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printable versionfood + nutrition

Iowa Farmer Plants Seed of Hope After 27 Years
by Denise O'Brien Thursday August 29, 2002 at 02:22 PM

As the hot July wind blows through the genetically modified cornfields that surround my small farm in Iowa, I try to put into perspective the situation that exists today throughout the rural countryside.

In the mid-seventies, my husband Larry and I started organically farming the land that he grew up on. We were young, idealistic and optimistic that we could live our lives in a healthy, clean environment and that we would show our neighbors and our community how to “live the good life.”

That was 27 years ago. Although there was a tremendous amount of financial pain and we haven’t overcome corporate agribusiness, we have survived and thrived. To this day we fight factory farms, genetically modified crops, corporate domination and people’s ignorance. Though factory farming retains its stranglehold on life in Iowa, I remain idealistic and optimistic. There remains a monumental amount of work to do, but I see more and more people joining in the effort.

When we began working to change agriculture all those many years ago, it was a lonely task. There was no support and much risk of being the brunt of jokes about “organic hippies.” But our long-term commitment is now beginning to see results.

Organizing in a scattered rural population presents many problems. It is also difficult to organize around the seasons. People rarely come out to meetings and protests during the spring, summer and fall, when farming is its most intensive. Winter, the slowest time on a farm, is the best season for meetings, rallies and gatherings, though it can also be a hazardous time to be out in the elements.

Factory farming is the method by which corporate agribusiness has determined food will be raised in the United States and with the help of the World Trade O r g a n i z a t i o n (WTO), the world. Chickens and hogs are raised in C o n c e n t r a t e d Animal Feeding O p e r a t i o n s ( C A F O s ) . Hundreds of thousands of these animals never see the light of day for their entire lives. They live in cages that barely allow them room to move, and are fed hundreds of pounds of antibiotics to prevent disease, putting human lives at risk as bugs become resistant to the antibiotics. The inhabitants of these factories spew out millions of tons of manure in very short order.

Factory farms stink, make people sick and pollute our air and water. According to Iowa Agricultural Statistics, the state has 15.2 million hogs and 2.7 million people. The overabundance of manure causes air quality problems as ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen sulfide waft through the air and contaminate the countryside. Factory farms also threaten democracy. In Iowa, the legislature has decided that county governments are not capable of making the decision about whether or not they want a factory farm in their county.

Factory farms create conditions where low-paid workers become the keepers of confined animals inside huge buildings where air quality creates lung problems. The image of an independent farmer caring for land and animals has been transformed into one of a low-paid corporate lackey. In corporate agribusiness, there is no freedom to make independent decisions. The life of a hog is determined from beginning to end in corporate boardrooms.

By making a sacrifice area of this huge empty space in the middle of our country, agribusiness has provided the people of this country with “cheap food.” By using growing methods that pollute the air, water and soil, corporations are producing food that is making people fat, causing heart disease, diabetes and cancer–to name just a few of the current threats to human health. Growing up I learned that Iowa was the breadbasket of the world. Farmers took pride in the knowledge that they were “feeding the world.” As agribusiness sunk its talons into our flesh, farmers didn’t stop to question whether or not this business approach to agriculture was good for the environment, the community, the animals, ourselves or our democracy. Nor are these hundreds of thousands of acres of corn and soybeans being used to feed a hungry world. While this overproduction takes place, the world’s 800 million malnourished and starving people still lack sufficient food.

Our dependence on fossil fuels to raise crops only adds to the fragility of the earth. Our dependence on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) threatens biodiversity. Contamination from pollen drifting from GMO fields threatens to ruin the businesses of organic farmers, making it almost impossible for organic corn crops to remain GMO-free. Pharmaceutical companies and agribusiness companies patent genes in order to gain more profit. Their propaganda literature calls upon a moral foundation to feed the world. That is bunk, and people are beginning to figure it out.

This picture of a system of agriculture is gloomy and downright scary. It could be so overwhelming that one may want to run for the woods, never to emerge again. But I have been farming organically for nearly 27 years and still retain my idealism and my optimism. In all of these years of farming I have never witnessed such monumental growth of the movement towards organic and sustainable agriculture as I have seen in the past five years.

Consumers are becoming more aware of the harmful effects that the overuse of chemicals and antibiotics to grow food and raise animals is having on their health. Environmentalists understand more clearly that a family farm structure of agriculture may do more to help the environment than to harm it. And many of us are becoming aware of the benefits of eating locally-raised food — benefits to consumers and farmers as well as to the local economy.

The most hopeful and important change is that people are beginning to question whether or not the current food system is just and fair. People are questioning why the corporate profits have to be so high at the expense of Mother Earth and her inhabitants. People are beginning to resist corporate domination. In Iowa, for example, people have been organizing to stop hog and chicken factories. They have been holding town meetings, petitioning legislators and showing up at the capitol to protest bad laws and work on good ones. In defiance of state legislation, there are several county governments that have issued a moratorium on the building of any more factories. For Iowa, this is outright rebellion.

People are beginning to take control over where their food comes from by participating in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement. This movement is comprised of farmers and consumers who support each other. The consumer supports the farmer by buying a membership or share in the farmer’s CSA and the farmer supports the consumer by providing good, healthy fresh food. This arrangement has provided people with an opportunity to participate in the growing of their food. Many times a consumer may purchase a working share where part of the membership cost is paid for with their labor. We need to account for the costs that agriculture has on the environment, our communities and the farmer in order to have a fair, equitable food system in the world. The organic and sustainable agriculture movement is comprised of farmers that work in partnership with nature as opposed to domination over nature. Women are playing a major role as farmers to change the current male-dominated, patriarchal system of agriculture into a system of fairness and justice.

The bottom line is that everyone has a right to food. Even though the United States will not endorse the idea that food is a human right, we need to fight for that right for all. Healthy, fresh food nourishes our brains and our bodies and makes us whole people.

Denise O’Brien is coordinator for Women, Food and Agriculture Network, an organization that links and amplifies women’s voices on issues of food systems, sustainable communities and environmental integrity.

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