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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

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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.

Allium Sativum L.

The corn grain elevator of Minburn

The grain elevator, a corn symbol in every town

I drove to Minburn yesterday where I spent a great day at the Small Potatoes Farm. I past the road to the farm without noticing and stopped at the post office, next to the grain elevator, to ask for directions. A good choice because the post office, I soon realized is the epic center of this tiny town. So a few minutes before my arrival, the news was announced by the post office, calling to the farm that a tall Dutch lady was coming over.

We harvested more than 5 different varieties of garlic. If it would have been not such wet weather so far, the harvest would have been in already around the 4th of July. And even now, the land was quite wet, which meant that the garlic bulbs came out with big lumps of soft black earth hanging in their roots. We pulled, collected, cleaned and trimmed the garlic bulbs after which they were let to dry hanging in the barn, in bundles of eight. Each variety had its own place in order not to mix them up, and we indicated what we hung on a map. Of some varieties we only harvested a basket full, just to grow more seed.

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The Small Potatoes Farm grows an incredible amount of different vegetables and different varieties. These include different kinds of: squash, melon, potato, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, lettuces, unions, leek, cabbage, beets, kale, beans, strawberries, asparagus and herbs. The total amount of hectares available for production is around 4.5, however at any point in time, there is 1.5 hectares in production while the other acres have a cover crop such as buckwheat to increase soil quality and organic mass. STA72126

When you see the rows of different crops weaving in the wind, you wouldn’t think there is much mathematics involved. However, the production planning system is a complicated multi dimensional puzzle. While rotating land out and into production and rotating the right kind of crops after one another to minimize disease, there also has to be a certain kind of yield available every week throughout the season to give the CSA members their vegetable share. And, of course, this share demands a certain kind of diversity too. A puzzle for winter times,  when a thick pack of snow is covering the land.

Buying fresh local organic sustainable and just food….

Corn! The first harvest of sweet corn at the farmers market in Des Moines
Corn! The first harvest of sweet corn at the farmers market in Des Moines

While I am staying in Ames, I am enjoying the fresh fruits and vegetables of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in which the Flora’s have a share. All throughout the growing season, the weekly share can be picked up at the church, organized by the Farm to Folk Collaborative, which serves as an intermediary organization in order to connect the local producers and consumers. Different CSA farmers and other local producers offering ‘a la carte’, deliver each Tuesday after which the Farm to Folk people take care of assembly and payment handling.

Now I know my way around, I picked up their share at the church this week. It is a share of the Small Potatoes Farm, based in Minburn, southwest of Ames. I had onions, kohlrabi, carrots, squash, potatoes and kale. All the certified organic produce of the Small Potatoes Farm finds its way to the customer through CSA shares. The nature of the CSA model, based on a direct and trusting link between producer and consumer is the closest you can get to an unambiguous ‘honest’ product. It is both organic ánd local. But in the market place both ‘organic’ and ‘local’ can obscure different meanings and practices.

Organic can be produced in an industrial way within the limits of the label. Much of the organic produce in supermarkets is coming from industrial-size farms or companies with farms, which often have an organic line next to conventional production; organic is just another market. The local, at the other hand, has no regulation as to what sustainability standards should be applied. Local produce can come from small scale, but conventional farms, can include the use of pesticides and herbicides for example.

Des Moines Farmers Market

Des Moines Farmers Market

Since organic production has become an industry too, the ‘local’ is often elevated above the organic because the local – by its very nature – cannot be incorporated easily into the centrifuging forces of global commerce. Buying local is an act of opposing corporate food chain powers by going back to a less asymmetrical peer-to-peer relationship between buyer and seller.

A popular platform for these relationships is the farmers market. There are 18 farmers markets in Greater Des Moines (the city and the surrounding counties including Story County in which Ames is located). Saturday, together with Rick, Stacy and Tillie from the Small Potatoes Farm, their worker Brian and his friend, we visited the Des Moines farmers market, one of the biggest in the country. It is huge. Over 200 stands with a variety of products, from vegetables to ‘Dutch letters’ (??), a peculiar S-formed pastry letter, from clothes, to ‘Frisian Gouda’ cheese and from bread to garden equipment.

