Iowa agriculture a state of mind

Assessing the state of Iowa agriculture depends on your state of mind. For me it’s “Déjà vu.” It was the mid-1970’s and crop prices hadn’t been as high since the Roosevelt farm programs were disassembled in 1953, which as a young person returning to the farm I was unaware. My family was thrilled I wanted to be a farmer, and Earl Butz said I didn’t have to worry about prices because, “The world needs your grain. Plant fencerow-to-fencerow.” The excitement must have rivaled the time when my grandfather decided not to go back down the coal mine and chose farming at Angus, Iowa, in the 1890’s. New machinery was flying off the lots with banks and the government making cheap credit available to all. While starting out as an idealistic back-to-the-lander wanting to be an organic farmer, raising livestock with hay and pasture with a sound crop rotation never entered my mind. Plant everything to corn and soybeans and everything would be ok.

Then, of course, reality struck when the price of corn dropped by a half despite widespread drought during my first two growing seasons. Back then, the farm program still had a price floor, the loan rate, which set a floor under the actual market price of grain. Government payments were not part of the picture. Under pressure from the new American Agriculture Movement, of which I helped organize tractorcades in protest, the Secretary of Agriculture raised the loan rate from $1.50 to $2.00 per bushel with a land set-aside, and, sure enough, the price recovered to $2.25 for the national average price in 1978. I was elected to the first Iowa Corn Promotion Board where the National Corn Growers Association continued Butz’s mantra that we were still in a golden era and ethanol and more exports would do the trick. Of course we found out the hard way in the 1980’s when the “get the government out of agriculture” policies of the Reagan administration and Reagan’s remark, “Export the farmers,” set in motion the farm crisis of the 1980’s and the farm organizing of the 1980’s.

So, assessing Iowa agriculture honestly is a question of whether you believe the propaganda of big business—the seed, chemical, processing, and export companies—along with the politicians of both parties and the big commodity organizations that live off our checkoffs and still accept money from those big corporations. As I prepare to plant my 32nd crop and just after finishing my 4th and final year as president of the National Family Farm Coalition where I’ve met farmers from around the world with problems exactly like U.S. farmers, I’d say our farmers and our nation are in big trouble.

Let me tell you it feels real good to sell corn for over $5 a bushel if you haven’t sold it all for much less on the way up. But it also must feel good for the corporations to sell tractors for $100,000, pickups for $30,000, and seed corn for $240 a bag. If you adjust the 1978 price of corn for inflation, it would be nearly $8 per bushel today. The ethanol hysteria and falling dollar drives up the costs of land and farm inputs, but there’s no telling how low our crop prices will go thanks to the next farm bill continuing the “market-oriented” international pricing that has devastated farmers around the world in the last two decades. But will reality strike again like it did before, and are we supposed to be happy that after 30 years of losing so many family farms and small businesses and seeing our livestock industry fall into the hands of Tyson and Smithfield? Just what kind of agriculture are we handing to our children realistically? What kind of democracy?

Overproduction seems virtually impossible, but like the 1970’s, production is increasing all over the world. New land in Mexico, South America, Asia, and Africa will bring protein, carbohydrates and oil onto the market along with new plants for agrofuels and giant livestock feedlots. International agribusiness believes this expansion can now take place without farmers or democratic institutions. Prime example: our own regional farm coop, CHS (formerly Cenex Harvest States). They’ve formed a joint venture with a Brazilian and a Japanese firm to export soybeans, cotton and sugar from Brazil. They have five export terminals, various processing plants, and last but not least, they have bought 240,000 acres, including new land, for production of these crops. No farmers, just 600 workers. This is our own coop that evidently doesn’t appreciate how family farmers built this nation or established the democratic institutions that people used to admire around the world.
Farmers are as vulnerable if not more so than they were in the 1980’s. Thomas Jefferson believed family farmers were the bedrock of democracy because they owned their land and could speak out without fear of reprisal. Not today. An Extension agent states that farmers must rent 80% of farmland in Webster County. When a farmer has many absentee landlords, which is clearly the case for many and will be more true in the future, what kind of freedom or security do they have?

It may be easy to borrow money today at low interest rates. The Federal Reserve has been expanding the money supply to avoid a precipitous recession or maybe even another Great Depression. If it succeeds, the lower dollar will lead to inflation which then will be followed by higher interest rates to slow down the economy. Isn’t that what happened in the 1980’s? The whole economy and its trillions of dollars of debt are based on the idea that energy and resources will be cheap, but this notion clearly is in doubt. How can the economy adjust fast enough without a catastrophic outcome?

Today, farmers must buy almost all their inputs from monopolistic corporations including their seed. This makes our civilization depend on a very narrow range of genetic material and self-serving biotechnology and guarantees that increased farm income will accrue to these corporations. I went to a field day this fall where an agronomist went down the line of corn varieties for next season. He said, “You want to get your orders in on this one early. It out yielded all the others in a conventional—non GMO.” I said, “Great, because I want the conventional. I don’t raise GMO’s and it will be cheaper.” But the bad news was Monsanto was only going to bring it out as a triple stack GMO and charge about twice as much for it—list $240 a bag. Where’s the freedom in that?

But that’s the situation for today’s farmers, like all farmers around the world. Compete against each other and against giant corporations and coops to produce the cheapest protein, carbohydrates, and oil using their monopolized technology. For Iowa farmers, this means biotech corn and soybeans. But will Mother Nature accept growing the same crops over and over without throwing roadblocks in the way? We already see more and more pests and diseases requiring more chemicals or ironically more biotechnology. Narrowing down the genetic base to those few biotech varieties that yield the best is contrary to ecological science. Biodiversity and functioning of ecosystems like rain forests will be lost around the world when herbicides and chemicals are used that kill everything in site except the crop. Nor have we begun to explore the consequences of genetic engineering where exotic proteins are produced in quantities never imagined to saturate the soil and seep into our groundwater and streams.

The whole process of letting the market replace family farmers with hired labor and technology while making rural areas less than ideal for human habitation is a worldwide phenomenon. I’ve visited migrant worker camps in Europe where displaced farmers from Africa and Eastern Europe pick strawberries and olives. Water pollution from industrial livestock feedlots plagues communities in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Displaced farmers cross boarders and move to different continents looking for simply a job to feed their families. The ones I’ve talked to here and abroad all long for the good times they had in their old farm communities.

Given the record of our water quality and the diminishing quality of life in rural Iowa, will it truly be a place to grow, a healthful home for our children and grand children? A recent study from the National Soil Tilth Lab indicates that nitrate pollution of our water is the result of the loss of hay, pasture and small grains from our crop rotations. Saddling young people with $600,000 in debt to build a hog confinement for less income than can support a family is not the answer. Our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan deserve opportunities in rural Iowa with the equivalent of a G.I. bill. Only through public policy to restore diversified family farming here in the U.S. and around the world will there be a healthy environment and healthy economic opportunity in rural areas for generations to come.

Well, an old farm leader friend of mine joked with me, “The truth will set you free, but first you’re going to be depressed.” We must not let the depressing situation get us down. Only when the American people and family farmers use an optimistic state of mind to create new democratic institutions that represent the public good and not solely the greed of multinational corporations, will our democratic heritage– Democratic, Republican, or otherwise–really make rural Iowa a healthy place to grow.

By George Naylor

This article first appeared in Jefferson Bee and Herald March 18, 2008