Once we reach the entrance to the Vault, we are met by the representative from NordGen, the gene bank of the five Nordic countries who operate the Vault and approved our visit. Once the outer door closes, we are briefed in the vestibule. Then, we enter through a second door leading to the 100-meter-long tunnel descending into the mountain. Through the tunnel, a third door brings us into the anteroom in front of the three 30′ by 90′ chambers carved out of rock. Only the middle room is now in use, but its shelves are 85% full of deposits, so soon another room will be active. In this room, we can see the actual frost and ice covered door leading into the Vault. Once this door is secured behind us, the final door is opened and we enter the actual vault. It is here that the nearly one million deposits are stored, boxed as originally received and prepared to NordGen’s exacting standards. Each box is labeled with the name of the owner, barcodes and other identifying information to keep track of the deposits.
It is only now as we stand in this small frigid space no larger than a classroom, does the magnitude of what it holds strike you. Collected in this room are seeds gathered from around the world – and over the time of our existence – representing the food crops upon which our lives are formed. It is not the gold bullion of Ft. Knox or the priceless art works secreted away in a Swiss bank – instead, it is the simple seeds we plant. They reflect the cumulative results of nature, evolution, and humans’ efforts to identify and improve our food crops.
Being in the presence of the seeds makes one think about not just the human history they contain, but the fragile nature of our very existence. Walking the aisles you read the labels of the seed banks from every corner of the world. We can’t see inside the boxes – even NordGen officials cannot open them. But we know they are filled with envelopes, each holding 250-500 seeds of a distinct crop variety selected by a seed bank for safe keeping. Over 150,000 varieties of rice and 160,000 of wheat join the thousands more representing over 150 food crops important to people somewhere.
Being inside the Vault makes real the stories I have read. It also brings a new appreciation and understanding of the work of many people – the plant collectors, the seed breeders, the farmers, and the gene bank officials who have collected, improved, and saved these seeds. One does not need to be a person of faith to feel a visit to the Vault is moving in a spiritual way.
Next week, the story of our visit will conclude with thoughts on what the Seed Vault may mean for the future of agriculture and humanity.
Updated on May 29, 2018
Who visits Svalbard the Norwegian archipelago 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle? In the 1800s, it was Russian walrus hunters and Dutch whalers. In the 1900s, it was coal miners who left visible scars on the fragile landscape still visible in 2018. Today, those filling our plane from Tromsø on a blustery February day are adventure seekers, Norwegians visiting their most remote outpost and scientists staffing the research stations to study the effects of climate change on the polar ice.
But one other group makes the flight to Longyearbyen – representatives from the world’s seed banks: officials charged with safe guarding the genetic resources on which all human life depends.
Svalbard is home to the Global Seed Vault, perhaps the world’s most vital storehouse, the depository of our evolutionary history for food crops. It began in the late 90s as an idea of Cary Fowler, a visionary scientist from Tennessee then working in Rome on international genetic protection. Working with Norwegian counterparts, he helped bring into reality the dream of creating a secure seed storage vault deep inside a remote Arctic mountainside to serve as a depository for the seeds being held around the world in hundreds of national and international gene banks.
The Vault, opened in 2008, serves as the world’s genetic back-up – the place where depositors send duplicate sets of the seed varieties they store locally. Today, the vault has received deposits of over 1 million distinct plant varieties representing a significant portion of the world’s food crops. Seeds have come from gene banks in over 100 nations, including thousands of varieties from USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System in Ft. Collins.
Iowans should be proud to know the only private non-governmental organization or NGO with the foresight to place seeds in Svalbard is our Seed Savers Exchange or SSE from Decorah. As a long-time board member of SSE, it was a special thrill to receive Cary’s invitation to come to Svalbard as SSE made our latest deposit on the vault’s 10th anniversary.
In the 1980s, my brother, sister, and I participated in a federal nutrition program. My parents scrambled to continue to farm. Our bank had failed. The family was in crisis. I assumed I’d have to sell my horse and mule and move with my family to some far-off city. Fortunately for my family, the Grapes of Wrath-type scenarios didn’t happen.
For numerous reasons, many of them stemming from farm bill policies, my family’s farm survived the 1980s farm crisis. Today, my brother and sister-in-law are farming with my parents on the farm where I grew up. My husband and I own and operate our own farm.
