Iowans are getting a heavy dose of references to this state’s agricultural roots this election year with campaign talk of castrated hogs, peeping chicks and farmers with or without law degrees. These may seem like frivolous distractions, but farming enjoys an exalted status in Iowa politics.
That status is under attack, however, and not just from outsiders. Like other Americans, Iowans have grown skeptical of, if not hostile to, some aspects of modern farming, including genetically modified seeds and chemical additives in food. They want to know what is in their food and how livestock is treated.
The public may have a fondness for this state’s agricultural roots, but times have changed. Family farms are increasingly consolidated into sprawling corporate mega-farms, and livestock production has become industrialized, with hogs and chickens confined by the tens of thousands in climate-controlled buildings. Iowa got a black eye nationally with the recent guilty pleas to criminal charges by Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, for their role in the nationwide salmonella outbreak from tainted eggs.
The people of Iowa are also concerned about the impact of agriculture on the condition of the soil, drinking-water supplies, rivers and lakes.
As Iowa hog producers expand their confinement facilities, they are running into public opposition not just near cities, where suburban sprawl creeps outward into the countryside, but in sparsely populated rural areas.
Meanwhile, Iowa state officials have yet to demonstrate they are serious about dealing with this state’s contribution to environmental damage that is attributable to agricultural land runoff via the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
Iowa state officials, political leaders and agricultural industry leaders have tended to react by circling the wagons, characterizing critics as outsider enemies to be fought at every turn. Last week, for example, Gov. Terry Branstad said, “We need to be careful about these outside groups that have little knowledge of agriculture leveling attacks against an important economic driver of our state’s economy.”