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Think commodity corn farmers are evil? Meet a few of them

By Liz Core on 15 Apr 2015 33 comments
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If youíve ever crossed Iowa on I-80 en route to someplace you fancy more exotic, you might recall mile after solitary mile of soybeans and corn and the occasional side-leaning barn. Agriculture, you may have noticed, is Iowaís most palpable characteristic ó but, Iíll wager a guess, you didnít see more than one or two farmers anywhere in sight.

Even as a small-town Iowa kid, the only farmers I knew personally were my great-grandparents ó who, in their heyday, were known state-wide for their prize-winning watermelons. Iowa has undergone a lot of changes since Grandpa Clyde was grooming his gourds, though. In 1950, the state had 206,000 farmers; in 2012, that number was down to 88,637. Iowa land once cultivated a diverse range of crops, but is now seeded almost exclusively with commodity crops like corn, soybeans, and oats that are processed into ethanol or animal feed. Tell me where you can find a watermelon farmer in Iowa now, let alone a famous one, and Iíll buy you one of those blue-ribbon tenderloins.

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A few months ago, I traveled home to visit family. Flying from Seattle to Des Moines, I watched the landscape shift from snow-capped mountains to carefully gridded squares. From above, Iowa appears to have been meticulously engineered into one, big corn- and soy-producing machine. Though I was there for mom and dad, I was also on a quest to find my home stateís hidden farmers. After 23 years as an Iowa kid, Iíd finally meet the farmers behind those fields, the inconspicuous backdrop to my childhood.

Really, I did more than just meet them. I chatted about agricultural policy over cinnamon-spice tea; toured a thousand-acre farm in a fourwheeler seated next to a labrador; and played peek-a-boo with shy, barefoot farming boys.

Iowa commodity growers are often demonized for what and how they grow, and monocultures and ethanol arenít exactly healthy for the planet. But all of the farming families I talked to expressed a deep respect for the land and the desire to take good care of it for the next generation. If we want to understand how and why our agriculture system is the way it is, weíd be wise to approach all farmers with an open mind.

So, meet a few of Iowaís farmers. Here are our edited and condensed conversations:

Brock Hansen

fullsizerender-cropLiz Core
Farm stats: 2,300 acres of corn and soybeans in Baxter, Iowa

Whatís the history of your farm?

On my momís side, our land goes back five generations. We strictly grow corn and soybeans, along with a small amount of alfalfa. My mom and dad have their own operation, and my wife and I have our own operation ó but we work together. Until about 10 years ago, we had beef cows, and sold the calves off in the fall. Dad sold seed corn on the side. Since then, we got out of hogs and cattle. We had a hired man who stepped in and took over. When we sold the hogs, we bought a few semis and hauled grain and bean meal out of Des Moines to a chicken farm.

How do you sell your product?

First, I look up who has the best prices and contracts. Almost 99 percent of our corn goes to ethanol plants, and the byproduct is turned around and fed to livestock. One hundred percent of our beans go to Des Moines for oil and meal production. Have you heard of Unilever? Weíre participating in a program so we can trace where the beans come from and whatís being done to them. I think a lot of them go into Hellmanís mayonnaise.

How has your farm changed?

In granddadís era, the new thing was chemicals ó that was probably in the í50s or í60s. Then it went to commercial fertilizer and no-till farming in dadís era. Now, in my era, the newest part is GPS equipment, pin-point location, and all the technology thatís been brought to the farm. Farming is more of world market than itís ever been. The market used to never move ó if there was a $0.10 swing, itíd take years. Now, thatís an everyday thing.

What do you see as the future of your farm?

Whoíd a thought 20 years ago weíd have tractors that would drive themselves? Everything gets bigger, it seems like. Is it the best for it? Probably not. People used to live off of 160 or 180 acres ó I wish it could go back there. The world might be better, in general, if farming went back to the mom-and-pop shops.

Do I want to get bigger? Well, everyone wants a bigger piece of the pie. Iíd like to be the most efficient on the acres I have. But I donít need 20,000 acres when I can be just as productive on 5,000.

In what ways are the goals of the food movement consistent with the goals on this farm?

I donít see the consumer, to tell you the truth. Itís a closed circuit for me. I take our grain straight to the ethanol plant. But you know, consumers are asking them for non-GMO bean meal to feed non-GMO pigs at the company we haul our beans to. Thereís a growing demand for that. But you as a consumer, and me as a producer, our paths donít usually cross.

When the consumer asks us what weíre doing, I tell them weíre trying to be better. I donít think our story is told enough, but weíre trying. I blame some of that on the media ó no offense. Itís easy to cover the bad things, not the good things. For instance, weíve been no-till for 25 or 30 years, which helps with erosion and creates better top soil; weíve introduced cover crops; we use GPS equipment to help minimize over-use of chemicals; weíve upgraded grain driers; we applied for an energy grant to make the drier more efficient, to use less natural gas; weíre looking at putting up a wind turbine. Weíre trying to be environmental, green ó whatever you call it.

Mark and Julie Kenney

Kenney family cropped (1)Julie Kenney
Farm stats: 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans, and oats in Nevada, Iowa

Whatís the history of your farm?

Mark: Weíre fifth-generation farmers. My great-great-grandfather started farming in central Iowa back in the 1880s. The original parcel of land that he purchased, we still own. Generations have added to it, but Iím proud that original piece is still a part of our family farm.