One of the things that made a real difference for my family during the 1980s farm crisis was free school lunch. Over the few years we participated, those free lunches freed up a couple thousand dollars. My family spent that money on non-food necessities and much of it at local stores.
I’ll always remember our superintendent who encouraged families to sign up for free lunch. He said participate—it helps your family and also benefits the school. His reasoning was something about a reimbursement formula. A lot of families from my hometown applied and used the program because we were all told it was the right thing to do. It was, and it still is.
Fast forward to 2018. President Trump’s budget includes a radical proposal to remake the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), what used to be known as the food stamp program. Termed “America’s Harvest Box,” the program would cut roughly half of SNAP dollars and replace them with a box of shelf-stable foods delivered to individuals and families participating in SNAP. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is now vigorously defending this proposal.
The Harvest Box contrasts the innovations in the SNAP program from the 2014 farm bill designed to incentivize eating more fruits and vegetables. Our farm participates in Iowa’s Double Up Food Bucks to encourage SNAP participants to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers. The “Harvest Box” would remove the ability of SNAP beneficiaries to choose. They lose the opportunity to select healthier foods, purchase from farmers and retailers in their local community, and decide when and where to use the benefit as they need. In lieu of the flexibility, SNAP families and individuals would see those opportunities slashed and replaced by a box of “shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables”.
Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center, was a guest earlier this week on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River. The hour-long program explored the history of SNAP and implications of implementing America’s Harvest Box. Neil argued this proposed change to SNAP looks like a solution in search of a problem.
Kathie Obradovich devoted her political column in Monday’s Des Moines Register to the Harvest Box. She claimed the proposal, if implemented, would have a spiraling downward effect on Iowa’s economy. Food prices would rise, Iowa retail sales would drop, and federal farm programs on which Iowa farmers depend would lose support.
To be fair, some of her criticism was sardonic. She said, “Everything I’ve read suggests Congress has as much interest in the Harvest Box as the average 5-year-old has in canned spinach.”
However, by mid-week, Politico’s Morning Ag reported that Secretary Perdue “has a message for all the ‘America’s Harvest Box’ haters: We’re serious. So serious that Perdue tells POLITICO that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway is open to considering a small-scale pilot of the program in the 2018 farm bill.”
As the politics of the policy development around the Harvest Box play out, there’s a very important message farmers need be sending to SNAP participants.
Thank you for using SNAP to help your family, for spending those benefits in your communities, and for responding to our commodity marketing campaigns by purchasing the food we raise such as our beef, milk, pork, poultry, produce, and grains.
For over half a century political forces interested in making sure all Americans have enough to eat and political forces interested in making sure American farmers are economically able to grow that food have joined forces in federal farm policy. These proposed changes to SNAP threaten a coalition of urban and rural lawmakers working together to insure both goals.
My participation in a federal nutrition program is more the norm than the exception. They are well-directed, efficient, good for families and local communities, and an excellent tool for helping families navigate a crisis like mine did. Federal nutrition programs also provide effective and efficient services to those with chronic needs like the disabled and elderly. America’s Harvest Box seems to fall short on every measure of good government. But maybe that’s the real point of the proposal: to undermine the effectiveness of a good government program.
As a farmer, when the going gets tough, I have depended on government programs. They’ve helped me throughout my entire life, from free school lunches as a farm boy in the 1980s to the Livestock Forage Program (LFP) during the Iowa drought last summer. As a farmer, I am well served standing with fellow Americans using SNAP. As a farmer, I must not stay silent while political forces redesign one of the most popular and efficient government programs to become less effective and less beneficial to the people it is supposed to serve.
You might not realize health care is a critical issue for farmers if you have only been reading the agriculture press headlines this year. Tax reform—especially the estate tax, Waters of the United States (WOTUS), and trade policy remained in the limelight for the duration of Trump’s first year in office.
However, according to a new study published by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, “65% of commercial farmers identified the cost of health insurance as the most serious threat to their farm, more significant than the cost of land, inputs, market conditions, or development pressure.”
With a majority of farmers finding the cost of insurance to be a serious threat to their livelihood, the agriculture industry needs to advocate for more affordable health care for farmers and rural communities.
Between 2015 and 2017, the researchers used case studies from 10 states and collected surveys from 1062 farming households. Researchers found that about 90% of those involved in the study had health insurance, but the sources of insurance varied widely, even within the same household.
