Home Restaurant Op-ed: We Need a New Farm Bill—for My Iowa Farm and Beyond

Op-ed: We Need a New Farm Bill—for My Iowa Farm and Beyond

I  grew up on a farm in Iowa during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. Back then, life here was not flourishing, but dying. I pursued a career in fashion and moved to Los Angeles, where I discovered my connection to food. Then, 10 years ago, I returned to Iowa to find that things hadn’t changed much: Our small town was smaller, more farmhouses had been left to decay, and the big farmers had gotten bigger. I returned to the farm and I have stayed because I love Iowa and see it as ground zero in the battle for the heart of the food system. Now, I’m regenerating land, building healthy ecosystems, improving the water cycle, and storing carbon in the soil—all while the system is actively working against farms like mine.

Iowa is one of the most altered ecosystems in the world. Once a rich and diverse landscape filled with prairie grasslands and oak savannas, today it is a grid of corn and soybean fields. The state is home to some of the richest soils in the world, a natural resource that took millennia to form, but those soils are being quickly washed and blown away through stronger and stronger wind and rain events due to climate change; we’re currently losing soil faster than at the height of the 1930s dust bowl.

In the last 75 years, Iowa has essentially become a mining state, a place from which profit is being extracted while people are left behind to clean up the mess. Nitrate pollution is filling our natural and abundant underground aquifers, algae blooms proliferate our freshwater lakes, and pesticides fill the air we breathe.

“We are literally polluting ourselves out of a healthy place to live while polluting waterways downstream and killing the seafood that thousands of people rely on for their livelihoods in the Gulf of Mexico, all in the name of King Corn.”

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can be found in all 99 Iowa counties. The state has over 23 million pigs, 60 million chickens, and only 3 million people. CAFOs are built here in large numbers because we have the perfect soil to grow their feed: yellow corn No. 2—a far cry from Mexico’s sacred maize. In return, the animals produce a liquid waste slurry rich in nutrients required to feed that corn.

The agriculture industry here has spent billions in corn development, infrastructure, and lobbying, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has spent trillions in taxpayer dollars protecting and subsidizing it. However, the animals’ manure isn’t enough to feed all 13 million acres of corn in the state so farmers also add fossil fuel-derived anhydrous ammonia and urea ammonium nitrate to their fields, as well as mined potassium and phosphorus also needed to grow the crop.

Iowa is one of the heaviest polluters of both nitrate and phosphorus. We are literally polluting ourselves out of a healthy place to live while polluting waterways downstream and killing the seafood that thousands of people rely on for their livelihoods in the Gulf of Mexico, all in the name of King Corn.

In Iowa, our property values are based on soil type and corn suitability ratings (CSRs). The higher the CSR, the higher the value of the land. According to a survey conducted at Iowa State University, average market rental rates today are currently $3.10 per CSR point. In the county where I live, the average CSR is 80, and so the average rental rate is $248 per acre. And most landowners renting to tenants rarely go down in rate because they know someone will pay more.

The same survey also looked at average farmland sales in counties with high CSRs (70 and above) and showed that it sells for between $15,000 and $25,000 an acre. Those kinds of land values also drive up property taxes; I have been told by many farmers across the Corn Belt that they can’t afford to diversify their crops because their property taxes are too high. There are other reasons why farmers, specifically in Iowa, will not diversify. The major one? They want to stay in the business of farming. They see growing crops other than corn and soy as essentially sacrificing those acres, and they fear that doing so will make them less viable.

Despite all this, I have been very gradually transitioning my family’s farm away from conventional corn and soy in addition to renting other land. In 2014, I started to transition a small portion of my family farm acres to organic, starting with 20 acres per year. On the organic land I rotate through four crops on each plot of land. For the first year I grow oats, then in years two and three, I grow forage for grazing and hay, then in year four I grow corn, and in year five I grows soybeans.

The income from the corn and soybeans helps subsidize the losses I take for the other three years. Meanwhile, the majority of the acres on the farm are still in conventional corn and soybeans, and I help manage those for my parents, who still own the majority of the farm.

Wendy Johnson at Jóia Food Farm in Charles City, Iowa. (Photo provided by Wendy Johnson)

Soon after I moved back, I began transitioning some family farm acres to organic and started selling humanely raised, chemical-free pork, chicken, turkey, and grass-fed lamb and beef to local and regional consumers. I also started a wool fiber business, selling bedding products and wool hides. After some major flooding events in 2016 and 2018, I decided to keep some of the organic acres in forage and graze it with sheep, cattle, and poultry to protect the land from wind and water erosion.

This spring, when the grass starts growing here in Northern Iowa, I will rotationally graze sheep and cattle on 60 acres of perennial pasture, plant a silvopasture of native hardwoods on 7 acres, continue to restore an 18-acre riparian buffer with thousands of planted native hardwood trees, harvest and graze Kernza, a perennial grain, care for a wetland, pollinator habitats, and a 1-acre micro-orchard of apples and chestnuts, and build an acre farm windbreak—all on high CSR land.

One hundred and thirty acres of the farm is now planted with perennials (pasture and trees), and it’s the first time this has happened since the state was settled in the late 1800s. With these practices, I am providing what scientists call ecosystems services—and I’m losing money hand over fist doing so.

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