All FSI News Commentary September 27, 2021

Notes from the Field

FSE Senior Fellow, Emeritus, Walter Falcon shares observations from Iowa on weather, farming, politics and more.
Tractor in field

Long-time readers of this posting will note that it is a year late. 2020 was a lost year in multiple senses, and one of substantial change for me personally and professionally. I have previously described myself as combining a day job as Professor of International Agricultural Policy at Stanford University with that of a farm manager of a medium- sized farm in Iowa. (Actually, assistant farm manager, since my wife, Laura. Is the real farm boss). But at 84, I retired for the third time at Stanford, and I am now on our farm full time. Daily life hasn’t changed that much, however, as I continue to write and Laura is still very much in charge of farming. Among her many agricultural talents, she is a crack shot with an air rifle, as several racoons, possums, and skunks can attest when they have attempted to raid the cat feeding dish.

The saga of how I became a full time Iowan is long and painful. The short version is that in early 2020 I fractured two vertebrae while doing physical therapy. (I have always doubted the wisdom of exercise!) Two back surgeries later, I found myself in a nursing home/rehabilitation center in the South Bay area. That timing was prior to vaccines and a period when care centers were hotbeds for COVID infections. Given my other heart and lung problems, I knew that I had to flee. With the help of my son, Andrew, I came to Iowa—2,200 miles straight through on a gurney in an ambulance. The awful nature of that ride was exceeded only by its cost! But I lived to tell the tale, and like many dreadful experiences, it has now morphed into a success story.

Much about life in Iowa remains the same. What I miss most about California are close friends, grandchildren, and great restaurants. Our town in Iowa has all fast-food outlets known to humankind. But really good restaurants—even decent places—are hard to find. With or without COVID, many Iowans have a good bit of parsimonious DNA in them, and they have little taste or time for great restaurant dining. On the other hand, when it comes to sweetcorn, tomatoes, and pork tenderloins, Iowa is destination dining.

One big change locally—mostly a victim of the virus—is the morning gathering of farmers for coffee in the old store in the nearby village of Waubeek. I certainly don’t yearn for the terrible coffee, but somehow community life is less rich, less informed, and less gossiped as a consequence of the demise of this decades-old tradition.
 

If anything, Iowa seems to have become more conservative—a ban on mask mandates, changed voting laws and regulations, and increasingly dim views on President Biden. There are few political conversations per se, but latent Trumpism seems alive and well. The hottest topic is whether the forever Senator from Iowa, Charles Grassley, now 87, should retire in 2022. Mostly, however, conversations revert to the traditional matters of weather, church, and family.

“Beware the ides of March” has long been good advice. For farmers in east central Iowa “Beware the 10th of August” is an even better warning. On that day in 2020, a huge derecho storm cut a 50- mile swath across Iowa. The storm carried with it straight-line winds of 130 miles per hour which created complete havoc. Our nearby city of Cedar Rapids lost two-thirds of its trees—some 600,000 in total. Our orchard grove after the winds looked like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree lot, and the impact on cornfields was a disaster—a combination of broken stalks and flattened rows. We had planned for 220 bushel per acre corn on our farm, but the actual number as measured by the scales was 104 bushels. I suppose the good news is that (80%) crop insurance paid for the equivalent of 72 bushels per acre of this loss. The further good news was that payment was at the prevailing market price, which was high relative to the prior 3 years. The farmer in me enjoyed cashing the government check; the professor in me wondered how seriously crop insurance programs were delaying climate-change adaptation in the corn belt.

On August 10, 2021, one year later to the day, we were hit by another vicious storm that appeared as a set of mini-tornados. During the prior month of July we had received no rainfall, and our county was then 12 inches below normal in seasonal precipitation. On the 10th, the midday sky turned absolutely black. The wind brought with it a couple of inches of rain to our great delight, but it also created a crazy pattern of destruction. In three adjoining fields of corn on our farm, one was unhurt; another had one-third of the crop flattened to the ground; and the third field had about 20 percent green-snap—stocks twisted and completely broken. A combination of water stress and wind seems likely to generate another year of low yields and more crop insurance payments. Soybeans fared better in this year’s storm, but the early drought has seriously hampered the “filling” of bean pods—few beans per pod and small sized as well. If new pickup trucks and tractors were available for sale, which they are not, fewer farmers would be interested this year.

COVID-Delta is now surging in Iowa. Hospitals are near capacity, but are not yet overrun. The state has been bipolar on opening activities. Last year the fairs were canceled, but this year they are back at full tilt. More than a million visitors visited the State Fair, an unbelievable number given that Iowa’s population is only 3.2 million.
 

Everything seemed bigger, though perhaps not better. Irish Cowboy won the super-boar contest weighting in at a whopping 1288 pounds, the butter-sculped cow made her 110th appearance, and reportedly by actual count, 49 different foods could be bought on a stick!

Our local fair was booming as well. What amazed me was the number of purple (championship)ribbons given this year. When I was showing cattle back in the 1950s, I remember 4 purple ribbons given in the beef show, and the only one that really mattered was the grand champion market steer. This year the beef show awarded 60 purple ribbons for various classes of animals, and another 20 for showmanship. It is less clear what winning means these days, but perhaps in both fairs and wars that is a good thing.

While the fairs had their moments of glory, two other events stole the spotlight locally. The last week in July saw the return of the “ride across Iowa”, known as RAGBRAI. This year, 16,000 supposedly sane bicycle riders started in northwest Iowa at the Missouri River and ended in east central Iowa before dipping their wheels in the Mississippi River. The weather was in the 80s and 90s, and it was also very humid. It was some sight to see 16,000 cyclists come riding (actually walking, a rule in towns) through our hometown of 1,400 people. The riders were welcomed warmly by the locals, and the church and auxiliary organizations had a field day selling all sorts of food and drink. The aftermath cleanup was welcomed less warmly.