According to the study, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) broadened farming family insurance options since its inception in 2010. The authors report about one out of five farmers in the study claimed ACA marketplace health insurance allowed them to enroll in health insurance for the first time.
The research included an example of a ranching family with five children who experienced how the ACA improved their access to healthcare. It said, “their three oldest children had never gone to the doctor because they had no health insurance. After the ACA implementation, the two younger children had preventative well-child visits and the family had access to a wider range of health services.”
According to the study, farmers can especially benefit from the ACA because the health care law uses income rather than assets to determine eligibility for Medicaid and market subsidies. As the Agricultural Law Center has pointed out in the past, the economic model for American agriculture incentivizes asset or wealth accumulation and discourages income generation.
The researchers point to a provision in the ACA, which “decouples the family from the assets of the enterprise and addresses the ‘land rich, cash poor’ conundrum farmers often face.”
This study suggests that farmers, like all Americans, continue to struggle with access to affordable health care. Almost three quarters of the participants in the study said they had a desire that the USDA “represent their unique needs in national health insurance policy discussions.” Hopefully those advocating for farmers and rural communities will read this report and pay attention to the findings.
The issue of water quality continues to increase in political importance. Candidates, on both sides of the aisle, from areas rural and urban, are running on platforms of water quality. Two Republicans, Craig Lang and Ray Gaesser, are currently running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture focused on water quality and soil health.
Last November, Des Moines voters elected Josh Mandelbaum to the city council. “Protecting Public Health and Standing Up for Water Quality” was one of the pillars of his campaign.
Governor Kim Reynolds set water quality as a high priority during her Condition of the State address last month. On January 31, Reynolds signed SF 512 into law. Clearly, Reynolds saw value in having the water quality bill be the first signed this session, thus making it the first law for her to sign as governor of Iowa.
SF 512 is projected to produce $270.2 million for water quality projects over the next 11 years, according to Iowa’s nonpartisan data agency.
According the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “The money will come from converting an existing sales tax on metered water to an excise tax and, as Vision Iowa bonds are repaid, using those funds, too.”
The water quality law will not generate new money for the state, which means under the law the state will fund water quality efforts by reducing money currently being used to fund other programs.
The level of water quality action does not appear to match its political attention. The state needs to address more questions, engage more interests, and leverage more money to attack the enormous problems with water quality in Iowa.
Several Iowa organizations argue the solution that has been signed into law is not adequate. They claim Iowans expect more significant action on water quality.
- “Where are the voices of environment, habitat, conservation, watershed planning, public health and sustainable agriculture in this process and in this bill?”
-Iowa Environmental Council Executive Director Jen Terry
- “Senate File 512 represents a timid response to a vital need for establishing widespread, sustained and measurable progress on an issue important to farmers and all Iowans.” –Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) ISA CEO Kirk Leeds adds, “It’s nibbling around the edges of what’s truly needed. While some additional funding continues to point us in the right direction, it doesn’t get us too much further down the road in achieving the kind of results we all know are attainable and necessary.”
- “We appreciate the Legislature’s continued attention to water quality, but this effort is incomplete. There remains much more work to be done. The cost of the nutrient reduction strategy is estimated at over $4 billion and Iowa needs immediate, substantial, dedicated funding and a collaborative watershed approach to adequately implement that strategy.”
–Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy (IWILL) Coalition
According to the IWILL Coalition, Iowa voters overwhelmingly support funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund: 83 percent support the Trust and 69 percent support raising the sales tax 3/8 of a penny to fund the Trust. IWILL further argues almost 90 percent of likely Iowa voters describe pollution of rivers, lakes and streams as a serious problem in Iowa.
Iowa voters created The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in 2010. It is a permanent and constitutionally protected funding source to ensure these natural spaces are preserved for generations to come. However, the legislature has not yet funded it. IWILL advocates raising the sales tax 3/8 of a penny to fund the Trust Fund.
Hopefully, Governor Reynold’s signature is the beginning of the discussion surrounding water quality in this legislative session and not the end. There is still much more work to be done to clean up Iowa’s water.
The Agricultural Law Center continues to engage in this debate with Our Water and other resources, like Director Neil Hamilton’s presentation “High Hopes Meet Hard Truths: Facing the Reality of Iowa’s Water Quality Policy.”