Julie and I make our livelihood on this farm. Where I go to work is where I grew up as a child. I feel really fortunate. As a duty, as a responsibility, we try to be active in promoting agriculture to those who arenít involved in it. We invite people to our farm to show day-to-day operations. When it becomes more of a conversation, commodity farming becomes more readily understood. It takes time, but itís just as much as the job as making sure the crops are planted.

How has your farm changed?

Mark: My dad says he remembers the first commercial seed he planted. It was planted by a two-row, horse-drawn planter. The last crop he planted was with a tractor driven by GPS.

One thing that is the same today as it was generations ago is that weíre producing a commodity, so our competition isnít only local, itís global. Technology isnít something to be shunned or afraid of ó itís to be embraced. We need to find ways to use new technologies to make our farm competitive in world markets. Iíve always been taught that technology can give you an edge.

Julie: The thing Iíve seen change the most is how public perception is influencing what we do. In Iowa, more and more young people are removed from the farm. So now, we have a duty to help open doors to explain to others who arenít as familiar with whatís going on. I try not to think of it as us educating, because I want it to be a two-way conversation; I want to listen to what the general publicís concerns are.

What do you see as the future of your farm?

Mark: The way my grandpa farmed is different from the way we farm now, but there are certain things that endure time. While the equipment has changed, the core values are the same: attention to detail, being fiscally responsible, understanding that thereís more to the world than just yourself, being a member of the community, and making yourself available to help neighbors in need. Thatís what I hope will continue on this farm.

Agriculture will keep getting more competitive and capital intensive. I estimate farms will become larger because technology is allowing that, and weíll continue to produce more from a smaller resource base.

Julie: I think there will be more non-traditional people who get involved in farming. I think weíll see more companies like Google that want to be involved in agriculture. I think weíll continue to get questions from people about where their food comes from, and weíll have to become more transparent about that.

In what ways are the goals of the food movement consistent with the goals on this farm?

Mark: Above any other law, my No. 1 boss is Mother Nature. The weather is in control ó and such a major factor in our yearly income. It impacts if we can work some days. Itís been true since the dawn of time, but itís still one of the biggest misconceptions in modern agriculture.

I think I can speak for most farmers and say that we enjoy our independence. A trait that successful farmers share is operating our farms the way that we please. For instance, a mile from our house is a small organic farm with vegetables and honey bees. They have a very small acreage, and itís a lot of labor ó but theyíre doing it. Another farmer next to us grows organic corn and soybeans. Weíre all farmers, itís all agriculture, we just all do it a little different.

How does agricultural policy affect you?

Mark: Our farm has operated under the auspices of farm bills since the 1930s. I donít see how that is going to change how we work on the farm. Government doesnít outweigh market forces ó and it certainly doesnít outweigh the weather. I do think thereís a role for the government to play in food production. Of all the things we must secure, food is No. 1. We wouldnít want to outsource our food production like weíve done with energy production ó what a terrible thing that would be.

Ward and Sandi Van Dyke

wardsandi-cropWard Van Dyke
Farm stats: 2,000 acres corn and soybeans in Pella, Iowa

Whatís the history of your farm?

Ward: Weíre third- and second-generation farmers, but weíve had this farm since 1986. There would be days in high school when I would skip school to help with the crops. Back then, thatís just what we did.

Sandi: We started in cattle and hogs and eventually we went strictly to grain. When we moved here, we added a garden as a project for our kids.

How has your farm changed?

Ward: When I was little, my parents had two- or four-row planters. Now, we can plant 30 rows at a time, and thatís just average ó itís actually kind of small. Our combine harvests with a 35-foot head, rather than 16 like it used to be. We went from having no technology to having full auto-guidance, automatic sprayer shut-off, yield monitors, variable rate planning, and variable rate nitrogen application.

That technology makes us much more efficient. For example, when weíre out in the field planting seeds, we want to know whatís been planted. The machine will shut off so we donít plant more seeds than we need. Same with the sprayer: Itíll shut off so we donít put out too much herbicides or insecticides.

What do you see as the future of your farm, and farming in Iowa?

Ward: In general, farms are going to continue to get larger. If labor is an issue, you can eliminate people, and tractors do it.

Sandi: I donít know, sometimes I wonder. Thereís been an influx of smaller, niche farms. I donít know if the general public will catch on and embrace it, though, because weíre used to cheap food. Everybody wants cheap food.

Ward: You wouldnít have the critical mass for that. Itís hard, itís tough.

Sandi: It would be fun to go back, though. Wouldnít it be nice to go back to how it was when we grew up our parentsí farms? There was livestock, chickens, and grain ó it was more self-sufficient. Itíd be nice.

How does agricultural policy affect you?

Ward: Iíve been to two meetings already to talk about the farm bill ó and itíll take a meeting or two more before I understand it. The policy is complicated. In general, I think less government is better. There are a lot of hurdles to jump over, paperwork, and time and energy and money, versus just doing what we need to do. Why make it so complicated?

In what ways are the goals of the food movement consistent with your goals on this farm?

Ward: We donít want our grain hauled any farther than it has to ó similar to the farm-to-table movement. The fewer miles the grain has to drive is better, because itís expending less fossil fuels.

And thereís also a lot of consumer education that needs to happen around here. You know, in our kidsí garden we have these great spaghetti squash, but if consumers donít even know what a spaghetti squash is, then what? You have to educate consumers, so they want to buy the product.

Sandi: We used to have a CSA, but lots of people quit because they werenít using all the produce. People are in so many activities and always on the go, so they arenít able to prepare their own food. Itís interesting; there are so many people who think they want to do eat local until they have to implement it. And they canít, because it doesnít fit with their lifestyle.