What really put Iowa on the national map in 2021, however, was one particular corn field. It is near Dyersville, some 40 miles from where we live. That cornfield, which surrounds the “Field of Dreams,” brought Kevin Costner to town, as well as the White Sox and Yankees to play the first major league baseball game in Iowa’s history. The game itself was storybook in character, with a walk-off home run at its end. But the lasting image, and a source of great pride to Iowans, was the visual of the Yankee and White Sox players emerging from a towering corn field. There were some knowing smiles also when some of the “city ballplayers” found out that field corn was not the same thing as sweetcorn.
 

No farm field report is complete without a little bull. And that is what we now have—a two-year-old Angus sire that we hope will produce smaller calves and fewer calving difficulties. Our fat cattle from last year weighed well and graded prime—except for one. He was dangerously crazy, apparently thought he was half deer, and continuously jumped fences to go to the pasture rather than stay in feedlot. (Some of my Stanford colleagues actually think he was the smart one and it was the others that were crazy!)

Cattle marketing has changed locally, and most fed animals are now sold on a grade and yield basis. Farmers are paid after the animal has been slaughtered and graded, with the price determined at that point, rather than in a live cattle auction ring. Price margins between the farm and grocery stores have widened for beef recently, giving rise to all sorts of farmer claims of price fixing by meat packing companies. This claim is common, and my guess is that the reasons for increasing spreads are to be found in rising labor costs and transport bottlenecks.
 

More generally, it has been a very tough year for cattle feeders. Low beef prices coupled with high corn prices made for terrible feeding margins. Then there were the storms. Two of our nearby neighbors are the largest cattle feeders in the county, each having multiple feedlot buildings. The standard design of cattle feeding barns leaves them quite vulnerable to high winds The derecho storm blew virtually all their structures down or away, and dozens of animals were injured and had to be put down. “The sight of demolished buildings, injured and dead steers, and the rest of my high-valued inventory of live cattle walking around in the neighbor’s cornfield made for a really bad hair day” is how one summarized the scene.

Neighbors growing pigs have had their share of complaints as well, especially about California. Voters in that state voted, via a referendum, to ban the sale of pork products when the mother pig (sow) did not have at least 24 square feet of room. This size is greater than most Iowa farrowing pens (that are designed mostly to protect piglets) and reconfiguring them is costly. Since farmers in Iowa annually send some 30 million pigs to market (with lots of pork products going to California), the new law has both farmers and politicians up in arms. Mockery has been the typical form of exasperation. One newspaper suggested that next year Californians will require farmers to provide sows with pillows!

If the new law is more than symbolic, however, it raises the most serious kinds of regulatory issues. Since smaller pens are not illegal, wo will do the enforcement? Presumably the task will fall to packing companies, but how? Will they use an “honor system” with farmers? will they pay premia to farmers who comply? and how will California interests be ensured, since a pork chop looks and tastes the same whether 16 or 24 square feet is provided the mother pig? I tell my west coast friends that if they are serious, they should get ready for bacon-less BLTs.

More than usual, my thoughts this summer have focused on Asia. I began my international career 60 years ago working in rural parts of Pakistan that adjoined Afghanistan. One vivid memory is driving through the Khyber Pass and, at nearly every one of the many turns. seeing a monument to some foreign regiment that had been defeated. The Pathan group of the region is the most fierce, rugged, and loyal group I have ever known. To know them is to admire them—yet to disagree with many aspects of their culture. An economist colleague from that era and I had conversations in 2010 about the region. We concluded, correctly I believe, that anyone who had ever visited the place would not go to war there.

The second link to Asia this summer was more biological in character. My 40-year involvement with Indonesia intensified my sadness about that country’s terrible bout with COVID. With limited health care and few vaccines, my friends and their institutions have been hit by devastating blows. Another Indonesia link appeared in a more unusual way. During the middle of the summer, we noticed that our alfalfa field had suddenly turned yellow, as it turned out, from an invasion of leafhoppers. We sprayed immediately and ended up with 4 marvelous cuttings of hay. (Interestingly, our net returns from growing alfalfa this year will exceed the net returns from growing either corn or soybeans.) And what is the Indonesian connection? During much of the 1970s my colleagues and I worked in Indonesia on controlling leafhoppers (albeit a different species than the Iowa variety) that were destroying much of Indonesia’s rice crop. Indonesia had been using the wrong pesticide, and multiple spraying killed the leafhoppers, but also killed the “good” bugs, thus setting up a spiral of ever greater pesticide use. The solution was the introduction of new Green Revolution varieties that not only greatly increased yields, but also had leafhopper resistance incorporated directly into the seeds.

This year is very different in one particular respect. For the first time since 1962, I am not immersed in lecture preparation for courses on world agriculture. Stanford students are back in residence, but I am not, and I will miss that. But there is still autumn work to be done. I must learn all of the intricacies of Zoom calls so as to participate better in Stanford activities such as the (would have been) 100th anniversary of the Food Research Institute. There is also a new backup generator to install, a new machine shed to design, and more directly personal, learning how to maneuver a wheelchair in Iowa snow that will come all too soon.

Walter P. Falcon is Farnsworth Professor of International Agricultural Policy and Economics, Emeritus. He and his wife,  Laura, reside on their farm near Marion, Iowa. (wpfalcon@stanford.edu)