As I mentioned in my last post, tax reform will be an issue to watch in 2018. The legislation enacted in late 2017 has many agricultural producers, attorneys, accountants and other industry professionals quickly working to learn about potential impacts on agricultural producers and businesses.
For those of you interested in learning more about tax reform and implications for the agricultural industry, mark your calendars now for January 30 and register for the upcoming teleforum: “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: Reviewing Key Provisions Impacting Agricultural Producers”.
Presented by the American Agricultural Law Association, the premier association for agricultural law and policy professionals, and Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural Law & Taxation, this two hour teleform is open to both AALA members and nonmembers. AALA’s mission is to “inform and engage the law and policy professionals who serve all facets of the agricultural and food communities.” As part of that mission, AALA offers periodic educational opportunities, like this teleforum, that are open to all.
This two-hour teleforum includes a panel of experts from across the country, with a discussion focusing on key provisions of the new tax law impacting agricultural producers and businesses. In addition to discussing generally applicable sections, it will address the 199A deduction and its potential application to different types of income, including income derived from farm rentals and payments from cooperatives. Other topics will include potential individual income tax changes to producers, impacts on estate planning and basis after death, and changes related to depreciation and like-kind exchanges. The forum will also highlight several ambiguities in the law, noting the need for further regulatory guidance.
You can learn more about this upcoming teleforum and register by visiting the AALA website. Again, this is a free teleforum, open to members and non-members. However, if you are a non-member involved in the agricultural or food law/policy realm, take a moment to check out the association, its benefits, and consider joining!
I have the privilege of serving as the current president of AALA and have been a member since I was a first-year law student, which has been over 15 years now. Drake has a long history of involvement and leadership in AALA. AALA is comprised of a wonderful group of professionals that are knowledgeable, dedicated, and as friendly and welcoming as you will ever find. I am passionate about this organization, its people, and all the work our members do across the country (and world), in all facets of food and agriculture. If you have questions about AALA, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or visit the AALA website to learn more.
Of the 36,000,000 acres of land in Iowa, more than 33,000,000 acres are farmland. Iowa landowners include people who inherited the land, while others are new farmers who purchased farmland as an investment or as a rural residency.
The Drake Agricultural Law Center created the Iowa Landowners Legal Guide as a tool to be utilized by any type of landowner. This guide provides videos and text for those who want to gain a better understanding of the legal rights and responsibilities of owning Iowa farmland.
Today’s post features the video “Who Else May Have an Interest?” In the video, you’ll find that even if a person owns land, he or she does not have total liberty to do whatever he or she wants to do to the land. In Iowa, there is a long list of people and institutions other than the owner with a legal interest in the farmland. The video explores 10 of these groups.
We encourage landowners and aspiring landowners to watch the video to better understand how owning farmland legally binds them to others in ways they might not have considered.
As we look forward to 2018, there are many changes, concerns, and areas of uncertainty with potential effects on the food and agricultural industries and rural America. I have listed below a few of the key topics and issues I think we will hear about frequently in the coming year.
- Water Quality/Environmental Issues – Much attention is going to be paid to the Iowa Legislature when it opens its session in January on the issue of water quality within the state. There appears to be growing recognition that the state needs to do something more to work to address concerns throughout the state, but consensus on how to move forward at the state level is still lacking (bills in both the House and Senate failed to move forward in 2017). Other states in the Midwest are far ahead of Iowa with various voluntary and mandatory programs (check out Minnesota and Ohio as examples), it’s time for the state to step up and focus on developing comprehensive and coordinated plans, with sufficient funding for implementation, to improve water quality within the state and address concerns related to agricultural run-off. The Des Moines Register Editorial Board recently weighed in on this issue and Iowa Public Radio did a live River to River discussion dedicated to water quality in October 2017. I suspect you will see much more in the media on this topic in the coming days and months, along with other environmental concerns including climate change, chemical drift and damage (particularly dicamba), and organic regulations. On our radar: watch for the upcoming “Our Water” series from the Agricultural Law Center.
