Non-Farmers Need a Little “Conventional” Wisdom

Headlines are written to grab attention, as we all know.  But the sensationalism of the headline, “Large-scale farming is Iowa’s ‘Breaking Bad’,” in The Des Moines Register last Sunday nearly caused me to spew my morning coffee.  By the time I finished reading this Op-Ed by Kamyar Enshayan, I practically needed to breathe into a paper bag.

“The TV series ‘Breaking Bad’ has ended, but the real thing goes on in Iowa just as bad or much worse,” writes Enshayagn.  At this point, I google “Breaking Bad” and learn it’s a about a struggling high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.  To secure his family’s financial future before he dies, the teacher begins producing and selling methamphetamine.

Now I’m curious to learn how Enshayagn relates this to farming, so I go on to read: “Meth is indeed uniquely suited to Middle America, though this is only tangentially related to the idea that it can be made in the sink. Meth’s basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade.”

I read this statement a second time, trying to gain a better understanding. I know he’s making the connection between agriculture and meth but I can’t quite understand it.  Is Enshayan really making the connection that large farming is the same as manufacturing an illegal drug?  WOW!

It’s time to stop reading and start googling “Kamyar.”  I learn that he’s director for the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education.  This tells me he is a major influence on a significant amount of young people in our state… Anybody see a problem?

Without further ado, Enshayan outlines what he believes is bad with “Industrial Commodity Agriculture.” He cleverly uses key words for emotion as he write, “Industrial commodity agriculture is entirely based on acres. It does not need stable communities. All that is needed are land, machinery, energy and chemical inputs to produce one or two products for distant markets. Civic organizations, schools, churches, libraries, rural businesses are all unnecessary to “feed the world” or to fuel ethanol plants. Long-term anthropological studies in many rural communities in the U.S. have confirmed these realities.”

Realities? His reality is certainly different from mine!

Enshayan goes on to explain that this has set up our rural areas as desperate situations that are the habitat for meth!  He shares many more of his “ideas” on why modern farming is ruining Iowa and gives credit to those Iowans, who are striving to change, like those who are producing for small niche markets or selling produce at Farmers Markets.

Honestly, I have nothing against these types of operations as I believe we should relish our food choices.  However, I have a problem when advocates for these production practices attack how I farm!  I am a conventional, and conventional farming is the main type because it’s successful.  Conventional farming has evolved to where we are today because it works!  Conventional farming today does do a good job of taking care of the environment and our soil, using less inputs and energy to produce more crops.  Conventional is sustainableConventional uses new technology (yes, GMOs) to get even better!

Yet so many folks, who don’t live near farms feel, entitled to advise farmers – especially on environmental matters.  “There is a romantic notion of environmentalism, and then there is actual environmentalism,” Walter De Jong, a potato breeder and geneticist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is quoted as saying in an article entitled, “GMOs May Feed the World Using Fewer Pesticides.”  He continues by saying, “Farmers are very conscious of the environment. They want to hand off their operation to their kids and their kids’ kids, so they maintain the land the best they can while doing what they need to do in order to sell their harvest.  My guess is that the majority of people who are anti-GMO live in cities and have no idea what stewardship of the land entails.”

Most farmers I know are very proud of their local communities, including their schools and churches. In fact, farmers very much are a part of helping local to keep going. The loss of business on Main Street, I believe has more to do with the loss of manufacturing and the consolidation of retail business and more cheap imports. Smaller margins and stiff competition make it tough for stores on Main Street to survive without having some niche type of market.

Naysayers need to get off the university campus and find out what’s happening out here on the farm.  There is a revival going on right now with the huge demand in agriculture for young people to fill jobs that require training and pay a very good “starting” wage. The need for more brains than brawn is also prompting more women than ever to return to farming.

In Iowa, we have much more demand for skilled labor than we have people. Agricultural colleges and high school FFA programs are experiencing record enrollment. If we can keep our government from ruining business with regulations that stifle jobs (ethanol), we can have a bright future!