The Question Has Been Asked
Spring 2002
by Denise O'Brien

The question has been asked, "Where’s the farm leadership?" The answer is "On the farm developing production and marketing systems that are profitable and not abusive to the land, persons nor beasts"

I feel sad these days as I read the daily headlines. This is not the Iowa I grew up in, not this boiling pot of anger, frustration and polarization. From the way people talk, it seems as though we Iowans have only two choices. Either we accept the hog and chicken factories at the expense of the environment and people’s health, or we protect the environment and people’s health at the expense of the hog industry.

It does not have to be an either/or situation and the farm leadership that, on the outside appears to be missing is, in fact, hard at work proving that hog production and farming in Iowa can be profitable and good for the environment.

These farmers are members of commodity groups and farm organizations who are their unrecognized leaders. These farmers have embraced the intelligent, creative and entrepreneurial spirit that flourishes in all parts of Iowa. They are attending small business classes during the off season and on Saturdays so they can gain savvy business skills. They are attending workshops on how to raise crops and livestock in a manner that incorporates every living entity from soil microbes to the birds in the air into their farm program. This farm leadership is working to create an infrastructure to deliver food from the farm to the table and the work takes long hours but has many rewards.

These farmers are risk takers. They are willing to go against the grain of the industrial model and explore other avenues of production and marketing. These farmers do not accept what others call the inevitability of agriculture – less farms, fewer farmers and wasted rural communities.

With the help of the Leopold Center, the Drake University Agricultural Law Center and the Henry A. Wallace Sustainable Agriculture Program at Iowa State University farmers are experimenting with types of production systems that do not adversely affect our rural communities, people and land.

The farmers who are taking the risks need help. In order to break away from the industrial model they need to build skills that enhance their ability to add value to the products they grow. Many of these farmers have been working for a number of years on refining production methods that improve their land, their livestock and consequently their lives. They now need venture capital, a marketing infrastructure and locally owned and controlled facilities to cool, process and warehouse the products.

Over the years Iowans have acquiesced to the dominant industrial model of agriculture. Huge sums of money have been spent on advertising campaigns to convince us that the progressive farmer is the one who embraces ALL technology. Unfortunately, by going blindly into the future without asking questions like "what good is this doing for my community and my life?", we are faced with what seems to be either/or situations.

The farm leaders I have been referring to have asked themselves that very question. They are usually not in line for, nor do they qualify for, the government subsidies that have alarmed taxpayers. They work hard at having a diversified farm, a farm that raises a variety of crops and livestock without relying on one or two crops for their total income. Diversification can help farmers through price slumps, by not putting "all their eggs in one basket." Farmers have been led to believe that a good crop rotation is corn and soybeans. A system with so little diversification puts farmers on a treadmill of debt, buying all the inputs and relying on government payments when prices are low. This leads to higher capitalization and fewer farms and fewer rural taxpayers. It doesn’t have to be that way. A diversified farm system helps local communities by accommodating more farmers who pay taxes to keep schools, hospitals and local government functioning. The only winners in a non-diversified agricultural system are the companies that own the seed, fertilizer and chemicals. The farmers are left begging for subsidies. What an awful situation we have let ourselves succumb to.

Editor's note: This essay originally appeared on the opinion pages of the Des Moines Register.
Denise O'Brien farms with her family near Atlantic and is a leader in the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network.