against country. The message doesn’t hold water anymore when we’re all in the same room.”

Members of the Chinese media in attendance at the forum were able to ask questions of all the forum speakers and representatives from each of the ISGA countries. Many of the forum participants echoed the fact that the increased regulatory process has stifled innovation and costs nearly $136 million for discovery, development and authorization of a new biotech crop. ISGA members hope that the information from the day combined with the white paper will help spread the truth about biotechnology crops while easing fears from Chinese citizens about the technology.

“Ultimately, you hope that any work done here will speed up the approval process,” Haselwood said. “I think that the cooperation we have with our South American partners will make the Chinese officials stop and think that they are going to have to work with us as group instead of individually and I think that is a good thing.”

By Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager

Lambing season in Madrid

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Morey Hill looks out of a window in his barn to check his flock.

Morey Hill peered through the window of his rustic barn out of habit. Outside his ewes and lambs were eating from a bale of hay and resting in a large pen attached to the barn. His brief glance was enough to assure him that everything was okay with the flock.

Behind Hill was the task at hand. Three empty bottles ready to be filled with lamb milk replacer for his three lambs that we’re beginning to stir in the pens on the other side of the wall.

“You can tell this was an old dairy barn,” Hill said while looking around the room. “I keep the newborn lambs and their mothers in here because you never know what the Iowa weather is going to bring.”

The barn he is referring to was the center of life on the farm when it was built most likely in the first two decades of the last century. Horses were on one side, and the dairy cows were on the other. A full haymow continues to hold feed for his sheep.

Today the barn is filled with two ewes, a lamb that was born less than 12 hours before and three other bummer or orphan lambs.

Hill began pouring the milk into the bottles while capping them off with faded red nipples. A process he has done many times over the last month and a half.

“I’m nearing the end of the lambing season,” he said as he walked into the main room of the barn with bottles in hand.

lambing collage

The lambing season has proven to be successful for Hill as he nears the finish line.

“You always hope for twins or at least for a 1.5 lamb to ewe ratio,” Hill said. “I was off that number but for the most part it has been a good season.”

Hill plans on weaning the 20 new lambs from their mothers within the month and will look to the market to decide his future steps. He can choose to sell the lambs when they reach 50 to 60 pounds, or he could feed them until they reach market weight.

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Morey Hill feeds a lamb from a bottle at his rural Madrid farm.

“I’ve been raising sheep for 15 years here,” he said while giving the lambs the bottles. “I’ve been around sheep since I was young. They’re nice to have around and we have the space.”

Hill finished the feeding, rinsed the bottles and placed them on a counter to dry. He will repeat the bottle feedings for the next couple of weeks before weaning the lambs and introducing them to the rest of the flock. He made one more welfare check on the sheep before stepping out into the cool spring air while closing the barn door behind him.

Another lambing season is in the books for Hill, but the care for the animals and the tradition of his flock will continue for years beyond this season.

By Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager

Iowa Agriculture Summit features national contenders


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit.

Nine potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates met at the first-ever Iowa Agriculture Summit last week in Des Moines to discuss agriculture issues important to the Iowa and national economies.

The candidates were interviewed one-by-one for 20 minutes to answer questions by Bruce Rastetter, the CEO of The Summit Group, and organizer of the event.

Topics ranging from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and Country of Origin Labeling were all discussed by the candidates during the day-long event.

“Every four years, Iowa becomes an epicenter of American politics, often shaping and almost always reflecting national policy movements. Unfortunately, until now, there has not been a forum solely dedicated to matters that directly affect Iowa farmers who feed and fuel not just the country, but the world,” said Rastetter. “The 2015 Iowa Ag Summit highlighted and promoted agriculture. It allowed elected officials and public policy leaders to have a public discussion on issues that are vital to the Iowa and American economy.”


Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush talks with Bruce Rastetter during the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit.

The candidate forum also featured speeches by Iowa representatives including Governor Terry Branstad, U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and former Lt. Governor and ag secretary Patty Judge. Judge was the only Democrat to speak during the event.

Ron Heck, an Iowa Soybean Association director, attended the summit to listen to the candidates and gauge their positions on issues impacting his farm and agriculture in the state.

“Energy policies that incentivize all renewable energy sources and implement flexible, market-based mechanisms will allow farmers nationwide to be part of the solution in a manner that is good for our bottom line as well as the natural resources we depend on,” Heck said. “I urge the participants of the Iowa Ag Summit to recognize the importance of renewable energy to a strong and vibrant farming future — both at the summit and on the campaign trail. Finding solutions that support clean energy development should be a priority for policymakers and presidential hopefuls on both sides of the aisle.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said that they support the RFS. Florida Governor Jeb Bush said that the market would decide the RFS and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Texas Governor Rick Perry and former New York Governor George Pataki all opposed energy mandates.

Christie gave the shortest answer to a question during the summit when asked if GMOs should be included on food labels simply saying “No”. All of the candidates in attendance echoed Christie’s thoughts about GMOs saying in their own words that there is no scientific evidence that GMOs negatively impact health so they shouldn’t be included on nutrition labels.


