Urban ag academy

Georgia state Rep. Earnest Williams looked across the Iowa countryside Friday and said that he was impressed by the acre upon acre of cropland mixed with towering wind turbines.

The Democratic lawmaker who represents a suburban district not far from Atlanta was among 65 people who came to Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge Friday to learn more about the agricultural heartland that provides food, fuel and other products for his constituents.

Williams, whose grandfather was a farmer, knows more than many of his suburban colleagues about raising crops and livestock. But for lots of lawmakers representing the concrete and steel canyons of big cities or sprawling suburbia, farms are out of sight and out of mind.

Four years ago, state Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, set out to change that. She established the Urban Ag Academy to help those lawmakers learn about agriculture. On Friday, she brought a group of them to Fort Dodge for the first time.

Lawmakers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas came to Iowa Central Community College for a half day of presentations on local agribusinesses.

The legislators were joined by students in the George Washington Carver Internship Program at Iowa State University in Ames. Among the interns was Megan Gibson, of Fort Dodge, who will be a junior at Grinnell College in Grinnell in the fall. She said her internship involves working to modify the genes of sorghum to make that grain more productive and less susceptible to disease.

In Fort Dodge, the interns and lawmakers heard presentations from representatives of Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc., Cargill and CJ Bio America.

Dennis Plautz, the chief executive officer of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, explained how agribusinesses have been the primary drivers of local economic development in the last 40 months. He said in that time period, there has been $781 million worth of capital investment. He added that the growth has led to a 40 percent increase in local sales tax revenue since 2010.

Illinois state Rep. Kenneth Dunkin, a Democrat whose district includes part of downtown Chicago and part of the city’s south side, said he’s “hugely impressed with your progressive economic development.”

He asked Plautz how businesses in Fort Dodge can attract and retain a diverse work force.

Plautz said the key is to create a community in which people will want to live and work. He said that to achieve that goal his agency combines economic and community development.

Alabama state Rep. Rod Scott, a Democrat, was among the lawmakers at the session. He said he decided to come to it because he believes “agriculture is going to be increasingly important in the country.”

Scott said his district is a mixture of urban and suburban areas that includes the industrial city of Birmingham. He said residents there often don’t know much about agriculture or where their food comes from. According to Scott, an effort to change that is being launched that involves teaching schoolchildren a bit about agriculture.

The Urban Ag Academy is an annual event that brings lawmakers from across the country to Iowa for about three days to learn about farming. It was established in 2011.

This year, the academy is based in Ames and attendees have traveled to Fort Dodge and a farm.