- Tax Reform Implications – While the debate continues as to who will benefit from the Tax Reform Bill passed and signed at the end of 2017, there is no doubt that it’s going to be keeping many accountants and lawyers busy over the coming year. The Estate Tax was one of many key provisions of interest to the agricultural community, but there are others that may impact decisions being made related to filing your 2017 taxes as well. The ISU Center for Agricultural Law & Taxation has a comprehensive summary of the bill, including possible impacts on the agricultural industry. One particular area of concern I have: the effect on charitable organizations. Ideally, contributions will remain stable to charitable organizations in 2018, despite many Americans no longer being able to deduct charitable contributions due to the higher standard deduction. I have concerns for all charitable institutions in this area, but particularly those in rural communities. Rural charitable organizations already face struggles to obtain funding, and the needs of rural communities are not decreasing (see this recent article from The Hill on Rural Poverty and the 2017 USDA Summary of the annual Rural America at a Glance report).
- Trade – While USDA touted agricultural trade wins in an end of year press release, all eyes are still on the continuing NAFTA negotiations as we move into 2018. Despite concerns that the current Administration was ready to withdraw from the agreement in 2017, talks have continued and are scheduled into 2018. In large part, the agricultural industry is supportive of NAFTA, as Canada and Mexico purchase about 30% of our agricultural exports each year. However, there are divides within agriculture and NAFTA remains a deeply divisive issue both within agricultural and within other industries, such as manufacturing, that believe NAFTA has caused more harm than good. Manufacturing, agriculture and other areas share something in common other than being key NAFTA topics: they are also vital to our rural communities. Predictions are dire as to what may happen to the farm economy should the US withdraw from NAFTA, impacting not just those directly involved in the production industry, but their communities as well. As we look ahead to 2018, rural communities may see some of the most direct impacts should the United States withdraw from NAFTA.
- Food Waste – Food waste continues to be a topic of interest, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding the environment and food security. While there has been increased attention to the food waste problem, federal legislation has stalled several times and much more needs to be done. While 2018 could be a big year for food waste legislation, especially if it gets brought into the Farm Bill, state and local initiatives could be the key to seeing a real impact on this issue. Programs to support food donation, educate consumers, and increase community food recycling/composting areas that need additional support and resources. Research into how to manage and dispose of food waste needs to continue, and there needs to be increased awareness of how individual consumer choices related to food waste have a significant cumulative effect. Just a few examples of organizations locally working to address this issue include the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, which has been working in this area locally, partnering with rural communities and coordinating the Midwest Food Recovery Summit in 2017. For several years, Drake University has partnered with Sodexo and many local organizations to rescue food from campus that would otherwise go in the trash to get it to those who can use it through the NextCourse Food Recovery program (initiated by Law School Professor Ellen Yee and coordinated by undergraduate students and other partners). In the Des Moines community, Eat Greater Des Moines helped develop the ChowBank app, working to connect business and foodservice entities with leftover food to social service entities helping feed people in need. In the coming year, I hope to help increase education regarding legal issues and protections related to food donation, and work with partners to increase awareness and education.
- Infrastructure – Agriculture requires a strong infrastructure system to succeed, and rural communities in particular are struggling to replace aging roads, bridges and other infrastructure systems. Digital infrastructure in rural areas remains a pressing need, as many rural communities continue to have no access to reliable broadband service. Broadband service is more than just a personal luxury, for businesses and business development in rural areas, it is a necessary component for growth, competition, and success. This is a topic receiving federal attention, the House Agricultural Committee held a hearing in 2017 focused on “The State of Infrastructure in Rural America”, USDA’s Rural Development initiatives include some support for both physical and digital infrastructure, and infrastructure is slated as a priority for 2018 by the Administration. As (if) infrastructure legislation does move forward in the coming year, my hope is that rural areas receive particular focus and can remain competitive for funding opportunities.
- Opioid Epidemic – The nationwide opioid epidemic is hitting communities across the country hard, but rural communities face additional challenges in the fight to combat the continuing increase in opioid abuse. Access to treatment facilities, medical treatment, and mental health resources are a significant issues, as are lack of transportation options and difficulties addressing some of the root causes of abuse (including increased poverty, food security, and unemployment in rural areas). USDA has been leading a combined effort to address the epidemic at the federal level, and just recently, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union announced a partnership and campaign to raise awareness of the impact of the opioid epidemic on rural communities. With a goal of providing easy access to information and resources, this campaign highlights the fact that this is not just an individual or family issue, but one that impacts communities as a whole. If we are to succeed in reducing opioid abuse, communities need to come together as a whole and take steps to provide support and resources and think long-term regarding underlying issues. Agricultural businesses and rural communities are directly affected by this epidemic, such as when it comes to finding and keeping qualified employees and maintain a safe workplace. There is no one easy answer to this epidemic, and it shows no sign of abating in the near future. Together, with a multi-faceted and long term approach, rural (and urban) communities can work to provide support and combat opioid abuse and addiction, and hopefully, provide long-term support for others in the community as well working to combat substance abuse and other mental health challenges.