Senator Ted Cruz answers questions from a group of national journalists after his appearance at the Iowa Ag Summit.

About 1,000 people attended the summit and 250 media credentials were issued to cover the event according to event organizers.

“I was impressed by the preparation of all 20 speakers,” Heck said. “Of course Grassley, Branstad, and many others are always prepared for ag issues, but I believe the most important success of the summit was that the national figures had all obviously taken the time and effort to educate themselves on ag issues. The Summit was a success before it even started, because the national speakers had taken note of issues that are important to agriculture.”

By Joe Murphy, Member Communications Manager Iowa Soybean Association


Finding CommonGround at Commodity Classic

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Sara Ross talks about her experience as a CommonGround blogger during a session at Commodity Classic.

Finding CommonGround was the topic of discussion Friday afternoon at Commodity Classic, and Iowa took center stage.

Sara Ross, a farmer and mother of two from Minden, told the crowd that the last several months have been a world wind. A trip to China with other bloggers and her appearance in Phoenix for the Commodity Classic are just two recent stops on a journey that has taken her across the country and around the globe as an agriculture advocate.

Ross didn’t want to be left out of the food discussion, so she started blogging about her experiences on her western Iowa farm. That led her to answering questions and engaging with people about food and modern agriculture. Over the past five years, she has worked alongside other women in Iowa and across the country in the grassroots CommonGround organization.

“I would’ve never guessed I would be on a national TV show or talking with consumers on the other side of the world. It has made for positive conversations over the years,” she said.

During her recent trips, Ross spread the word about her experiences on her Iowa farm while trying to dispel misinformation about how food is grown and raised today. Topics like using GMOs in food, antibiotic use in animals and a backlash against “Big Ag” were all discussed during the event.

“I hope that consumers know that we want to be a credible resource. We want them to ask us questions and let us know what their concerns are so we can have conversations,” Ross said. I want to find out what their concerns are and answer the questions with information that we know from our farm.”

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Members of the audience had the opportunity to discuss how they can find their voice on agriculture issues as Sara Ross listens.

Joan Ruskamp a CommonGround participant and farmer from Nebraska also joined Ross at the Commodity Classic event. Ruskamp said that CommonGround gave her the confidence and tools to share her story through social media, speaking engagements and even when she’s waiting in line at the grocery store.

“If you are wondering how you get involved,” Ruskamp told the crowd. “You need to pick your passion. You need to find what you like to do and start there. Get involved and share your story that is how you find something in common with the people you are talking with.”

Ross agreed with Ruskamp and said that the greatest part of being a CommonGround volunteer was working with other women from across the Midwest.

“We’re always learning from each other,” Ross said. “I don’t know anything about dairy or poultry, but I have some good friends with those types of farms, so I know who to ask. That’s what we want to provide to consumers. A connection to the people who grow their food.”


By Joe Murphy, Member Communications Manager

Celebrating National FFA Week

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Wendy Wiggins and Dane Balzer check a measurement during an experiment in one of their agriculture studies classes at South East Polk High School.

Following in the legacy of George Washington, one of the first agriculturists and prominent farmers in this country, National FFA Week was started 67 years ago to celebrate and advocate ag education.

It also celebrates the work that students do every day to grow by gaining important life skills and building friendships that last far into their careers. Agriculture related classes are at capacity in many schools across the state as students explore the many traditional careers that are associated with agriculture. Pair that with the demand for more technology and biotech careers and organizations like the FFA are increasingly more relevant for students seeking a career path in agriculture.

Matthew Eddy, the South East (SE) Polk FFA advisor and agricultural education teacher, says his classes are nearing capacity at the schools and interest in a wide range of agriculture business careers has never been higher in his classroom.

“I have 200 plus members in my chapter and I can count the number of farm kids on one hand and not use all of my fingers,” he said. “It (FFA) is definitely relevant to every student. Every student can use public speaking skills and develop personal skills that can help them later in life.”

Wendy Wiggins, a sophomore at SE Polk High School, is currently taking an animal science class and hopes to pursue a career as an embryologist or nutritionist, but right now she is happy with the experience she is getting from being in the school’s FFA chapter and the friendships that have been discovered along the way.

“I live on a farm and have cattle so I think it is fun to learn here at school and take it home and put it into practice,” Wiggins said. “You meet a lot of people at events and then get to see them again at other events. It’s great to build friendships.”

Eddy believes that the classes offered at his department in the school gives students interested in agriculture the tools they need to explore different careers associated with agriculture.

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Matthew Eddy describes an equation to students trying to discover the amount of moisture in a feed ration during a class at South East Polk High School.

The curriculum is a purposeful way to teach STEM concepts but with an agricultural twist,” he said. “We’re doing the same things you would find in any math or science class but with an agriculture twist.”

Eddy went on to say that the relevance to the curriculum for the students is raising their interest and rigor.

