Sunday, August 05, 2007

Allerton Illinois Farmer Dave Downs Named Master Farmer

Dave Downs was recently named one of Prairie Farmers Master Farmers. I have known Dave Downs of Allerton, Illinois for the past few years. Dave is an outstanding spokesman for Agriculture having served on the Illinois Farm Bureau Board and the Illinois CFAR Board. Dave sat down with the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and gave and interview:

Dave Downs, 58, of Allerton was named by Prairie Farmer Magazine in July as one of four 2007 Master Farmers. He farms in Champaign, Edgar and Vermilion counties with his brother, Jim, and son, Doug. The Allerton-based Downs family also includes his wife, Janece, son Rob, a Chicago area banker, and Doug's wife, Dawn, and daughter, Samantha.

His parents, Kenneth and Dorothy Downs, are residents of Savoy and Florida.

Downs was The News-Gazette's Farm Leader for 1997.

How did you start farming?

"Both parents' families farmed in the Champaign area and my father moved to the Allerton area in the late 1940s. We came into his business. I always wanted to farm but didn't know if I'd have the opportunity so I went to Southern Illinois University and then went to work for what was the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service as a county executive director.

"I started farming in 1977, 30 years ago."

Your worst year?

"1988, the year of the drought. The crops were very ugly, the beans were short, and yields were awful. I remember my banker said, 'We thought this was easy money. We're not used to really poor crops. This year's for real.'"

Your best year?

"2004 might have been my best yields, but income's a separate part of the picture. Yields just keep getting better because of improvements in genetics."

What's the foundation of your farming operation?

"Growing food grade corn for Frito Lay. My brother and I signed up with Frito from day one, and about 80 percent of the corn we grow is food grade.

"We worry about yellow kernels on our white-corn ears. We can't control the neighbors' pollen. Frito allows 2 percent off color, but we want pure white. They don't pay us extra for doing the same thing everyone else is doing."

How has the season been at Allerton so far and how do your crops look?

"We planted most of our corn in April, and we had rain April 24. Then no rain until Memorial Day weekend and the weather was hot. We missed the Fourth of July rain, but a good rain about two weeks ago saved us.

"In spite of the good rains in July, it's been very dry all season. I see some good ears out there, but also some barren stalks of plants that got way behind."

You completed a 10-year term on the Illinois Farm Bureau board of directors in December. What are your interests in national farm policy as Congress reviews farm bill legislation, and what's important to Illinois farmers?

"I've been interested in policy since I took classes about it in college. With the ASCS, as a county director, I directed farm programs and as a farmers, I have participated in farm programs. Farm Bureau was the route I took to have a voice, but it could have been a commodity organization.

"Farm Bureau is keeping a close eye on the farm bill and the Water Resources Development Act, which (affects) the updating of locks and dams on the Mississippi River, a big deal in the western part of the state. That has a big impact on agriculture in the states on the northern end of the river.

"At the state level, we hear the General Assembly may take another look at the sales tax exemption on farm equipment, and that's a concern."

What would you like to see happen to national farm bill support policies?

"The big dollars get spent on loan deficiency payments and countercyclical payments and we haven't needed them for a year because market prices have been high. This is a chance to invest more in conservation.

"I think it's good to have a safety net, but long term, I think demand is good and farmers shouldn't need a lot of assistance, but I wouldn't like to see the structure thrown out. I don't think the farm bill will be much different than it is now."

What are your priorities for your own farming operation?

"Storage. I think that's important. I've spent most of my spare time serving on the Illinois Farm Bureau board and the board for the Council on Food and Agricultural Research, and now that I'm off both boards, my focus is to improve storage and handling. We built two new bins in 2006 and 2005, and we added two new rings to our old bins.

"I want a belt conveyor for more gentle handling instead of a screw auger. It's a tube with a belt in it to move grain rather than a screw that causes damages to kernels going up. Our current auger's only two years old and a belt auger is expensive, but we're committed to food grade."

Plans for the future?

"You don't phase out of agriculture in a year or two, and I'm on that road. I'll be 62 in 2010, and that might be a reasonable retirement age. Doug wants to farm and this is an opportunity to let him have a go at it.

"We haven't traveled much. We go to Lake of the Ozarks three or four times a year to visit friends (including Randy Sims of Liberty, who nominated Downs for the Master Farmer award.) I'd like to play golf, but I haven't had much time. We're planning a long cruise this winter."

Thoughts about being a Master Farmer?

"It's a wonderful honor to be selected. I'd hate to be a judge."

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