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
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
will be raised in the
United States and
with the help of the
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
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
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
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,
been organizing to
stop hog and
They have been
holding town meetings,
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.