“The more interest you have in things the more you’re willing to work to learn more about it. We’re using ag as kind of a teaser hook to get them interested in other things,” he said.

Eddy said that the SE Polk FFA chapter holds an annual flower sale to raise money for the chapter and the students are learning about aquaculture by raising Baramundi seabass. They also participate in several community service projects every year including raising potted flowers for Altoona’s main street.

He is excited for the futures of his students. He hopes that work he is doing in the classroom and their involvement in FFA is preparing them for ag and technology jobs that will be available in 10 to 20 years. He uses the new ag technology corridor that is being developed between Ames and Des Moines along Interstate 35 as an example of new opportunities for the students.

“I want kids to be able to live in SE Polk and work at Pioneer, John Deere, Nationwide Ag and all of the different agriculture entities that have offices here in Polk County,” Eddy said. “There are a plethora of agriculture employment opportunities and students need to understand the great opportunities that are here.”

By Joe Murphy, Member Communications Manager

Experts weigh in on land investments

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Donald Trump is interviewed by Ken Root during his appearance at the Land Investment Expo in West Des Moines.

You can add a new name to the ledger of Iowa farmland owners. On Friday, Donald Trump spoke to a capacity crowd of 600 farmers and ag-business professionals during the Land Investment Expo in West Des Moines.

Trump talked politics and investment strategies with the business leaders while hinting at a run for the presidency. In the end, he was given a deed to an acre of Iowa farm ground as a present for his visit to the conference.

“Farmers in some cases are great real-estate people,” Trump said. “Farms have a tremendous, tremendous future but are very much a bull-bust market. I’ve known some farmers that have had tremendous times and some terrible times. I’ve known some farmers that have gone through hell and some of those same farmers have done very well later on. So you have a boom-bust mentality.”

The eighth annual conference also featured several breakout sessions and keynote speakers from around the world talking about subjects ranging from climate risks to African agriculture. The goal of the conference is to connect policy experts, climate specialists, economists, institutional investors with farm producers, land managers and others operating in agriculture.

Land values

Jim Knuth, senior vice president of Farm Credit Services of America (FCSAmerica) spoke during one of the breakout sessions and gave timely information about land values, interest rates and what he thinks will impact Iowa agriculture in 2015.

Using the concept of benchmark farms, FCSAmerica was able to capture data showing trends concerning land values in the state. According to Knuth, the survey is the most comprehensive agriculture real estate database in Iowa and used nearly 3,400 real estate transactions and 64 benchmark farms in the four state region of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming to find trends.

The trends showed that a general reduction in cropland value was somewhat offset by gains in pasture values, and the strongest demand is still for quality cropland tracts.

“At the end of the day land prices are reacting to lower grain and commodity prices,” Knuth said. “Iowa benchmark values declined 6.9 percent in 2014, with 6.1 percent going in the last six months of the year.”

Out of 21 benchmark farms in Iowa one increased in value, 15 farms decreased and five remained unchanged. The data also showed that local is the name of the game when it comes to purchasing land.

“Farmers are the largest buyers of Iowa farmland by a wide margin. When you combine that with local investors you get about 90 percent of the market,” he said. “The trend is clear, local capital and local competition is driving this market. Not Wall Street, not east or west coast money.”

There is an expectation that in future years land values will react to lower grain production margins. Knuth said that is a normal expectation in this part of the cycle.

“Purchasing farm ground should be a long-term investment decision, and it should be from a position of financial strength,” he said.

In closing, he told the packed room that uncertainty shouldn’t stop progress.

“The wrong reaction is to freeze. I believe we should be in a time of proactive adjustments as we face uncertainty,” Knuth said. “The ultimate question becomes, ‘How do you position the operation with the benefits that are coming?’”

By Joe Murphy, Member Communications Manager


Subzero temps impact Iowa farms

DSC03990Jim Koch rolls hay onto the ground for cattle to feed on near their Van Meter home.

With fresh snow on the ground and a steady polar wind blowing from the north, cattle contently fed on hay recently spread on the ground. Jim Koch, an Iowa Soybean Association member from Van Meter, worked with determination alongside his son Jeff while the subzero winter winds battered their faces. Jim Koch, now in his eighties, has seen weather like this many times during his farming career and that taught him how important food and water are to livestock on days like this.

“When it’s this cold the cattle need a lot of food to keep warm,” Jeff Koch said. “We check the water a couple times a day during the cold weather because it freezes over time.”


Jim Koch walks through the cattle making sure that they are doing okay.

This scene was repeated at hundreds of farms across the state today as farmers worked through bitter conditions to make sure that their livestock were safe.

“It is cold out here but at least we can get inside when we’re done,” Jim Koch said while bracing from the wind. “That’s why we are more concerned about the cattle. We watch them closely to make sure they have everything they need to get through the weather.”


Jim Koch braces himself as a strong north wind blows across the field.


Jim and Jeff Koch make sure their is plenty of water for the cattle before finishing their chores.

Story and photos by Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager