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:

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

Yet another crisis in the hog industry

During my time in Ames I met quite a few current or previous students of the Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture (GPSA) in which both Jan and Cornelia Flora teach. The GPSA is a truly interdisciplinary program in which students with diverse (and often international) backgrounds meet. Although each student has a ‘home department’ such as sociology or agronomy, they go through the program together as a group, learning the social, biological and economic aspects of sustainability in agriculture.

I already heard from current students that they really appreciated course ‘509’. This Agroecosystems Analysis course starts with a two week tour around Iowa, in which the students visit a wide variety of farms and related industry. STA72350I was allowed to join the new group of students at start of the excursion tour last Saturday to the hog farm of the Struthers family in Collins, half an hour south west of Ames.

Before departure, Gretchen Zdorkowski, from the Agronomy Department, gave us an introductory lecture on agriculture in Iowa. In some ways, Iowa is quite similar to the Netherlands. Of all states, Iowa probably has been altered the most, with hardly any original landscape left. Like the Netherlands, Iowa has plenty of rainfall and is equally phenomenally drained to serve agricultural needs. Although the dominance of corn and soybean production (20% and 16% of US production respectively) contrast with the Netherlands, another similarity is the large number of pigs and chickens in Iowa. Whereas the Netherlands counted over 12 million pigs in 2008, Iowa had over 16 million pigs in 2005. Also, Iowa has the largest egg production industry in the US.

The US chicken industry is ruled by only 6 companies nowadays. The hog industry is not quite as concentrated as that but, according to farmer Dave Struthers, it is unfortunately moving in the same direction. Dave runs the family hog business, a breed to finish operation based on 750 sows at 8 different locations around Collins. It is one of a diminishing number of independent businesses which do not raise and finish on an integrator contract, but sell to the cash market.

STA72357The hogs are partly housed in individual crates and partly housed in groups in hoop houses. There are also 1000 acres of corn, exclusively used for feeding the hogs and for straw in the hoop houses. A combination of hogs and corn is rare nowadays but it allows Dave a better use of his own resources. The slurry and the partly composted manure from the hoop houses is used as fertilizer, accompanied by a ‘sideshower’ of artificial nitrogen when the corn is a few feet tall.

Dave showed us around on two of his locations, and we were even allowed to enter the nursery. “I want the farm to be open to people and I received visitors from all over the world” Dave explained. “I believe that when people know where their food comes from, they have more respect for it”.STA72371

Although a true family business, Dave is currently doing the larger part of the work by himself. He is forced to do so, because the hog industry is in crisis again. “I had a 20 dollar a head loss last week” Dave told us; 20 out of the last 22 months have known red numbers. This crisis is different from the one in the late nineties Dave explained, there seems no end to it now. “They say we need a production cut of 5 to 10 %, but that’s not happening for the moment.” The large integrators hardly cut down, as they can repair losses at one end with profit at the other – retail – end of their production pipeline. Awaiting better times, Dave tries to survive by downsizing production, cutting costs such as labor and intensifying the use of his own resources.