Sustainable Farming Comes To America’s Heartland

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Iowa is ground zero for agriculture in America. If the US does indeed have a heartland, it is arguably located in the Hawkeye State. Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa. He has also won a Pulitzer prize for his editorial writing. He knows a thing or two about agriculture and politics and he has some thoughts on both, which he shared with The Guardian recently.

Sustainable Farming In Iowa
Image credit: Practical Farmers Of Iowa

“Export markets for American ag commodities are falling apart.” he writes. “The world has been telling us through markets for years that we are growing about 30% too much corn and soy. Meanwhile, we are killing the Gulf of Mexico with excessive commercial fertilizer, which washes down the Mississippi River. California and Australia burn in part because we are spewing too much nitrogen — as problematic as CO2 for global warming — from our broken agrichemical system.”

He tells how farmers are flocking to Matt Russell’s organic farm in central Iowa to learn about how a diversified cropping system involving livestock can suck carbon out of the air and sequester it in the soil to feed us better. Farmers who watched their fields get flooded last year are seeking guidance from Practical Farmers of Iowa, an organization that focuses on how to make money in the farming business by saving soil and reducing chemical costs. Many farmers are beginning to question whether going into debt to buy more and more fertilizers and pesticides is really that smart way to go.

Practical Farmers of Iowa has a simple credo:

“[Our] mission is equipping farmers to build resilient farms and communities. Practical Farmers of Iowa is an inclusive organization representing a diversity of farmers. Farmers in our network raise corn and soybeans, hay, livestock large and small, horticultural crops from fruits and vegetables to cut flowers and herbs, and more. Our members have conventional and organic systems; employ diverse management practices; run operations of all sizes; and come from a range of backgrounds. These farmers come together, however, because they believe in nature as the model for agriculture and they are committed to moving their operations toward sustainability.”

There are about as many Democrats in Iowa as there are three-toed tree sloths in the Yukon. It is almost an article of faith that Iowa’s farmers are rock-ribbed Republicans who can be counted on to vote for any Republican nominee 99% of the time. But Cullen says that may be changing. The Democratic contenders started showing up in Iowa last March at a rural forum organized by the Iowa Farmers Union and every leading Democratic campaign now endorses an aggressive approach to conservation that could dramatically reduce greenhouse gases, improve water quality, and enhance rural prosperity. The candidates without exception embrace the notion that renewable energy can not only ameliorate the climate crisis but also create high paying technical jobs in rural communities that are seeing a decrease in population as young people flee to the bright lights of America’s cities.

Cullen writes, “Markets are telling us they don’t need all that corn.” Iowa State University tests of corn kernels tell us that soil degradation is eroding protein content. Wheat production in China is falling because of it. General Mills is up on the news and is urging growers in the Dakotas to go organic because consumers demand it. Kellogg is phasing out glyphosate from its acres. The latest poison from Bayer, dicamba, faces a new wave of class-action lawsuits from angry farmers.

“In other words, the gig is up on the last 50 years of chemical and export driven food production. It hasn’t worked for farmers or rural communities, and they know it. The ball is rolling because farmers know Nature is calling the shots. Eventually politics catches up. Climate was a priority for Iowans in this cycle, unlike before. The conversation has changed, and not a moment too soon.”

Cullen’s message is that the Red Team may not have a stranglehold on the farm vote in this electoral cycle, and that could make all the difference come November.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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