Iowa agriculture, business, academic, government and conservation leaders met in Des Moines on Monday in a forum that began an exploration of the impacts that extreme weather events and changing climatic conditions are having on the state’s agriculture sector. More importantly, those participating in the event looked at the solutions that Iowa producers can sustainably deliver from the land to meet those events and changing conditions.
Over the course of the four-hour forum co-sponsored by Solutions from the Land (SfL) and Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, a wide variety of speakers agreed that a balance must be found among the various aspects of Iowa agriculture, with the goal ultimately being to provide nutritious food, clean energy, and ecosystem services such as water filtration and carbon sequestration – all while maintaining profitability.
The forum was held by a special, self-directed Work Group, composed of Iowa agricultural thought leaders and value chain partners, who are heading up an Iowa Smart Agriculture Initiative. Serving as co-chairs of the Work Group are Iowa corn and soybean producer Ray Gaesser, past chairman and president of the American Soybean Association, and Dan Robison, Dean of Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Science as well as co-chair of the Iowa Conservation Infrastructure Initiative. The co-chairs and their work group members say the forum Monday was an initial step in exploring and assessing the impacts that extreme weather events and changing climatic conditions are having and are expected to have on the state’s number one industry.
Iowa, with its fertile soil and what has traditionally been described as “sufficient” rainfall, has long been known as a good place to grow corn and soybeans, and produce pork and eggs. The state ranked first in the United States last year in corn production, with growers harvesting 2.5 billion bushels, generating a value of $8.78 billion. Iowa ranked second in soybean production in 2018, harvesting 564.8 million bushels valued at $4.8 billion. Not surprisingly, the state has the nation’s largest grain storage capacity, holding 3.6 billion bushels.
On the livestock side, Iowa leads the nation in pork production with 23.5 million hogs (nearly a third of the nation’s hog count). With 58 million laying hens, the state is also the nation’s leader in egg production (16.2 billion eggs last year). And Iowa is second in commercial red meat production (7.7 billion pounds).
But as farmers, agribusinesses and the rural community across the state know, those strong numbers are growing increasingly vulnerable, given the impacts of a changing climate and the growing threat it poses to their economic wellbeing and their livelihoods. The epic flooding this spring – the cause of more than $2 billion in damage and delayed the planting for the 2019 corn and soybean crop – combined with a wet and late harvest this fall demonstrated the latest real-world example of the “new normal” that is occurring. As highlighted by the members of the science panel that opened the forum, the increasing frequency of erratic, extreme-weather events and climate variation pose unprecedented risks to the sustainability of Iowa agriculture, as well as numerous challenges to sustaining and enhancing crop productivity, livestock health, and the economic vitality of rural communities.
As evidenced by Monday’s forum, the overarching goal of the initiative is to inspire and empower Iowa agricultural leaders to become leaders in the broader discussion of climate smart agriculture (CSA), including adaptation and mitigation strategies. A key area of focus for the work will be on policies and programs that promote climate smart agriculture, which can help producers: 1) sustainably increase agricultural productivity and livelihoods; 2) enhance adaptive capacity and improve resilience; and 3) deliver ecosystem services, sequester carbon, and reduce and/or avoid greenhouse gas emissions.
This project builds on work SfL has been doing across the country (most recently in Florida) to support leading farmers, ranchers and foresters in inspiring, educating, and equipping agricultural partners to innovate effective local adaptations that sustain productivity, enhance climate resilience, and contribute to the local and global goals for sustainable development.
The project aims to assist Iowa agriculture leaders in examining the potential vulnerabilities and opportunities created by changing climatic conditions in ways that are relevant to their daily lives. It also seeks to provide producers with the tools and knowledge they need to make informed decisions and manage new risks under changing conditions. And as demonstrated in Des Moines on Monday, the effort looks to mobilize thought leaders to advocate for needed changes in land use practices, research, education and policy.
The impressive quality and reach of those participating in Monday’s forum are indicative of the commitment and progress that can be expected from this Iowa-focused initiative. The work group stands ready to forge a consensus on climate-smart priorities for Iowa agriculture. SfL commends the Iowa Smart Agriculture Work Group for the leadership they are providing and urges other stakeholders in the state to join in the project team’s efforts and energize others to build the political and public resolve needed to address the growing climate challenges, as well as related environmental, public health and food security issues.