- Food Labeling – Genetically engineered food labels will be in the news again in 2018, as USDA is required to release the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure standard by mid-year. After contentious debate, state laws, litigation, and a lot of money being spent on both sides of the issue, federal legislation was passed and enacted in June 2016 giving USDA two years to develop the disclosure standard and determine what is the definition of “bioengineered” when it comes to food ingredients, what the threshold for disclosure is, and how or if disclosure must occur (among other actions). I expect this is going to spark much debate and potentially litigation no matter what the final regulations look like, but the real question remains as to if there will be any long term effect on consumer decisions and attitudes. Many companies have maintained the disclosure statements added to labels in response to Vermont’s labeling law (no longer in effect as it was preempted by the federal law), and some companies have made changes to product ingredients to shift away from using genetically engineered crops and products. Organic food standards are also something to watch in 2018, and may receive renewed consumer interest when the bioengineered regulations are released. I think that 2018 will continue to see consumer demand as an increasing power when it comes to decisions made by food companies, with a trickledown effect to agricultural producers and agricultural companies. This debate also highlights the need for increased consumer education regarding food and agricultural production, as well as the continued debate over nutrition and health in our food system.
- Food safety – A continuing area of concern, both domestically and internationally. The FDA continues to roll out Food Safety Modernization Act regulations and being enforcement, requiring much education for both the industry and new inspectors. Meanwhile, the agency remains underfunded. A recent GAO report emphasized the need for a comprehensive strategy to address what they called a “fragmented” federal food safety system. Food safety outbreaks continue to be a concern, including a current E.coli outbreak in the U.S. and Canada that is thought to be tied to romaine lettuce but for which there is little information available. Internationally, concerns remain over foreign inspections and food safety standards for imported foods. The previous administration was increasing enforcement at the corporate level, but given the current regulatory climate I suspect that will not remain true. Food safety outbreaks, recalls, FSMA implementation, and numerous other related issues will remain hot topics in 2018.
- Farm Bill – No “what’s ahead in 2018” list can be complete without a mention of the Farm Bill. 2018 is slated to be the year for passage of the next Farm Bill, and while discussions and hearings have been going on for months, much uncertainty remains as to what the next Farm Bill will look like. Budget cuts remain a concern when it comes to many programs, and there are fears that environmental, new/minority farmer, and specialty crop programs may see cuts and changes, and I think it likely we will see less emphasis on conservation and more programs responsive to the current challenges in the farm economy. Crop insurance will also be a focus, and as always, the debate as to whether supplemental nutrition programs should be part of this bill will continue. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often referred to as food stamps) has come under renewed fire this past year. I think it possible significant changes could be seen in 2018, particularly with more authority and administrative power passed on to individual states. However, the contentious atmosphere in Congress at the moment, combined with what seems to be a general consensus that a Farm Bill needs to be passed this year, may mean that in large part we see little change to the current Bill in order for there to be one that gets enough support to pass.
My dad told me when he first started farming in the 1970s that he was making money and was proud to pay taxes. As the world changed, he realized the only way he could continue to farm was by figuring out how not to pay income taxes. His realization was not to break the law, but to follow it strategically.
Farm bills are important to the success of us as American farmers, but arguably second in importance to the tax code. Previous congresses have passed, presidents have signed, and courts have upheld tax law that encourages farmers to reinvest farm income in their farms. Significant tax incentives discourage farmers from spending farm income on anything other than farm expenses.
The new tax bill continues a familiar theme by encouraging farmers to reinvest income in their farms to avoid taxation. When farmers reinvest in their farms, individual farmers benefit with more successful operations, rural communities benefit from more circulating dollars, farm employees benefit from more jobs, and American families benefit with more abundant food.
Already tax professionals are working overtime to help farmers understand what this new law will mean for our farming operations. Despite the added professional help for our understanding, a growing number of farmers are being left out of the conversation because they have little knowledge the tax code treats farms differently than most businesses. Many new farmers do not understand that taxes are one of the most important tools for success on their farm. New farmers doing retail agriculture, or local foods, are a group particularly uninformed about the special tax provisions offered to farmers.