The beets are 'pesticide free'

The beets are 'chemical free'

Vegetables are promoted as ‘fresh’, ‘without pesticides’ or ‘local’. But that does not necessarily apply to all vegetables at one particular stand. I bought some tomatoes, thinking that I bought local produce. I found out later that it will take a few weeks more before tomatoes can be harvested in Iowa. I have no idea where my tomatoes came from. Being a conscious consumer is hard work.

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.

Food democracy

Nothing but corn in Iowa. So I did some serious weeding and hoeing of corn this weekend……..Of white corn. Not the regular uneatable corn which goes into feed fodder, energy production or corn sweetener. These immense fields are round-up ready anyway. The corn grown in the community garden in Marshall town (see blog) can be eaten, it will be used to make corn flour tortillas.

my garden in wageningen

my garden in wageningen

It has been a wet summer so far. So weed is quite a challenge for the starting community gardeners. I was glad I could help out; a sort of substitution for missing my own 20 m2 in Wageningen.

 

Self sustenance in food. Once a dismissed and declining (if we could help them) ‘farming system’. Bound to disappear under influence of progress; by ever increasing economies of scale and market integration. However, self sustenance or small scale production is loosing its negative connotation of backwardness. It is being redefined and revalued in both developed and developing countries, in both urban and rural circumstances (see yeomanry).

Our global agro-food industry has not been able to reduce hunger as it privileges capital accumulation for already wealthy elites while externalizing environmental and social costs to societies. The consolidation of power in the food chain, the world food crisis and environmental degradation have instigated a variety of movements towards self reliance and community focus, towards returning to a scale which can be influenced. It can be seen as a re-appropriation of a sense of self determination and autonomy to increase resilience of livelihoods and to reduce dependence on situations with high levels of power asymmetries.

While we do not accept anything less than democracy to rule our societies we are nearly being ruled by autocracy in the food chain, hidden behind the myth of ‘consumer choice’. The diversity of food and farming initiatives emerging, points to a process of democratizing food, the people’s right to

“healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Food First)

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Sioux City and Community Development

Monday, I embarked on a 15 day travel with Cornelia and Jan Flora, stopping by various meetings, projects and conferences in a south west direction from Ames, Iowa to Arizona and back. The amount of car miles involved would get me twice around the Netherlands I suppose. We started with a meeting in Sioux City, a city in the north west of Iowa bordering Nebraska.

STA71678We are meeting in a recently restored old boiler building which once served 46 building in this neighborhood. This old industrial neighborhood is being redeveloped as Sioux City tries to reinvent itself as an arts and cultural city. However, its history is tightly connected to agriculture through the stock yards, the traditional trading place for farm animals. Therefore it stays as somebody said “a cowmen’s town with an opera”.

Well, I heard last night that it was not only about men. Traditionally, the stock yard was surrounded by cowboy saloons and brothels. The brothels, where a Madame ruled, were important places for local business and access to capital.The Madame had a very powerful position and was often involved in providing micro loans and other financial services in a time where banks were not easily accessible.

However, we are here for another type of community development…. Faculty members of 5 Midwestern universities discuss here the Community Development On-line Master’s Program in which they are involved together. This is quite a unique situation, a full online course offered jointly by the universities of Iowa State, North Dakota State, Kansas State, South Dakota State and Nebraska-Lincoln under the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance.

The Community Development Program began in the fall of 2005, and it was initially funded through a National Higher Education grant. Since the grant has ended, the program continued and supports itself. Students in the program are from all over the United States, as well as other countries. Many of them combine the Master with their (community) work and/or family. The program won two awards in 2008, a state and a national award. Jan and Cornelia Flora are both involved in the Program as teachers and Jan Flora won two grants in 2008 which allow for the development of two new courses within the Master, one on Sustainable Communities and the other on Immigrants in Communities.

Online Bachelor and Master programs are becoming rapidly popular. For universities, such as those in the Midwest it represents an opportunity to new attract students to universities in States which show a downward demographic trend. And the online – placeless programs also attract new categories of students, such as those who are forced to come out of retirement because of financial problems and need to ‘rewire’ themselves.