A Call to Cultivators

The ag lobby's strong reaction to Bud Light's Super Bowl commercial about not using corn syrup in its beer speaks to how Big Corn has Iowa over a barrel

Bud Light/YouTube

The reaction from the National Corn Growers Association to a recent Bud Light ad depicting the inclusion of corn syrup as a negative recipe ingredient was swift.

Just prior to the kickoff of Super Bowl LIII, Bud Light tweeted a video of the ad: “To be clear, Bud Light is not brewed with corn syrup, and Miller Lite and Coors Light are.”

To which the National Corn Growers Association tweeted back, “.@BudLight America’s corn farmers are disappointed in you. Our office is right down the road! We would love to discuss with you the many benefits of corn! Thanks @MillerLight and @CoorsLite for supporting our industry.” (The association added a follow-up tweet apologizing for tagging the wrong @MillerLite.)

From my perch here in Iowa I immediately cheered the ad, but for reasons that have nothing to do with brewing beer.

I cheered because I believe it’s time for a reckoning in Iowa.

A corn reckoning.

It’s time for us to remember our state’s prairie roots and the diversified farming system used to convert the land once treasured by Native Americans into the farming powerhouse it has become.

This is a call to cultivators.

It’s time to remember how we got here.

The intricacies of the cozy relationship Iowa has today with corn were detailed in an article by Richard Manning titled “The Trouble with Iowa: Corn, corruption, and the presidential caucuses” found in the February 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

I am certain many Iowans were probably not thrilled with the article if they read it.

You do not disparage corn in Iowa.

But that’s exactly what I am about to do.

And I’m going to possibly lose my job because of it.

I came to Iowa two decades ago by way of the sand prairies of northwest Wisconsin to attend Iowa State University.

I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I spent my childhood years running wild through Wisconsin’s meadows and prairies, woodlands and pastures — my maternal grandparents were (struggling) dairy farmers.

I now reside amidst the ghosts of prairies past.

As most Iowans are aware, what was once almost entirely prairies, woodlands, and wetlands in our state is now dominated by agricultural fields and most of those fields are planted in corn and soybeans.

The 2012 Ag Census (most recent data available) showed just over 26 million acres of total cropland in Iowa.

According to a June 2018 acreage report (PDF) from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, of the 24.5 million acres planted in principal crops in Iowa last year, over 94 percent of those acres were put in either corn (planted for all purposes) or soybeans.

In 2018, 93 percent of the corn planted in Iowa was a biotech variety — either insect-resistant, herbicide-resistant, or a stacked-gene hybrid.

But it was not always this way.

Iowa was opened to white European settlement in 1833 and its rich prairie soils were snatched up from east to west in a fast-moving agrarian wave.

If Iowa needs a savior to extricate itself from this corn predicament, it need only look to a native son, the father of wildlife ecology, the conservationist Aldo Leopold.

Many of our farms are thus heritage farms.

Which means Iowans care about their legacy — a legacy that sprung from diversified, family farms.

Today that legacy is firmly tied to just two crops: corn and soy.

I work as a freelance writer for a small biweekly newspaper.

I cover farms, farmers, and farming much of the time.

I have tramped through a lot of muddy fields.

I have shook a lot of farmers’ hands.

And until this past fall, I blamed the farmer for the state of Iowa today.

I blamed them for the fact that our state is so inextricably tethered to a specific type of crop, the kind that has been genetically modified to resist insecticides and herbicides.

Organic farmers often struggle because of these types of crops — they struggle to avoid chemical drift/misuse.

But farmers who do grow these crops (the majority by far) also struggle because, as a farmer once told me during an interview, before an elderly farmer is often even “cold in the ground” there are people lined up to buy or rent his or her fields.

Because to make money farming corn today, farmers need a lot of acreage.

They need to plant a lot of corn.

And they depend on farm subsidies when things go bad so they can keep planting and feed the world.

So I blindly blamed farmers.

Our water is filthy. There are countless indicators of this.

Our insect population is disappearing. I wrote an entire article about it.

When I interview farmers, I often ask them to describe farming to me before “Big Corn” arrived.

I have brought tears to a farmer’s eyes with that question.

I cannot reprint names in this essay because these discussions were always had off the record.

I have heard stories of “six-year crop rotations, like dad used to do.”

Fields that actually had fences around them because farmers had livestock.

Most of Iowa’s remaining non-ag habitat exists now in tiny pockets — spaces that have been neglected, like the roadsides.

While the corn keeps marching on.

But my thinking changed on simply blaming the farmer during an interview with a 90-plus-year-old who was telling me about the 1950s farm crisis.

It’s often overlooked — most people only know of the farm crisis of the 1980s — but the ‘50s were pivotal, this retired farmer said.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”

Mechanization was changing farming.

It became faster, easier to farm.

A small, diversified family farm, which had sufficed since Iowa’s settlement to raise a large family, was no longer feasible.

A farmer needed more land, more equipment.

And suddenly, many needed a job in town.

The interviewee described the suicide of a family member during the 1950s crisis.

The slow withering of another.

The starvation they endured.

The farm lost.

My shift in thinking was abrupt–I understood at once how much was risked in our shedding of small family farms when agribusiness took over.

We became better at producing, but we did it with less farmers.

And Iowa is farmers.

So we latched on to the technology necessary to avoid becoming a state of starving farmers, suicidal farmers.

But I hear a lament from some for a return to a diversified farm complete with livestock and pastureland and hayfields and fencerow habitat.

If Iowa needs a savior to extricate itself from this corn predicament, it need only look to a native son, the father of wildlife ecology, the conservationist Aldo Leopold.

Born in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, Leopold spent much of his adult life teaching and writing at the University of Wisconsin.

It is Leopold’s famous “land ethic,” eloquently laid out in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, that I think we Iowans should draw strength from.

“A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land,” Leopold wrote in one of his book’s final essays. “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.”

Leopold specifically spoke to farmers, writing, “do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love?

“Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver.

“Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage.

“Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate without batting an eye.”

Leopold goes on to declare that a land ethic brings humans into the landscape as an equal and affirms the right of everything to exist whether it has economic value or not.

Corn has value, for certain, and I believe it has a place on the landscape, but at this scale, many are asking, what is the cost?

In my reporting, I have found farmers in Iowa to be good people who don’t want to poison the Gulf of Mexico with runoff carried down the Mississippi River.

But corn (and soy) has Iowa over a barrel.

From livestock feed to ethanol fuel to food products, corn is our culture — myself included, I like buying cheap ethanol! — but I wish it was different.

I wish the average farmer could make a comfortable living on a diversified farm landscape.

“We have been too timid, and too anxious for quick success, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obligations,” wrote Leopold.

Well, I think the time for timidity is over.

There are a plethora of solutions to this problem — not one of them particularly easy — but the first step is to take back our collective destiny.

There is an appetite for change in Iowa. My reporting has given me first-hand experience with it.

This is a call to cultivators.

I believe we must invest more in organic farming and also the practices of our past.

Bring back the cultivator, the harrow, the rotary hoe.

Remember the value of an oxbow.

Refuse to only plant corn and soy.

Rewatch Bud Light’s Super Bowl commercial and make a stand, get angry, reclaim the soil for all Iowans.

This is a call to cultivators.

I leave you with Leopold’s words: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.

“It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Ruby Bodeker
Ruby Bodeker is a (mostly) freelance writer living in northeast Iowa and the recipient, along with her daughter, of a 2018 Iowa Naturalist’s Association/Iowa Conservation Education Coalition Award for Excellence in Environmental Education for Outstanding Volunteer.