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John Foltz

Dr. Ag goes to Washington


John Foltz is heading back to Washington, D.C., this month. He has a personal connection to the region: His boyhood home sat on land once owned by George Washington. He even played in a fife and drum corps with full regalia. While he won't be unpacking his tri-cornered hat and there's nothing revolutionary about his visit, it will have historic significance. Foltz will help shape a new farm bill, the nation's primary agricultural and food policy tool.

What's your scholastic background?

I have a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from Ohio State. I stayed there for my master's. After working for Ralston Purina for six years, I got my Ph.D. at Purdue University. I joined the ag-econ faculty at the University of Idaho in 1991.

And how long have you been associate dean at the U of I ag school?

Six years.

How many students does the ag school have this year?

This year we have the largest group ever, a little over 1,300 students split between the undergraduate and graduate schools.

Is the growing number of admissions to the ag school some kind of economic barometer?

I believe so. If you look at Idaho's economy, agriculture has always been a stabilizing force. While ag may not share in the boom periods, we don't share in the bust periods either. Idaho certainly has an up-and-comer with the tech sector, but that took a pretty good size hit when the economy languished. Meanwhile, ag has continued to be solid.

What's the state of the family farm in Idaho?

That depends on your definition of a family farm. While most people might think a family farm is a mom and dad with a couple of kids milking cows or raising wheat, in many cases that stereotype doesn't fit so well. A family farm could easily be a closely held corporation between a father and son, or a group of siblings that have chosen to incorporate. The public might say that's a corporate farm, but it's basically still owned and operated by a family.

How might new ag research influence how we access food in 20 years?

A significant game-changer is happening right now up here on Idaho's Palouse. We can now reduce tillage by using Roundup weed killer in the fall, and then follow up with some new planting that doesn't require tilling and that significantly reduces soil erosion. So, we're trying to come up with products that are immune to pesticides or herbicides like Roundup. I know some people have some angst over genetic modification, but because of this possible modification, we will till the soil less, have less erosion and have higher crop yields. A lot of companies are working on advances that consumers will value.

What's your assignment in D.C.?

I was recently appointed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's advisory committee on statistics. That will include the National Agricultural Statistics Service. As an agricultural economist, I always access NASS. That's where you'll find anything you would ever want to know about agricultural production in Idaho and across the nation.

We're familiar with a traditional census of people and households, but the logistics of counting farms must be considerable.

Sure. There are going to be farmers who give you data with no problem, but there will certainly be some who take a lot more effort.

My sense is because you're dealing with rural settings, you run the risk of leaving something out or over-counting, and that could have an adverse impact on the survey.

Most definitely. There's great concern over the validity and accuracy of the data. There are a lot of very critical decisions based on this information.

I can see how an economist might use the NASS, but would a farmer use this data?

Most farmers would probably tell you that they read a journal or an economic outlook put out by a university, or maybe they talk with crop experts. Well, where do you think all those people get their information? They turn to the NASS. A farmer may say he's never looked at a copy of Idaho ag statistics. That may be well and true, but somebody they depend upon is reading those stats.

The new congress has threatened some serious budget cuts. Will that impact your work?

Yes, and that's one of the first things we'll address in D.C. We need to help the USDA economize. We'll offer some possible suggestions on areas that could be cut.