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Reading the final chapter

Article cover photo
ISU researchers ask questions about farming equipment during a tour last week.

By Allie Arp, ISA research communications specialist

Every book has a beginning, middle and end. But what if the last chapter was ripped out? How would the reader figure out the ending?

For some Iowa State University (ISU) researchers, the ending of their research story became clearer last week after touring some Iowa farms.

While research has been on farms for decades, the same doesn’t always apply for the researchers themselves.

“Out of necessity, many scientists are specialists in a very specific area and some of those research topics can be studied only under very controlled conditions in a lab or a greenhouse,” said Greg Tylka, professor of nematology and director of the Iowa Soybean Research Center at ISU. “These scientists are submitting proposals to checkoff organizations for support for their research so we thought it would be valuable for them to see first-hand what farming is like in 2017.”

 A group of researchers studying plant diseases, pest and general agronomics from ISU agreed and braved the heat for a two-farm tour last week. The first stop was Cliff Mulder’s corn and soybean farm in Pella.

“What are the management differences between renting and owning land? Who makes those decisions, a farmer or the co-op?” the inquisitive group asked. Mulder fielded questions on farm profitability, financing, conservation and evolution under the shade of a large sycamore. “Are you seeing a lot of farmers using cover crops? You have to borrow how much every year from the bank?”

Annual processes and management decisions were the most intriguing and surprising to the group.

“I didn’t know they had to go to the bank for money every year,” said Amy Welty-Bernard, a post-doctorate in the department of plant pathology and microbiology. “I thought they would have enough profits from the year before to carry over, but that’s not the case.”

A close-up look at farm equipment and being able to step into a soybean field also rendered management and financing decision. Some farmers may be uncomfortable with sharing that kind of information, but Mulder was happy to answer every question.

Cliff Mulder answers questions from ISU researchers in his soybean field.

“I owe ISU Extension a lot of praise for making me a successful soybean farmer,” he said.

The second stop on the tour took the group to Dave Struther’s corn, soybean and hog farm near Collins. Struthers farms with his siblings, parents and children making it a full-family operation. The multitude of questions continued, this time focusing on marketing in pork production and manure applications.

In addition to talking about pork production the group also got to see swine in various stages of the growth process. From sows in gestation, to three-month-olds to a two-day-old piglet, the researchers got to see the full circle view of hog production.

Dave Struthers holds a three-day-old piglet while answering questions from ISU researchers.

For all the large equipment and technology the group had seen at the Mulder farm, the Struthers farm was a different experience. The patriarch of the Struthers family collects hobby tractors, all of the nearly 20 are still functioning and have a purpose on the farm. With the newest one being a 1997, the Struthers have become very adept at fixing things over the years.

“It’s obvious that farmers have to be experts in everything. Agronomy, ag economics, mechanics, finance and everything in between,” Tylka said. “When I first started at ISU in 1990, I thought farming meant you plant a random variety, it rains, the plants grow, you harvest and you reap a reward. It’s so much more complicated and that came out during the tour.”

Tylka wasn’t the only one who recognized the importance of the day. After the success of the first tour a second one has already been planned for mid-September. While the specifics of that day are still being worked out, the need to see their research all the way through to the fields and understand what farmers want and need are important.

“It was important for me to relate our research to the farm to see what the farmer thinks and what it important to him,” said Grazieli Araldi, an ISU Ph.D. candidate from Brazil. “Sometimes there is a gap between what we do at the university and what they do.”

Grazieli Araldi takes a video of a planter folding up during a tour on Cliff Mulder's farm near Pella.

The trip was Araldi’s first time on an American farm. A major difference between the American farms she saw and the Brazilian farms back home was the overall size of the farms and the size of the farming equipment. While Mulder’s 1,500 acre farm is run by two people, a farm that size in Brazil would need at least four to five people. She also noted that there is much more disease pressure in Brazil, because of the lack of a killing winter.

Araldi may have been surprised by what she learned on the tour, but she wasn’t alone, something Tylka is hoping to change with more farm visits.

“Things go a lot better when everyone understands and appreciates each other’s situation,” Tylka said. “At ISU, one of our primary responsibilities is to work for Iowa’s farmers, so it’s important we understand what Iowa farmers go through. I hope my colleagues came away with an appreciation for how complicated farming is. I have personally grown in my appreciation.”

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

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