I have attended farming conferences focused on new farmers for 18 years. I can count on one hand the number of times my fellow panelists and presenters have talked about Schedule F, the form used to report income and expenses related to farming. While Schedule F is obscure to the general public, it is essential to farm survival.
Unfortunately, food and agricultural professionals avoid educating new farmers about Schedule F, especially those serving the non-commodity farmers practicing alternative, sustainable, or retail agriculture.
This lack of information hinders new farmers from building lasting farming operations. If a farmer uses farm income for household or living expenses, they will slow their wealth building potential. On an hourly basis, it makes a lot more sense to work off farm for $20 an hour and pay taxes on that income than to pay taxes on the return to labor and investment from the farm.
To be fair, the incentives for farmers to have off-farm income are very high and extend beyond the tax code. For one thing, it generally takes longer than an hour to generate $20 of net income on the farm. Having someone in the household earning money away from the farm is an economically rational choice. Employer-provided health insurance is another incentive for an off-farm job.
In fact, the majority of farms in the United States use almost none of their farm income for household living. Instead, they use farm income to build wealth by investing in their farms and they use off-farm income from sources such as employment or nonfarm investments for household expenses. This tax bill, the first major income tax reform in over 30 years, continues to support the current model for American farms encouraging wealth creation while discouraging taxable farm income, which is net farm income after expenses.
The fine details of what this tax bill will mean for farmers will emerge in the coming year, but it appears this bill reinforces the need for farmers to understand and use tax provisions unique to agriculture to maintain successful farms, especially in the face of low commodity prices and tightening margins in retail agriculture.
I heeded my dad’s observations when my husband and I bought our own farm in 2005. We have not earned net income from farming, but we have built wealth by reinvesting more than 100% of our farm income back into our farm. We have hired teenagers, spent nearly a fortune at the local coop, hired contractors to put conservation structures like ponds on our farm, and paid tens of thousands of dollars in interest on loans. We have kept every receipt for gloves, tools, tractor repairs, and vet bills. We have tracked every mile driven whether it was a delivery or a trip to the bank or a visit to the county USDA office. We have also hired someone to prepare our tax returns to make sure we are both following the law and claiming every expense (deduction) congresses, presidents, and the courts have allowed us to claim.
In my nearly 20 years of advocating for those pursuing sustainable agriculture, I have seen a great need for helping new farmers understand the importance of the Schedule F to their farming operation. The new tax bill continues an economic structure that both new farmers and those who serve farmers need to be better understand.
My dad didn’t farm like my grandpa, and I don’t farm like my dad. For five generations, my family has been changing how we farm in Iowa and I fully expect the next five generations to keep changing as well.
It is time for a change in the way farmers farm.
The 2016 Iowa Statewide Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report from the Iowa Department of National Resources provides some bad news by the numbers for agriculture. While all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Iowa are down 2% from 2015 and 9.29% lower than the peak in 2007, emissions from agriculture have slowly risen over the past four years nearer to the peak in 2007.
Agriculture continues to be the largest contributor toward Iowa’s GHG emissions, making up 31% of the total. Not included in this total is GHG emissions from fossil-fuel fired agricultural equipment like tractors and combines, as they are included in the transportation sector.
Iowa farmers are not yet fully engaged in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change that is caused by us. This is to all of our detriment, and the time has come for us to act. We have the opportunity to embrace the change and make a profit.
Farmers have already done this. Farmers led in wind energy generation policy, development, and practice, which, in turn, benefitted the environment and our pockets. The lion’s share of the reduction in GHG emissions since 2007 came from an increase in wind energy generation and the decrease of coal fired energy. Farmers and landowners were paid over $20 million in 2016 in lease agreements for the generators turning on their land.
As we lead the nation in wind energy generation, we can also lead the nation in carbon farming while reducing emissions and increasing our profits.
Obviously, we’ll have to modify our farming systems, but that’s something we are doing all the time.
The 2016 Iowa Statewide Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report provides an opportunity to develop a vision to how Iowa agriculture can change to sustainably produce commodities to meet the growing demand. As we evolve our farming systems to reduce emissions and to sequester carbon, we can solve most of our water quality problems, too.
I’m going to keep trying to improve Iowa farming practices, because I know that’s what my great-great grandfather did and I hope my great-great grandniece will keep doing.