Monday, June 16, 2008


Iowa Farmers Always Harvest Money; Crop Or No Crop

Part One of a Series

(June 16, Hiawatha, IA) What the vast majority of American’s do not know about the realities of agriculture in the heartland today could fill books. The misconceptions alone would take significant efforts to correct. While their ignorance may be blissful, they may not realize just how large a stake they have in it. Their tax dollars support grain farmers in places like this and throughout the “corn belt”. Farm subsidies constitute one of the largest annual payouts of pure federal government largess, if not outright welfare, and the pork barrel spending written in to the notorious “Farm Bill” is staggering. But folks here don’t want to discuss that or, at least are unwilling to with an outsider. They are more than happy to share their sad tales of hardship, loss and woe with a reporter from The New York Times but, they only reveal that which perpetuates and re-enforces the misconceptions. Actually farming here today is so far removed from farming of just a generation ago that all the stereotypes regarding bucolic harmony, hard work and character are as outdated, antiquated and obsolete as the outhouse.

Farmers are not even farmers anymore: they now call themselves ‘growers’. Technology and money have altered American production agriculture so dramatically in just the past 15 years that only now are the broad ramifications of these profound changes being considered. But, it is too late. There is no going back.

The on-going flooding, skyrocketing costs for groceries and gasoline across the country have revealed the closely guarded truths regarding agriculture today. American farmers long saw themselves as “feeding the world” and, at a point in time; there was indeed some truth in that statement. Americans would be amazed to know that very little of the corn and soybeans grown in Iowa ever wind up on their dinner tables in any form. In just the last 4 years the rush to cash in on corn and soy based Ethanol and bio-diesel have further limited the amount of these crops used to feed anyone.

A long standing joke here is that all a person needs to be a farmer is 300 acres and a mailbox: the minimum acreage to qualify for federal subsidies and a place for the government checks to be delivered. It is funny because, like any good joke, it is based on truth, on facts. It is an odd twist on what everyone here knows but seems ashamed to admit in mixed company.

The Growers Waltz: Dough See Dough

Iowa farmers are engaged in a huge, somewhat incestuous waltz with a limited number of very powerful partners. Everyone involved knows the steps and are quick to pick up on the new ones. From the seed that is planted, to the chemicals used pre and post emergence, Iowa crops as much a product of the petrochemical and pharmacology industries as they are of this dark, loamy soil. Seed corn is all genetically modified, imbued with very specific traits such as the ability to produce more starch or alcohol. There are vast varieties within seed corn genetics than one would imagine; the same will soon be true for soybeans. The fertilizers used here to replenish the micronutrients needed for the modern yields these fields produce are primarily derivatives, by-products of oil refining and natural gas processing. As those prices go, so do the prices for fertilizers. The darkest element to this festive partnering is that most of the same companies that produce fertilizers produce seed, herbicides, pesticides and the like. While as more genetics are put into seed, less and less ‘chemicals’ are needed to combat insects, disease and other threats. Multinational pharmaceutical giant like Bayer are as powerful in agriculture today as is Dow Chemical, DuPont and Monsanto. All the billions of dollars associated with agriculture wind up passing over and over again through the same corporate hands as well as the hands of the growers so well versed in this dance.

Livestock Confinement: Manure is Gold

The largest consumers of Iowa corn and soybeans are livestock. Beef cattle, hogs and to a lesser extent here, chickens and turkeys must be fed massive quantities of nutrient rich feeds to achieve the desirable amount of usable weight the markets call for. No longer do the majority of these animals, which we will eventually eat some or parts of, live outdoors grazing, and being feed hay and other grain based feeds. Now, most production livestock occurs in confinement buildings, usually long, low slung sheds housing hundreds of animals until they move along to another stage of confinement or are butchered. Beneath these structures are deep, cement lined pits to collect the urine and manure produced by the confined livestock. This manure is a rich and valuable commodity as a fertilizer in and of itself. Manure handling equipment has become a huge, lucrative business out here.

These confinement operations have not been without controversy but, strong, well-heeled lobbyists have assured this method of raising livestock is here to stay. Some of the more active among the pro-confinement lobbies has been the pharmaceutical industry: confined animals are prone to respiratory infection and other health problems. Much of the feed consumed by livestock today is packed with antibiotics and is a direct cause for some of the antibiotic resistant pathogens prone to infect humans.

And so the waltz goes on. Round and round, switch your partner, dough sees dough. The monopolies controlling agriculture are all powerful and shrewd. Under various brand names and specialties, the same corporate giants own and operate on every niche’, at every level and it is apparently all legal. Local fertilizer and seed dealers are just middlemen in this charade of money changing and reap substantial rebates and other incentives for selling a certain line of related products.

This is clearly illustrated in the story of Round Up. Round Up was developed by Monsanto in the 1970’s and became one of the most widely used herbicides in history. The seed division of Monsanto developed the “Round Up Ready” genetically modified on their seed corn and seed beans within the last decade. So, the local dealer selling all of Monsanto’s products is well rewarded for that arrangement. This is but one of a vast array of such arrangements and stories; a large part of the closely held secrets known primarily only to those benefiting from them.

If You Offer a Subsidy, They Will Come

Whether or not farm subsidy programs are a necessary evil or not is arguable. Certainly, with the relatedness of this global economy, it appears our competitive advantage would be severely threatened. It appears that after all these years of technologic breakthroughs, advances in crop science, seed genetics, chemistry and related disciplines that the American grower, particularly such as those growing corn and soybeans, simply could not make it without all the governmental, corporate and political helping hands. That may in fact be the case.

But, everything is connected, everything is related and there will be unforeseen consequences to come that can not yet be imagined.

Copyright TBC 2008 © All Rights Reserved

This is the first installment in a series The Brooding Cynyx have been investigating since September 2007. Part One, as printed above, is simply the primer to the series which will report on all aspects of American agriculture as introduced above. We are all too familiar with the controversy that comes with producing such a series; our staffs investigation has been blocked in many ways and we are acutely aware of the power and influence who’d rather we not produce this series. So be it.


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