I came home to the Netherlands last week. That is, physically, I feel in between places mentally, somewhere in the ocean of experiences. My time in the US has been an intense experience.

Confucius said: tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand. Thanks to the great hospitality of Cornelia and Jan Flora and to their ability to include I was involved in so many activities and meetings. And it was great fun to try to understand.

I came to appreciate the friendliness of the Midwest, the many spontaneous conversations in shops or on the street. And the many little things which caught my surprise. The use of ice cubes, the four way stop, the vegetable kale, the garage sale, the barbeque restaurant, shotguns, raccoons or badgers, bike paths ending in corn fields. To list just a few things.

Did I see mainstream US life? Probably not. Friends that I made usually turned out to be bikers, non-tv owners and local fresh vegetable eaters…Thanks my friends for crossing my path.

I terms of agriculture, it will be nice to contrast and compare that what I saw with what´s going on in Europe. I am sure there will be a lot of inspiration at the European rural sociology meeting in Vaasa, Finland, which is about to start.

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

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.

Proper Dutch spatial planning in Pella, IA


There is a real Dutch looking town in Iowa, people kept telling me about. “Go and see it, it will be fun”. So I did, and, it was. When turning off the highway 163, I immediately saw what everybody meant. Even in the shopping mall strip outside the downtown area all buildings had some kind of a “Dutch” front. It made the well know fast food restaurants look funny. Signs with a symbol of a little mill guided me to downtown, alongside the road an abundance of flowers in the lawns. Downtown, all houses looked somehow 19th century, with reference to Dutch fronts such as the ‘trapgevel’. A huge tulip arch could not be overlooked and next to it a small replica of a mill housing the tourist information. Further down, a working mill for grinding wheat (korenmolen) could be visited. It was late afternoon, too late for the last tour. I ended up chatting to the lady in the mill visiting centre.

Like some other towns in the Iowa, or in the US, a large number of the population is from one particular country in Europe, in this case, the Netherlands. Early immigrants often went to places where fellow countrymen could be found. Somebody estimated that nowadays some 85% of the Pella population (between 10 and 15 thousand people) has Dutch ancestors. STA72322Therefore, the section starting with a ‘V’ is the biggest section in the telephone guide, listing all the “Van Something” such as the Vander Ploeg family running a bakery.

But unlike other towns, why did the people of Pella hold on to 19th century Dutch looks? Well, it turns out, they did not hold on to their original Dutch way of building. They reinvented it. And the reinvention story, I guess, says more about the Dutch mentality than the 19th century looking fronts. Before the 1960s Pella was just a regular American looking town. Except for a small period in the spring, when the tulips flowered. The reinvention started, therefore, with the increasing number of visitors to a longstanding local tulip festival. The people in town figured that a distinct Dutch look would be a unique selling point, a tourist attraction serving the local economy.

STA72333After good Dutch tradition, the town council imposed planning regulation in the 1960s; each building in Pella had to have a Dutch looking front. This, of course, met opposition. However, a local bank helped ease the pain by lending money against no interest for the refurbishment of the fronts. Gradually all fronts turned into ‘historical’ fronts and new buildings have to be approved by the council before they receive planning permission. Community engagement helped to establish a Dutch ‘klokkenspel’, which was finished in 1984, with bells singing regularly. I found a replica of a Dutch canal, half a meter deep, with a blue painted concrete floor and crystal clear water accompanied with a sign saying “water is chemically treated P- E – SE, stay out!”.

Nowadays the Tulip Festival is the biggest festival in Iowa and an attraction to people from everywhere. Last year the town welcomed 165.000 visitors for the festival alone. STA72344The woman in the mill visiting centre showed me the visitor’s book which had 160 new entries that day, from people from many different, mostly neighboring states. Quite an achievement for a town 45 miles from Des Moines and not located at an Interstate Highway.

To eliminate our networking desert

How to share experiences with people working in establishing local food systems in other places? What is going on where? In Iowa, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, serves as a linking pin around building local food systems. Today I joined a meeting of the Regional Food Systems Working Group. This group is a Community of Practice of around a hundred people who meet four times a year to network, learn and share with other Iowans from all over the state, but today, there were also quite a few visitors from other states. Because it seems there is a lot going on in Iowa, compared to some other (Midwestern) states.

The Leopold center is a research and education center of ISU established under the Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 committed to systemic change in agriculture. Currently, there are three programs around the themes of marketing food systems, ecology and policy. Next to the center’s outreach through workshops, network meetings, seminars, and the like, it provides grants to researchers and educators of all Iowa universities and to private and nonprofit agencies throughout the state. These project grants, 33 this year, worth over 700.000 dollar in total, are a very important catalyst for furthering sustainable agriculture. Projects range from research on nitrogen management to improve water quality, developing alternative swine production systems, targeting perennial conservation practices, analysis of the value chain of local produce to targeting on-farm energy needs through renewable energy.

one of the fields on the Small Potatoes Farm

One of the fields on the Small Potatoes Farm

Today the center presented their ongoing work in local food. For example they are putting together a resource guide which will give an overview of all organizations and programs working in local food. We also reviewed a draft on local food procurement information about regulations around raw agricultural products. There are still a lot of myths and fears around the use of local raw agricultural products in commercial institutions, but there are no laws prohibiting direct sale from a producer to an institution.

The Community of Practice brings together various regional food initiatives. Those initiatives gave short presentations and updates on their activities before the more interactive sessions started. For example the Hometown Harvest initiative in Southeast Iowa started a feasibility study to come to a farmer owned food coop and announced a new website and logo. The Northern Iowa Food and Farming partnership shared their experience on how to set up local food distribution among various producers. And the Southwest Iowa Food and Farming Initiative is building a database mapping all local producers and potentially interested consumers as part of the first step in building a food system. The initiative in Marshall town, COMIDA also presented their ongoing work, for example their seminar with Ken Meter (see blog.)

These quarterly meetings are very important for the people working in the regional food initiatives. “I come here and hear about what others do which gives me new ideas” one of the participants said. “Sharing here is a big source of information” and, “things are changing fast now”. There is more acceptance nowadays, that whereas some continu to target the world, others actually want to feed their neighbor.