Paul Johnson on Agriculture and Conservation

Before northeast-Iowa farmer Paul Johnson died in early 2021, he served as an Iowa state legislator, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. In light of some current federal policy discussions (e.g. about monopolies in the agricultural sector), Paul’s family is posting here one of the position papers he released during his unsuccessful 2004 U.S. House campaign in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district.

Any discussion of agriculture must start with recognition of its success. For the first time in humankind’s long journey there need no longer be fear of hunger. That hunger still exists in America and abroad, is an indictment of our unwillingness, not our inability, to care for each other. A big thanks is in order to those who have toiled in the fields for the past 13,000 years and in the research efforts of the past 100 years. Iowa farmers and researchers are a big part of that achievement. 

It is because we have been so successful that we have the luxury today to question our future. But question we must.

American agriculture is at a crossroads. One road leads to increased consolidation of food and fiber production systems. It leads to an industrial world where today’s proud, individual farmers could end up being relegated to the margins of agriculture – to tend the gardens surrounding the massive food and fiber factories. It leads to fewer farmers and poorer communities, and it takes the “culture” out of agriculture. This is the direction we seem to be heading. It is an easy road – a superhighway.

The alternative is a road less traveled today. It is the road that Thomas Jefferson described 200 years ago and the one that Wendell Berry writes eloquently about today. It is one that still encourages individual ownership of land and livestock – one that encourages diversity and creativity. It keeps farmers on their farms and creates opportunities for our children. Today it is a gravel road, not for lack of interested travelers but because our national agriculture policies have doomed it to washboards and dust. But that can be changed. 

Twenty-five years ago, Secretary of Agriculture Bob Berglund commissioned a report on American agriculture that was called “A time to choose”. It was a story of where we had come from and where we were going if we stuck with agriculture policy in effect at the time. Unfortunately it was “deep-sixed” by the Reagan administration, an administration that made no bones about wanting fewer people on the land.  We were never given the opportunity to have the national discussion that this report encouraged.

I believe it’s not too late to still have that discussion. In fact, when elected I will push for a new, comprehensive look at the different roads we can choose. We should all be part of this debate. Our state and the 4th Congressional district is the appropriate place from which leadership of this effort should come. The next farm bill will be debated in just two years. It’s time to explore our alternatives now.

Here are some of my thoughts on issues facing agriculture in our district today.

  • The future of agriculture commodity programs needs to be debated in light of our participation in the World Trade Organization. If we’re going to stick with this road then how can we make trade fair? We are going to have to realign commodity programs to be in compliance with world trade rules. We need to find alternative ways to make American farmers competitive.(They certainly would be more competitive if we had a national health care system.) What about rewarding land stewardship?
  • Concentration of animal agriculture is reaching an unhealthy level. The packing industry has too few players and needs to be seriously challenged. Animal agriculture is decoupling itself from land; i.e. those who own animals are often not the same as those who own and work the land. The industrial model has replaced animal husbandry, but has managed to convince those who are charged with setting the rules for clean water and clean air that it is still in the old model. Should large animal confinement systems be treated as industry, and environmental standards comparable to other industries applied?  I think so.
  • Biofuels will be an important crop in our district. Our state has seen an explosion of interest in ethanol and soy-diesel production in the past couple of years. These developments have been fueled by generous support from the federal government. I support continued research and development of biofuels and the use of biomass to replace petrochemicals. This can make us less dependent on foreign oil and more environmentally sustainable. I was instrumental in establishing the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State University back in 1990, and when elected I will work to make ISU a world center for biofuels and biochemicals research. It’s important that we get on with the next generation of biofuel research and development. For example, sustainable ethanol production will probably involve more perennial crops, such as switchgrass, in the future. It will probably involve new digestive technology that will convert cellulose to sugar at low energy inputs. And it could involve ethanol as a hydrogen source to produce electricity from fuel cells. I don’t have a crystal ball, but we must push the science and technology forward. I am somewhat concerned that the large number of ethanol facilities being constructed today might be overbuilding an industry serving primarily the past and present, but not the future.
  • I believe we need to redefine agriculture as production of more than food and fiber. Since half of the land in our country is in agriculture (more than 95% of the land in our district), it’s time we understand that we will not have clean water without agriculture’s help. We won’t have healthy air without agriculture’s help. We won’t have a land rich in biodiversity without agriculture’s help. We won’t have beautiful landscapes without agriculture’s help. In a very real sense, agriculture when done intelligently produces an array of conservation commodities that the American public wants and needs. In order to promote the public’s interest in and support for agriculture (and private lands in general), I believe it’s time we consider a National Private Lands Conservation Act that is comparable to the other important achievements in our nation’s proud conservation history. Such an act would recognize the importance of private lands to our national conservation efforts and put in place a formal process to significantly reward good stewardship. If the WTO says we can’t pay farmers for growing corn and beans, then let’s pay them for the clean water, clean air and wildlife they are equally capable of producing. I believe our district is the logical place from which this idea should originate. I have more experience in this aspect of agriculture than any other member of Congress, and when elected, can lead the effort to bring this debate to the national stage.

In summary, nothing defines Iowa’s 4th Congressional district more than agriculture. We have been successful far beyond the dreams of our pioneers. The achievements of our predecessors have brought us to a critical juncture in the history of food and fiber production. The care of agriculture land and the well-being of civilization’s oldest occupation are at stake. This election is important. It will decide which road we travel.

Top photo of Paul Johnson on his farm in August 2004 originally published on his campaign website.

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  • What very impressive foresight...

    …and what a tragedy that progressive foresight is so often disconnected from actual political power.

    When it comes to the last two paragraphs of this essay, agriculture, in the form of Iowa industrial agriculture, is not only being extremely unhelpful, but is working very hard to keep the Iowa public believing otherwise. And those efforts are largely successful. The fact that the last Iowa Poll reported that seventy percent of Iowans trust the Iowa Farm Bureau speaks for itself.