America Needs Farmers? Farmers need Iowans, too

Dan Piller: The Iowa Farm Bureau might want to start thinking of city folks as partners, rather than supplicants, before it is too late.

A big winner at the October 9 Iowa-Penn State football game in Iowa City, besides the Hawkeye team and its fans, was the Iowa Farm Bureau, which used the game for its annual “America Needs Farmers” (ANF) celebration.

The late, legendary Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry created ANF during the 1980s as a way to use his successful teams to remind Iowans of the struggles of agriculture, which was undergoing a severe downturn.

The 1980s farm crisis eventually ended, and by the 2000s Iowa farmers saw record yields, profits, and land prices. But ANF has lived on, even as farmers are enjoying one of their best years in recent history.

Earlier in the week of this year’s ANF celebration, a parcel of Johnson County farm land was sold for a record $26,000 per acre. That sale was not an outlier; last month a Grundy County farm went for $22,000 per acre. A survey of ag land realtors released in September showed a 19 percent increase in farmland prices, a gain that mirrors the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s prediction of a 19-20 percent increase in farm income this year. Farmers’ checks from elevators and processors this year will be fed by corn prices above $5 per bushel and soybeans above $12, levels at least 25 percent above a year earlier.

So with the doleful 1980s in the distant rear view mirror, why does the Farm Bureau continue to pull out the stops and associate itself with the football program in Iowa City, and annually make one of the team’s home games into a reminder to Iowans of the importance of agriculture to the state?

The answer occurred a few days earlier in the state capitol 120 miles to the west in Des Moines, where Republican legislators turned down a nonpartisan redistricting proposal. It came as no surprise that the latest U.S. census showed, as it has consistently for decades, population loss in most of Iowa’s rural counties.

This comes shortly after the USDA’s own census of farmers showed that Iowa is down to 85,000 farm operations on its 24 million cultivated acres. That number is reduced dramatically from the 206,000 farm operations in Iowa as recently as 1950. Most agri-experts know the reason; those 600-horsepower tractors, 16-row combines and 24-row planters have driven farm consolidation to the point where the thousand-acre farm made famous by Jane Smiley is now considered a small-to-middling operation. Virtually every Iowa county can now boast of a 4,000 to 5,000 acre spread.

The Iowa Farm Bureau’s statehouse lobbyists, long acknowledged to be among the best under the golden dome, know all too well the political implications of those numbers. Fewer farmers, and reduced small-town populations, translate into fewer seats in the General Assembly that the Farm Bureau can call its own. It matters, too, in elections where the 85 or so Iowa counties that can be classified as rural turned out heavily Republican while the urban counties, which continue to grow, are increasingly Democratic.

The Farm Bureau’s ANF celebrations thus may be more necessary than ever.

The longstanding political posture of the Farm Bureau and its main load-carrier in Washington, Senator Chuck Grassley, is to periodically re-remind Americans that they need to eat. When challenged about subsidies or tax breaks for farmers, Grassley is fond of noting that “we are just nine missed meals from rioting in the streets” (he has never explained how he arrived at the figure of nine). A widely-used bumper sticker for years warned city folks, “Don’t criticize farmers with your mouth full.”

In the 1930s, farmers angry about the multitude of foreclosures threatened a strike, or Farm Holiday, that would theoretically starve the urban populace. The Farm Holiday was short-circuited by the first farm subsidy programs that were part of the Roosevelt New Deal, and those subsidies have continued to this day through bad times and good for farmers.

The farm subsidy structure was buttressed in the early 1970s with the grand compromise by Senators Robert Dole of Kansas and George McGovern of South Dakota, which put the Food Stamp program crucial (but not exclusive) to inner cities in the USDA budget, tucked snugly next to subsidies for farmers. Liberal urban lawmakers whose sensitivities were offended by taxpayer money going to wealthy (and usually, Republican) farmers had no choice but to grit their teeth and accept reality.

It is against that backdrop that the Farm Bureau’s ANF program has become a permanent fixture through record commodity and land prices. Donald Trump forked over $70 billion in special subsidies to his farmer friends through the end of last year to soften the export-shriveling blow from his trade duel with China, with scarcely a whimper of protest from Democrats even after farmers delivered margins of 75 percent or more to Trump in the 2020 election.

The Farm Bureau, which despite its proclamations of political neutrality has long been a dependable part of the Republican coalition, knows all too well that its political fate is tied to the success of Republicans in slanting Congress, state legislatures, and general elections as heavily in their favor as possible. As long as Trump is around to whip up mobs of disaffected souls, that strategy will continue to be viable. But even if Trump stages a coup in 2024 and returns to the White House, he and his sinister charisma won’t be around forever.

Whether it realizes it or not, the real future threat to the Farm Bureau and rural Iowa in general would be for a smart Iowa Democrat to take advantage of a 21st century reality: two-thirds of Iowans now live in the state’s cities. Such a candidate might fashion a campaign to harness those votes in the half dozen or so largest counties, and perhaps could be elected U.S. senator or governor without trying to appeal much to the farm and small town vote.

