Focus on the agricultural economy | Farm progress

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A visit to Mark Mueller’s farm office near Waverly, Iowa, is something of a revelation. From an issue of The Economist on his desk to shelves full of books, it’s clear that Mueller is a lifelong learner. He and his wife, Jeri, are fourth-generation farmers building for the future. And for Mueller, that means being open to new opportunities.

Mueller grows a variety of crops for the region, including specialty soybeans for Japanese consumers, corn and alfalfa for a local 600-cow dairy, ryegrass for cover crop seed — and even a specialty corn used by carrier pigeons. He has converted his farm to no-till and is concerned about the health of the soils on his farm.

These books also show that Mueller is a student of history. “We could raise anything here 100 years ago,” Mueller says. “The land around this house at one time had sugar beets, and there was a sugar beet factory in Waverly.”

TRUSTED TRUCK: This vintage Dodge Power Wagon runs great and is still used around the farm. Mueller had it restored and painted in appropriate colors for an Iowa State graduate.

He notes that his grandfather drove a team of horses pulling a wagon carrying beets to the local processor in Waverly. “We could grow sugar beets here today, but the nearest processor is somewhere 250 miles away in Minnesota,” he says. “We can grow anything here, but the economy pushes us towards corn and soybeans and the animals that eat those things.”

The economy weighs on these agricultural decisions. Take this ryegrass seed, for example. Mueller says he raises it on maybe 3% of his land for seed, mostly to use on his own farm. “I’m trying to branch out a bit away from corn and soy,” he says. “In some ways, these are cover crops. It’s not very profitable, but [with] what I would pay for seeds, I might as well grow them myself, then plant them for myself.”

He adds that he sells seeds to neighbors if there are any left. “It works economically,” he says.

Business expansion opportunity

About 16 years ago, as part of a market development program at Iowa State University, Mueller was contacted to sell land to a young Dutch couple coming from the Netherlands to start over. “They had sold their herd to Europe and wanted to come to America to produce dairy,” he says.

Long story short, the Dutch farm expanded to a 600-cow dairy; the original farmers brought a brother and his family. “They had at one point seven kids in local schools that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Mueller points out. “And that 20 acres of cultivated land is much better on the tax rolls as a dairy.”

It’s this eye for the economy that drives Mueller. The dairy has no cultivated land. Instead, Mueller supplies corn for silage and alfalfa for the farm. In return, he has access to quality manure for his cultivated land. “I plant the corn and spray it, but they take care of the harvest,” says Mueller. “The same goes for alfalfa – they chop the crop.”

He tried other diversifications, such as adzuki soybeans. It is a smaller soybean with a reddish-brown color and is used for different desserts in Japan. Mueller even traveled to Tokyo as part of an Iowa-sponsored program to promote cultural diversity. The goal was to find out more about the opportunity. Although there was a market for a short time, the diversification didn’t work out in the end, although there were some short-term benefits.

A diversification of Mueller is a specialty corn used to feed racing pigeons. Mueller has a customer for the harvest and he has to store the corn until the buyer wants it. But the low-yielding crop is priced so that the company provides an opportunity on its farm. Scrambling for a better comeback paid off for Mueller in his operation.

Invest beyond the farm

Although Mueller has continued the tradition of operating a profitable farm, he is also working with groups on ways to continue to develop markets. Mueller is involved with the Iowa Corn Growers Association as District Director and Chairman of the ICGA Grain Export and Trade Committee. He chaired the Western Hemisphere Committee of the US Grains Council and, after his term expired, remains active on the committee. The aim is to promote trade and new marketing opportunities for maize around the world.

When Farm Progress visited Mueller, he was packing for a trip to Mexico: “I’m going to talk to the grain buyers there about their concerns about the quality of the corn.

Every time a bushel of grain is handled, Mueller explains, its quality declines; and in his role at the US Grains Council, Mueller has to address some of those complaints. Add to that the quality of Brazilian corn is superior, as well as a weaker currency, and the global market is very competitive.

He saw interesting examples of growing export markets for products like dried distillers grains. It tells the story of a company in Vera Cruz, Mexico that processes rice and sends rice hulls to ranchers as animal feed. This company heard about DDGs and contacted the US Grains Council for more information. They ordered 4,000 tons of product as a test.

“When we got there shortly after the product was delivered, we saw that they had it in a huge warehouse and they were putting it in bags,” Mueller says. “They say they had small cattlemen who could buy 10 bags at a time but couldn’t afford a truckload.”

The business, which mushroomed overnight, ordered 40,000 tons in the next order. “And I think their orders went up by a multiple of 10, all from just one conversation with the US Grains Council,” he says.

This work of moving off the farm and promoting corn is often scheduled off-farm when required to work on the farm. He has the help of his wife Jeri and his father as needed to continue the operation. This partnership allowed Mueller to reach out and do this market development work.

For Mueller, this work also shows the value of the corn levy in promoting new market opportunities. What he sees is the need to keep looking for ways to stimulate demand. It’s not easy, but this master farmer is doing his part.

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