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Lt. Governor Hears Input from Farmers


by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, December 2, 2022

Concerns relating to broadband access, land use, labor and farm profits were on the minds of farmers participating in a roundtable discussion with Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch in Tipton County.

The Nov. 15 event, the first of several roundtables to be held around the state, saw the lieutenant governor hearing input from members of the Peters family: Bill Peters, his son Brady, and his sister, Jenny Mundell. The Peters family operates a crop operation in Tipton County.

Also on hand were Bruce Kettler, director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, State Sen. Jim Buck (R-21st) and Tipton County Commissioner Nancy Cline.

As lieutenant governor, Crouch serves as the secretary of agriculture and rural development in Indiana.

"Agriculture is a business in Indiana," she said during her opening remarks. "It contributes over $31 billion to our state's economy. We are the 10th largest farming state. In fact, 83% of Indiana's geography is farmland, woodlands or forests."

Crouch said the purpose of the roundtables is to collect input on the importance of agriculture to rural communities and what the state government can do to promote and support that industry. As the lieutenant governor later learned, rural areas like Tipton County are torn between a desire to add population and grow economically and preserving their rural heritage and character.

A study performed by Ball State University and commissioned by ISDA has found that growing communities had several things in common, including a good educational system, good government and people who worked from home.

Crouch said there are about 40 million people nationwide who are working from home.

"Being able to live anywhere and work is becoming really important to people," she said. "Looking at that quality of life that is offered by a community is critical as you look at moving forward."

One key to being able to work from home is having reliable internet access. The Peters' farm relies on broadband internet to run their farm equipment and manage the various businesses they operate out of their home. In addition to being a farmer, Brady is a Pioneer sales representative, and his wife has her own home-based business. Together, they have four children who need good internet access to do their homework at night.

Bill and Jenny, both Purdue University graduates, have each farmed for over 30 years and have begun turning over more responsibilities to Brady, who earned his degree from the West Lafayette institution in 2010.

Internet service at the Peters farm is very good, Jenny said, but the farm's location close to U.S. 31 may explain that. She said there are other areas in Tipton County that do not have good service.

Bill said reliable internet is "priceless." The Peters family uses it on their smart phones and computers.

"We can't live without it, because it really helps with our business," he said.

Advances in technology are unbelievable, to say the least.

"We're all technology driven," Brady said, adding that a wealth of information, such as invoices and crop prices, are accessible at the swipe of a finger.

"As a business, if you live out in the middle of nowhere and you have bad internet service and you can't access or utilize any of that stuff, then it's hard to sit down at your house in the evening if your internet doesn't allow you to utilize it."

The lieutenant governor pointed out the importance of communicating so-called "internet deserts" to lawmakers and local representatives. She said one agency that she oversees, the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, is charged with extending broadband service to rural areas.

In central Indiana, the Wabash Heartland Innovation Network and the local telecommunications company addressed the lack of broadband service by hoisting a tethered blimp 700 feet into the air that delivers service to a 20-mile radius. The technology was supported by a grant from Eli Lily, according to Buck.

"People are pretty creative," Crouch said. "We're figuring out ways to make it. In this budget year, I think we're going to fund some more (projects) to try to get fiber optic out as far as we can."

Like many rural counties in Indiana, Tipton County is struggling with land use challenges. Utility companies want to build solar farms, and there is an ongoing conversation about where and how much growth is good for the county.

"For agriculture, the thing that we're dealing with right now is land use," said Cline, who also is a farmer. "We have very good, productive farmland. It's always been a rural community. There are others who say, 'Let's grow, let's grow, let's grow.' That's fine, we want our population to grow, but we have to be really careful that we protect our culture, our rural values and utilize our land in the best way possible."

Cline said there are strong opinions on both sides, with county officials in the middle trying to find a compromise.

"It's always a balancing act. We want to protect our rural heritage, our rural culture, but I understand that I represent the city people as well. But that is the constant challenge—to represent the agriculture community while seeing the benefits of bringing businesses and growing properly."

In Tipton County, planners have identified areas for growth, such as S.R. 28 near U.S. 31, but some would like to expand to other areas.

"There's a lot of tension there," Cline said. "I'm just going to admit it. It's a lot of tension between what we want, and I'm hoping that we can come together, make compromises, whatever that is, without dividing the community."

Crouch responded by pointing out that 90% of Hoosiers live either in a metro area or within 45 miles of one. That's true of Tipton County, situated just north of Indianapolis and just south of Kokomo. She said it's inevitable that such places would be stressed by urban sprawl.

The lieutenant governor said the key is to have smart, planned growth "and not just seeing things happen haphazardly."

According to Cline, the conversation regarding land use is part of the process of deciding "what you want to be" as a community.

As a farmer, Bill recognizes that agriculture is an important driver of the local economy.

"It can all be worked out if we can come together," he said. "We do want to protect our rural roots, because we are blessed with one of the most productive (agricultural) counties in the nation and we want to preserve that."

Kettler stressed the importance of participating in the planning and zoning discussions.

"People have to engage in the conversation," he said. "They also have to understand it's not going to happen overnight. This kind of planning—whether it's an overlay district or zoning or whatever—should take some time. It should be very deliberate because that ultimately helps you get to a better solution.

"The other thing I'll say is, it needs to involve multiple generations. And that's very, very difficult."

The issue of agricultural labor also surfaced in the roundtable discussion. One of the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a shortage of workers in many industries, including agriculture. According to Scott Smith, president of the Indiana Corn Growers Assn., some migrant workers view traveling as a health risk. They feel safer at home.

Despite this trend, farmers still have to find workers. Some farmers have found success with the H-2A program, using workers from South Africa and other countries.

Brady, who is a member of Co-Alliance, said the cooperative was very pleased with the H-2A workers it has hired since the pandemic ended. He said they work hard and show up for work every day.

Kettler pointed out that the immigration is a federal issue, but that it's important for Crouch to hear these concerns so she can relay them to federal officials.

Finally, farmers are in the planning stages for the 2023 crop year. As farmers look to next year, they want to have certainty on costs.

One farmer said his profit margins look good this year. However, if there is any pullback in corn or soybean prices, farmers could be in for a rough ride. He predicted that next year's budget will be much tighter.

At the Peters farm, Jenny stated that prices for diesel fuel, fertilizer and chemicals have increased dramatically. Add to that higher interest rates, and farmers face the prospect of a breakeven year at best.

Bill pointed out that commodity prices historically follow an up-and-down pattern. When prices are up, farmers are happy; however, when prices fall, "the back side is ugly."

"Inputs go down like this," using his hands to show a gradual decline. "Commodity prices go down like this," he said, indicating a sharp drop. "So, we know it's coming. I know you're already aware of it, but we're going to be struggling probably in the next two to three years on the profit margins because of that very thing."

The next roundtable will be held next Thursday in Randolph County. The event will begin at 10 a.m. and will be held at Chalfant Brothers Farms, 6545 N. 500 W., Winchester, Ind.

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