Iowa should invest in family farms, not more big agribusiness

Tommy Hexter is running as a Democrat for Iowa House District 53, representing Poweshiek and most of Tama County. He is currently Rural Organizer and Educator with the Iowa Farmers Union, a commissioner of the Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the director of a local food business called Grinnell FarmToTable that sources products from 35 local farmers.

Sour cream is just one of several tastes being left in Iowans’ mouths as Daisy Brand, a company headquartered in Dallas, Texas, plans to build a new plant with state and local support in Boone County. 

Recent announcements from the City of Boone, Iowa Economic Development Authority, Governor Kim Reynolds’ office, and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig all emphasize the positive economic impact associated with the start-up of a new Daisy dairy processing plant in Boone.

According to two recent Des Moines Register articles, the new plant will unlock the potential for 43,000 new dairy cows (a nearly 20 percent growth in Iowa’s dairy industry), 4,000 new jobs (based on an un-cited study from Iowa State University that claims one job for every ten cows), and over $1 billion in economic impact.

Those are exceptional numbers, and they prompted the State of Iowa to invest $67.2 million in economic aid (through tax credits and other packages) to assist Daisy in starting its plant. 

The state is counting on what is called the “multiplier effect,” meaning investing in industry that stimulates other areas of the economy. In this case, by bringing more dairy cows into Iowa, we would not only create factory jobs for processing and on-farm jobs for milking, but also jobs in the trucking, veterinarian, animal feed, and construction sectors. Therefore, through a public investment of $1, the state may stimulate an economic impact of $2 (hence multiplying the effect by 2). 

Given that Iowa is one of the top states for “brain drain” and rural decline, it is wise for the state to continue investing in the multiplier effect to stimulate our rural economies. However, considering the mediocre-at-best results of similar large-scale industrial projects over the past several years, our state should change the target and direction of its economic development away from large agricultural projects owned by out-of-state corporations. 

In the past few months, Tyson Industries closed its plant in Perry, and Iowa Fertilizer Company sold its plant in Lee County to Koch Industries, the largest company in the fertilizer industry. These projects were given a collective hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local Economic Development money to start up. Both companies used up their incentives, then decided to call it quits, leading to jobs lost and further consolidation in our agricultural industry, harming the prices that farmers have to pay for their inputs.

We’ve seen this story play out too often, with what once appeared to be economic development becoming a rural tragedy. When the state investment disappears, what processes do we have in place to protect rural communities when big companies decide to leave and take our tax dollars with them?

Moreover, these projects invest in industries that have an outsized negative impact on the environment and workforce of Iowa. Tyson is known for its terrible response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Iowa, where management at its Waterloo allegedly placed bets on how many employees would test positive. Iowa Fertilizer Company is a leading producer in anhydrous ammonia, an ingredient that farmers need to grow corn, but also one that leads to high nitrification of our waterways costing hundreds of millions in water clean-up and the external costs of cancer damages caused by nitrates in water

On paper, this Daisy Plant looks really good. However, the facts are that we already have a CAFO industry in Iowa (primarily in pork and eggs) creating more manure than the land can handle, and the vast majority of jobs created by industrial animal agriculture are exploitative of immigrant and refugee labor. If we continue investing in agribusiness, are we going to make sure that we are investing in small farms, which have a positive impact on Iowa?

I’m the operator of a food hub that sells food from more than 35 small Iowa producers. These 35, along with hundreds more across the state, create healthy jobs that inspire young people to stay and have positive impacts on our social, environmental, and economic landscapes. Right now, small dairies and local meat producers are asking, “where is the investment in my multiplier effect?”

This year, for the first time, the state budget looks to invest $300,000 in a Farm-to-School and Farm-to-Food-Pantry program supporting growers through Choose Iowa to bring local food to public schools and food pantries. I applaud this effort, and similar efforts in local butchery and innovation. But these investments are drops in the bucket compared with the hundreds of millions we spend to incentivize big agribusiness.

It is time that we quit chasing more projects and corporations in Iowa and start investing in family farms, which are the fabric this state truly relies on. 

Top photo from Radiance Dairy is published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Tommy Hexter

  • sickening

    What’s sickening is how Iowa communities bend over backwards with tax incentives and other goodies to bring these businesses to town. Both parties act like Santa Claus in handing out gifts to these sweatshops. Tyson belongs in a Third World nation – not in Iowa. Am glad the Perry plant closed and hope others follow.

  • That's a Whole Lot of Manure

    It’s very likely most of those 43,000 cows will be confined in a CAFO. I did a calculation of how much manure they would produce: 219,730,000 gallons/year. (Based on 14 gallons manure/day for a Holstein cow, the most common dairy cow.)

    It’s likely that many CAFOs will be built to accommodate that number of cows so the big question is – why are we supporting a business that will generate so much more manure and subsequent water pollution when we can’t even keep our water clean with the amount of livestock we currently have in this state?

    Just sayin’.

  • Diane Rosenberg makes an excellent point

    Three months ago, Wally Taylor wrote an excellent BH post titled “Proposed CAFO rules won’t protect Iowans or the environment.” He was right. And yet here come, potentially, 43,000 more cows to add to the problem.

    Thank you to the Iowans who are working hard to improve Iowa water quality in spite of the political odds. And thank you to Iowa voters who remember water when you vote.