When I wake up in the morning, I put my feet down on the floor, stretch my arms to the sky, and reach over to grab my “ANF” hat.
“ANF” stands for “America Needs Farmers,” and it’s a motto that University of Iowa football players have worn on their helmet since it was created by the Iowa Farm Bureau in 1985 during the farm crisis “as a testament to the few, the proud, the Farm Strong Families of Iowa.” The fact of the matter is that the way Iowa agriculture is going, there are increasingly fewer farming families in this state.
In a recent guest column, my friend Jess Mazour from the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, rolling with the thunder of 1890s Farmers’ Alliance Party member Mary Elizabeth Lease, wrote that “Iowans need to raise less corn and more hell.” Nearly 40 percent of total corn grown in Iowa is used for ethanol fuel, never to nourish a human. While it’s marketed as a biofuel, ethanol requires a significant amount of non-renewable energy and resources to produce. An average gallon of ethanol contains roughly 76,330 BTUs. An ethanol profitability study released on Jan. 27 notes that it requires 30 cubic feet, or 31,110 BTUs, of natural gas to heat the corn mash to distill one gallon of ethanol. This is 40.4 percent of the energy in the ethanol itself. This does not include other costs to produce the corn: the diesel fuel required to spread the fertilizer, till, plant, harvest and transport corn. It does not factor in the environmental externalities of soil erosion, carbon emissions, pesticide drift or habitat loss.
The burden of proof is on the renewable fuel community to examine these externalities and scientifically determine whether ethanol actually has any virtue as a sustainable fuel. Even General Motors is beginning to recognize that ethanol has not proven itself to be a viable biofuel. On Jan. 29, GM joined a host of other automobile companies pledging to release only electric vehicles by 2035. The petroleum fuel industry is dying. If Iowa agriculture is going to be proactive rather than reactive and survive the changing market, then we need to start diversifying our crop fields and quit relying on an ethanol market.
And yet, on Feb. 4, Michael Regan, Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the EPA, joined hands with the Renewable Fuels Association and Joni Ernst as he vowed to make the Renewable Fuel Standard a priority for the Biden administration. I do not blame Regan or Biden for making this decision. To support our current farm system, we need an ethanol market for corn. Nonetheless, growing corn for ethanol mines Iowa’s natural resources for an inefficient energy source, feeds no one, erodes tons of topsoil per acre per year and adds hazardous levels of nitrates to Iowa’s drinking water. We are caught between a rock and a hard place: end support for our hardworking corn farmers or continue down a dead-end path.
How did this happen? My viewpoint as a Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner, but more importantly as a young farmer living in these fields of opportunity, is simple: There are far too few people taking care of far too much land.
Since 1950, the number of farms in Iowa has been more than cut in half from over 200,000 to fewer than 90,000 farms while the average Iowa farm size has more than doubled from 160 acres to just over 350 acres. In 1960, the average farmer fed just 26 people. Today, the USDA claims each farmer feeds 155 humans globally. The agricultural system in our state has pushed efficiency to the maximum for the sake of yields, profits and global market power.
In response to criticism like this, Iowan and newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “Every one of us that’s not a farmer, is not a farmer because we have farmers. We delegate the responsibility of feeding our families to a relatively small percentage of this country.” As farmers are aging and retiring and the American youth continues to move to cities, the few, the proud, the Iowa farmers that remain are forced to make ends meet. The options for what and how to grow have become limited to corn and soy using large mechanized equipment. It is not possible for so few farmers managing so much land to grow diverse crops or practice extensive conservation. It is the sad truth that our farmers have to risk destroying the land and water they love simply to serve their country.
Contradictions like these are the sign of a broken system, not of any individual or group. So, Jess is right: Iowans do need to raise less corn and raise more hell. We should be calling for an end to new factory farms, a mandatory Nutrient Reduction Strategy and making conservation programs a requisite for agricultural subsidies. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that Iowans need to raise more farmers, along with more food processors and marketers, land stewards and restaurant chefs willing to experiment with local foods. Building a strong local food system creates another industry in our state and takes pressure off commodity farmers and our environment.
If you’re still struggling to understand why our farm system and our landscape are the way they are, ask yourself this one question: why is 4.5 percent of Iowa’s population caring for 85 percent of its land mass? It will not be easy to fix our massive resource extraction and food system problems in this state — it will require education, reconnection with the land and realignment of our values — and it will take all of us. If we are going to be proactive, reading the signs of our changing times and the need for farmers to lead climate change solutions, we need creative solutions, like the Civilian Conservation Corps of old. We need to get more people, of all backgrounds, on the land. With more farmers working together, our state can begin experimenting with biodiverse crop fields, re-establishing perennial pastures for grazing and rebuilding, as quickly as possible, the half-a-foot of carbon-dense soil we’ve lost since 1860. Together, we will create communities of people collectively taking care of their land and water, feeding each other, and drinking and swimming in clean water. This is a vision of Iowa we can all get behind. It is the call to action I feel each morning when I put on my “ANF” hat. Iowa needs more farmers, and yes, I’m looking at you.
Tommy Hexter of Grinnell is farmer and Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner in Poweshiek County.