Corn, soybean and hogs; the way we do things here

Iowa agriculture is dominated by corn, soybean, hog and ethanol production. A common feature among this list is that all of these are commodities; bulk products ready for further industrial processing. In a way, Iowa agriculture represents a single ‘farming style’ (Van der Ploeg et al), a choice for:
– a high level of specialization
– high input/high output (a throughput system)
– a high level of mechanization and reliance on technology

So, when the only thing you see growing is corn, you come to believe that Iowa is only suitable for corn, and, maybe, to a lesser extent for soybean. I came across such a conviction many times. For example, at the windmill visitors centre in Pella, I was explained how the wheat which is milled every six weeks comes from North Dakota. “Because in Iowa, you can only grow corn” the lady explained.

The omnipresence of corn, soybean and hog production has a social-coercive character.

“The habit obtains, when established, a more or less self-evident, normative character. Things do not only happen like this, they should happen like this” (Hofstee 1985 in Van der Ploeg 2003: 237).

Highly productive and efficient corn and hog production have become part of people’s identification with what good modern agriculture is all about. Something to be proud of and a status quo to be defended. This identification is not simply about knowledge and power but about beliefs and thus emotion of what is felt morally right.

In the Farm Bureau paper The Spokesman (H29/09) an author felt compelled to defend farming in Iowa, because environmentalists “impose” further unspecified “climate change rules” on farmers which lead oddly enough to environmental damage according to him. How? The logic of reasoning is startling. Basically, other countries would fill the market gap by the increased cost/decreased production is the argument. But – with empathy – the author continues that “in many of those areas, land is fragile and is prone to severe environmental degradation if it is intensively farmed.” Especially because “farming practices in the developing world are not as environmentally advanced as those in the United States.” He concludes therefore that “improving corn and soybean production right here in Iowa” is the best thing to do since Iowa is “the most efficient and most environmentally-friendly place on Earth” for it. Go figure.

Changing the agricultural landscape in Iowa is in essence a cultural change, a change in values and beliefs. The impact of the sheer presence only, of people making alternative choices, of alternative farming styles and practices such as those represented in forms of organic and local food production, cannot be underestimated. Their practice is a ‘nuisance’ because it confronts and therefore uncovers the taken for granted. Of course as the example illustrates, new awareness can be denied, but a return to unawareness is impossible.

The Technology Treadmill. John Deere's new 48-row planter. From: combineforums.proboards.com

The Technology Treadmill. John Deere's new 48-row planter. From: combineforums.proboards.com

Knee-high by the 4th of July

Independence Day, the 4th of July is of course an important day in the US. And it therefore serves as a marker in time, if the corn is knee-high by the fourth of July, you can be happy. STA72046Well, here in Ames, one can be satisfied. The corn is more like shoulder-high already. Maybe this is caused by the “black gold of Iowa.”

A series of glacial events (Quaternary) delivered an extremely black and fertile soil throughout the middle of the state Iowa. Soil like this can deliver an abundance of fresh and varied produce. But driving through Iowa this weekend on my way to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, I actually drove through a food desert. The corn, grown at each side of the road, cannot be eaten.

 The various F1 hybrids which are grown here are not essentially vegetables but an industrial raw material. During the eighties, the integrated farm made way for the integrated agro-industry. The nutrient cycle at farm level broke once the diversified farm specialized into different and geographically separated monoculture operations. The nurturing cycle in which there was no such thing as ‘waste’ was replaced by a system producing at least three new categories of dangerous waste.

1. Nitrogen in (drinking) water from artificial fertilizers. Hybrid corn consumes more oil – that is, fertilizer – than any other crop. And since it is corn after corn each year, more fertilizer is needed to keep production figures high. Much of it ends up in the rivers. Rivers which provide drinking water. Iowa has the largest nitrogen filter in the world in their Des Moines River water treatment facility. They take out so much nitrogen for which they do not have a storage place that they dump some of it into the river again downstream.
2. Antibiotic residue’s in (drinking) water. Over half of all corn grown in the mid west goes into animal feed. Much of it goes to the cattle in the feedlots or to hog CFO’s. After half a year of grazing, the beef cattle are confined for over half a year more in feedlots to be fed nothing but corn. In this last phase, they are fast fed into steaks and burgers, but there is no need to say that the cow’s stomach is not made for an exclusively low structure energy rich diet (despite the difference in stomachs, much like humans). Moreover, the amount of animals per square meter standing in their own dirt is just the kind of environment for whatever disease to arise. Their feed contains therefore a standard amount of preventative antibiotics which pollute the animals as well as the environment; not least the water. Ultimately a danger to all of us creating resistances and superbugs.
3. Toxic manure. The large concentration of animals in a feedlot produce a large and concentrated amount of manure, stored in pits, tanks or open air lagoons. Manure leeks from these types of storages into the ground water, or as emissions in the air. And the level of concentration of the manure is often so high that it is useless as fertilizer. Existing feedlots are often exempted from many water and air regulations.