Iowa Crops Look Like Food — But No One’s Eating
Iowa is all about maximizing yield, and has been this way as long as most can remember. Briefly, here’s why: Prices of Midwestern grain commodities tend to fall over time because we don’t need as much as we produce. Against all economic logic, the stratagem is to find uses for the surplus rather than cut back production to balance it with demand. (Imagine, for example, if 50 percent of Florida’s tomatoes were used to run cars because we produced more of them than we can eat.)
If you’re after bushels or pounds per acre, corn is the obvious choice. It yields more than almost anything. Demand is artificially high, thanks in part to ongoing subsidies that ensure that Midwestern farmers can hardly fail and the pork-barrel ethanol mandate. Corn production was undeterred by Trump’s threatened tariffs, which have made Mexico and China look elsewhere for corn and soybeans.
Nevertheless, when I asked a farmer about growing other crops, he said, “I tried oats once, but the yield wasn’t as good as corn and it didn’t pay as much per bushel, so why would I do that again?”
Logically (sort of), every farmer in Iowa behaves as an individual, believing that the way to beat low prices is to “compensate on volume.” Farmers put their farms and their lives on the line by plunging deep into debt for a century — advised by the government to focus on commodities and squeezed by declining prices and “free trade” in a global market, all while trying to maintain a family business that’s existed for generations. The more they produce, the more “inputs” — chemicals, seeds, equipment — they must buy. The more they produce, the lower prices go, and everyone in the system benefits except the farmer, who goes along with it, believing there is no other choice.
Blaming farmers is misdirected, akin to blaming the worker in an arms factory: Farming is hard, and harmful farming has been the way to make money in Iowa for a long time. I felt this despair as a visitor, so I can only imagine being a young person in Iowa, born into a dying, poisoned, exploitative setting, with few ways out. The highly romanticized past has fallen apart, as it did in coal country and the Rust Belt, and anywhere else where extraction has reached its limits. (Industrial farming, like mining, is extraction: The removal of something precious from the earth.) This despair is literally killing people.