A fine issue for such an urban-minded candidate would be to push against the Farm Bureau on water quality, a matter of importance to the half-million or so people who live in metropolitan Des Moines. An urban politician might note to city dwellers tired of dodging post-winter potholes that rural Iowa still gets a disproportionate share of the state road use fund, which is filled with gas taxes paid mostly by urban Iowans. And urban Iowans could be reminded that it is mostly their tax dollars which pay for the expansion of 5-G internet broadband services to farms and small towns.

Such a clever politician might figure out that a good riposte to the “you have to eat” taunt from farmers would be to ask exactly what would be done with that fine, fertile farm land if it weren’t being tilled and planted. Unless that land is fortuitously located next to an urban area, there will be little demand for its use for housing, shopping centers, office parks, or domed stadiums.

So, the Iowa Farm Bureau might want to reconsider its strategy and start thinking of city folks as partners, rather than supplicants, before it is too late.

Anyone who understands the far-flung nature of what has become known as “Big Ag” knows that the working farmer in the field is merely the tip of a very long agrarian spear, much of which reaches into Iowa’s cities. Those big corn and soybean yields every autumn aren’t the work of farmers alone. They couldn’t do it without the blue-collar workers (unionized or no) who labor in factories for Deere, Kinze, Vermeer, Arts-Way, Firestone, Titan and numerous smaller manufacturing operations, whose products enable farmers to till, plant and harvest crops at speeds and sizes that would awe their grandparents.

Those laborers work mostly in Iowa’s larger and medium-sized cities. So do the workers who design and produce the super-charged, genetically modified seeds that have quadrupled Iowa’s per acre yields since World War II. So do the thousands of spreadsheet artists who work in insurance company cubicles in Iowa’s largest cities. Without that insurance, Iowa’s farmers couldn’t turn their tractor keys at planting time.

The same could be said for the meat cutters, mostly immigrants, who last year at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak (and the beginning of the presidential campaign) found themselves designated “essential workers” and ordered by Governor Kim Reynolds to continue working in meatpacking plants known to be unsafe. Reynolds bragged that she had preserved the farmers’ markets, while Trump and the Farm Bureau nodded approvingly and meat cutters fell ill.

An unseen part of agriculture happens overnight, when supermarket shelves are stocked by graveyard shift workers so the end products of farmers’ work can be on attractive display when the public arrives after daybreak. Grocery store workers, too, had no choice last year but to work through dangerous pandemic conditions.

The point is that, with a modicum of shrewdness, the Farm Bureau could store up some goodwill in urban Iowa that it probably will need in the future by reaching out to those ancillary parts of the agriculture complex. Instead of haughtily posing as lone, rural yeoman heroically (“patriotically” according to Trump) fighting nature and hostile markets to selflessly feed their fellow Americans and the world, farmers might start using ANF as way to connect with city folks who make implements and seeds, cut the meat and administer insurance plans and stock shelves, as their allies rather than part of the long-despised liberal urban jungle.

The Farm Bureau could engender some goodwill by handing out a few tickets to Iowa games to United Auto Workers members from Waterloo or Ottumwa, meat cutters from Columbus Junction or Perry, Firestone workers in Des Moines, Nationwide Insurance analysts from Des Moines, and Hy-Vee supermarket workers. It wouldn’t hurt to honor some of those folks on the field at Kinnick Stadium.

To do that, the Farm Bureau and its farmer-members need to stop thinking of themselves as a landed, entitled elite upon whom the rest of society is helplessly dependent, and instead part of a larger economic complex that in the future will require friends, if not staunch allies, in Iowa’s cities.

Dan Piller was a business reporter for more than four decades, working for the Des Moines Register and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He covered the oil and gas industry while in Texas and was the Register’s agriculture reporter before his retirement in 2013. He lives in Ankeny.

Editor’s note: Investigate Midwest and Watchdog Writers Group published an in-depth look at the Iowa Farm Bureau’s finances on October 7. They found, “The Iowa Farm Bureau recently reported total revenue of about $100 million, the most of any farm bureau by far and nearly three times that of the influential national umbrella group, the American Farm Bureau Federation.”

Top image: Photo of America Needs Farmers “card stunt” during a University of Iowa football game in October 2011, published in a university news release from July 2012.

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Dan Piller

  • Water is actually a key word here...

    …because Iowa’s biggest agricultural problem is that our industrial-ag system is fundamentally unsustainable. And that is the reality that the Iowa Farm Bureau is most desperate to conceal and minimize.

    The warnings are everywhere. The average Iowa rowcropped acre is losing topsoil more than ten times as fast as the soil is being replaced.  Rural Iowa is emptying out. Our water quality is such a disaster that even our few best creeks don’t look good compared to good waterways in other parts of North America.  Our ever-growing farm drainage system mainlines nutrient pollution into rivers.

    Our topsoil is largely so degraded that it can’t hold nutrients in place.  Our corn and bean seed treatments often harm pollinators. Our hoglot policies treat rural Iowans as expendable.  Iowa is playing a major role in killing the Gulf.  Herbicide drift is rampant.  The list could go on.

    The IFB could indeed try to recruit urban allies to help enable the current system to keep chugging along.  That would help solve the IFB’s political problem. That would not solve the real problem.