Naig stresses making contacts, importance of ag, to FFA students

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig visited the Youth Development Center to speak with Monticello FFA students Nov. 8. Taking part, seated from left: Kadence Barnhart, Reagan Schneiter, Grace Cooksley, Iowa Rep. Lee Hein, Mike Naig, Kole Weber, Kinzi Schlarmann and Hailey Henderson. Standing: FFA advisor Eric Schmitt, Carter Martin, Claire Hogan, Alyssa Wickman and Davin Wickman. (Photos by Pete Temple)

Mike Naig stresses a point to Monticello FFA students (from left) Kadence Barnhart, Reagan Schneiter, Grace Cooksley and Kole Weber.

     Ways to get started in farming, issues facing today’s farmers, and the importance of agriculture in the world were all among the messages Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig passed along to Monticello FFA Chapter students.

     Naig was visiting Jones County as one of his 99 county tour stops Nov. 8. He met with 10 FFA students, FFA advisor Eric Schmitt, and Iowa Rep. Lee Hein at the Citizens State Bank Youth Development Center in Monticello. Earlier, he had met with the Monticello Rotary Club for a lunch appointment at the Monticello Pizza Ranch.

     With the FFA students, the secretary used the example of social media to demonstrate the importance of ag in the world today.

     “Facebook and Instagram could disappear tomorrow, and we’d all go on,” Naig told the students. “But you can’t live without food. Ag is going to be around, and we’re going to need every aspect of ag.”

Getting started in ag

     Responding to a question about how young people can forge a career in agriculture, Naig offered several suggestions.

     “It has never been easy to get into farming,” he said. “So how do you get started? Livestock has historically been a way that you can do that. You can secure the capital to build a building, usually on terms that can allow you to pay for it, and you’re generating cash flow. Revenue is coming in.”

     He said starting small is another way.

     “Even if land is expensive, the ability to go get 10 acres is something you can get your head around,” Naig said.

     Greenhouses or high tunnels to grow higher value, high margin crops are another option.

     “It’s got risk in it, no doubt about it – you’re still growing something – but that can be a way to get into it,” he said. “We think there’s a huge opportunity for more specialty crop production in the state of Iowa. We have a lot of land. You don’t need huge acres to be a significant supplier in some of these areas.”

     He said that even if young people don’t want to farm, there are many ways to be involved in agriculture.

     “The ag tent is a big tent,” Naig said. “You can get involved in health care, nutrition, engineering, architecture, the sciences, livestock, crop, business, law; there’s such a huge swath of things that are connected to ag.”

     Naig, Hein and Schmitt all stressed to the students the importance of making contacts with experienced farmers.

     “Develop relationships; that’s probably the best advice I can give to young people,” Hein said. “Stop and talk to some of the older people. Get involved; go to work for a farmer. Find somebody who is retirement age, and maybe needs an extra hand; start working that way. Or work for a co-op for a while.”

     Schmitt added to those thoughts.

     “Knowledge is a lot, but you can’t measure soft skills,” Schmitt said. “You can’t measure the ability to go out and have a conversation with someone. Networking with people, getting them to assist you, and being confident when you go out and talk to them, is huge.”

     Naig said a key for students is to make themselves as valuable as possible to an employer.

     “Take things on. Learn new things,” he said.

Conservation practices

     Asked about the relationship between ag and conservation, Naig said, “There’s a great nexus between ag, land management and conservation, and around recreation as well. And everybody gets something out of it.

     “What I like about the work we’re doing in water and soil conservation is, we’re trying to bring all those different partners together.”

     He listed management practices such as cover crops and no-till, edge-of-field practices such as wetlands and buffers, and urban conservation; slowing floodwaters down, as ways ag and conservation are working together.

Biggest concerns

     Naig also discussed some of the concerns facing farmers. In two cases, the concerns have been lessened a bit. For instance, the drought that was facing much of the state this past summer was alleviated both by timely rain and by the quality of the crops.

     “I think yields are looking good across the state,” he said. “What people are telling me is, ‘It’s way better than I expected.’ ”

     Some of that can be attributed, he said, to “how it gets planted. The genetics of the seed, which we are improving every year. The biotech traits to protect it. All the management tools that go into that mean that the crop is more resilient.”

     Naig also praised the way the industry has worked through the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it came to packing plants that were running far less than capacity due to shortages of workers.

     “We actually worked through that disruption,” he said. “We learned a lot, and some things went well there. So It wasn’t all bad. I think that’s a testament to people rolling up their sleeves, working hard, and trying to figure things out.”

     Supply chain issues are causing problems, particularly in agriculture, where products and animals are constantly being moved to, around, and out of the farm.

     “In ag, we have to move a lot of stuff,” he said. “Not only do we move stuff, it’s got to be timely.”

     One issue that could become a problem is the African swine fever, which Naig said has reached the Western Hemisphere for the first time since 1980, in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The future

     Ultimately, Naig stressed to the FFA students that they could play key roles in the future of agriculture.

     “There are going to be massive changes, there always are in ag,” Naig said. “What’s it going to look like in the future? That’s what you’re going to have to figure out.”



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