Living in Society

Corn Planting and a Haboob

Iowa haboob on May 12, 2022. Photo Credit – KCCI – TV8

I tapped the brakes as we drove home from Des Moines on Monday, May 9. A farmer was discing a field and wind blew large clouds of dust from behind him across Interstate 80. It obscured the view, rendering driving unsafe.

Losing valuable topsoil might be cause for concern, except that corn and soybeans are grown mostly by application of commercial fertilizer and insecticides to ground with hybrid seeds. Tilling the ground where seeds, fertilizer, water and bugs meet, to create a suitable growing medium, matters more than actual topsoil in Iowa. High winds blowing topsoil away doesn’t seem to matter much to today’s Iowa farmers.

A network of farming hums in pre-dawn hours this time of year. Beginning well before sunrise, farmers call each other from kitchens and barns to discuss and decide what they will do that day. If they prize their individualism and freedom, they also speak and act more or less uniformly about crop decisions. There is a fixed ideology of modern agriculture involving corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle. Long delayed this year, this week’s decision was to get corn in the ground.

On Wednesday, May 11, Eleanor Hildebrandt posted an article, “Iowa’s prime corn yields likely gone.”

At the beginning of the second week of May, Iowa farmers were two weeks behind the average planting schedule to the past five years. It was the slowest planting pace in nearly a decade. Only 14 percent of seed corn was in the ground on Sunday, as April weather made it particularly difficult to plant potentially successful seedlings. Research on corn yield from Iowa State University shows the most successful corn crops are planted before middle May.

Iowa’s prime corn yields likely gone by Eleanor Hildebrandt, May 11, 2022

Experts don’t believe the 2022 corn crop will break any records.

It has been a windy week. While no news source is discussing the relationship between the 2022 corn planting season and a somewhat unique weather phenomenon called a haboob, it seems clear that hundreds of farmers plowing, discing, and planting corn loosened thousands of acres of topsoil. When combined with high winds, topsoil blew away in gigantic clouds like those in the image above.

When weather outlets began using the word “haboob,” I immediately thought of Desert One and the failed 1980 attempt during the Carter administration to rescue 52 American hostages from the Iranian embassy. The helicopters unexpectedly encountered haboobs in the desert, which disrupted their flight plans toward Desert One, a staging area. The Atlantic tells the story of the haboobs during the operation here.

Photo Credit – National Weather Service.

The other image that came to mind after reading “haboob,” was of Farm Security Agency photographs of Kansas dust storms in 1935. These storms were attributable to the sod busters who broke up the prairie and farmed the land to exhaustion after the Homestead Act of 1862. These iconic images are a part of our history.

The disconnect of yesterday’s haboob from the large scale farming that made it possible is a sad statement about the nature of our news media and its influence over how we view our lives. Television viewers and radio listeners marvel at the use of a “different” and “peculiar” word to describe the weather phenomenon rather than discuss the causes of this loss of topsoil. At some point the loss of topsoil will matter more than it seemingly does. Yet we have dumbed down the way we take in information, and seem prepared to swallow anything as long as it doesn’t upset the equilibrium of how we currently understand the world.

Don’t get me started on education, though. On Thursday, May 12, there was a League of Women Voters candidate forum in Tiffin where four of six Republican Iowa House District 91 primary candidates spoke about education. This is from the Iowa City Press Citizen.

Education and what is taught in schools to children quickly became one of the main topics of the night as candidates were asked by audience members about the teaching of critical race theory and gender and sexual orientation in schools. Most of the candidates argued against teaching both, often making transphobic remarks in addition to their answers.

GOP District 91 debate includes education, conspiracy theories by George Shillcock, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 14, 2022.

Maybe my expectations are too high for Iowa.

Kitchen Garden

Revolution From a CSA

Corn-rice casserole.

Delicious food can be part of a normal life. It seems important to enjoy food we eat as it results in sustaining our lives in a turbulent world. There is little point in living a Dickensian food culture of gruel three times a day when so much food is abundantly available and recipes to prepare it are ubiquitous.

At the same time, as Raj Patel points out in his 2012 book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, there are more than a billion people on Earth that don’t have enough to eat each day, and another group of even more that are overweight. Along the way, we became disconnected from the flavor of our food, and its purpose to nourish us. Patel argues that being food insecure and overweight are related conditions caused by the system which delivers our food. I recommend the book.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 10.5 percent of U.S. households were food insecure for part of 2020, or about 13.8 million of them. This seems like a lot for one of the richest nations on the planet, given the relatively low cost of food calories. Our household has never been food insecure and we spent time and energy creating a food system that works for us. Part of it is growing some of our own food. It also includes shopping for the right things versus for everything. Food insecurity is a real problem, something to which most affected in the U.S. appear to adjust.

Joining a Community Supported Agriculture project was a way to know the face of the farmer and how food on our plate was grown. I joined for these reasons rather than any economic advantage, embrace of organics, or lifestyle change. Most CSA farms donate part of their share to local food banks, yet I never sought this form of generosity.

What is revolutionary about the CSA model is they cut out the middleman in agricultural sales, selling directly to consumers. Crops grown on a CSA farm are, for the most part, not fungible, thus avoiding issues related to the advent of middlemen and processors such as one finds in corn, soybean, dairy, cattle and hog farming. By selling direct to consumers, certain marketplace factors and dynamics can be avoided. CSA farmers secure a premium price for their products and their customers don’t mind that more of the cost of food goes directly to the farmer.

The CSA financial model avoids cyclical, seasonal debt for farm operations. Consumers finance farm operations by paying for a share of production at the beginning of the season. The farmer can avoid taking a loan for seeds, fertilizer and other inputs. Debt avoidance is significant and stands in sharp contrast to how a typical Iowa farmer funds operations.

CSA farmers have a working, if tenuous labor process. Wages are low for permanent workers and offset in some cases by providing food and lodging as part of the arrangement. There is a culture of volunteerism around CSA farms that further reduces labor costs. When I worked at a farm in 2013, my labor was shared with other CSA farms in a complicated process of barter and financial settlement. Most seasons I bartered my labor for a share in the farm, equipment, greenhouse space, or specific types of produce, reducing the farmer’s cash outlay. CSA farmers are creative in controlling and reducing labor costs. They have to be.

This returns me to the idea of delicious food. For the longest time I did not taste what I prepared in the kitchen while making it. I made dishes based on habit, recipes, and what was available in the ice box, pantry and garden. I didn’t give much thought to flavor and that was a mistake.

My outlook is changing. As I more closely integrate my garden with the kitchen flavor has become more important. Each small plate prepared is a multilayered work of creative expression. Some days the food is better than others and I’m beginning to appreciate the variation and what it means. Being part of a CSA brought me from being a consumer to something else, to being a person who relies less on the processing and distribution of food by middlemen. That is the true food system revolution.


Book Review: Bet the Farm

The craftsmanship of Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America by Beth Hoffman is good, better than many books I read. For people unfamiliar with the challenges of Midwestern, sustainable agriculture, it is a good introduction, covering most issues.

Hoffman is a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa and so am I, so there are some connections. Even though we never met, I know people she mentions in the book and we would likely have friends and acquaintances in common. The PFI community is not that big.

For nine seasons, I worked with beginning and experienced farmers who operate community supported agriculture projects, large vegetable or fruit farms, and raise livestock, so I know some of the work and the challenges. In total, I worked on or did interviews for newspapers on a dozen or so of them.

As she mentions more than once in the narrative, she is from the coast and the land was owned outright by the Iowa family. The former is more typical of beginning farmers, the latter isn’t. It is a good book, yet I hoped there would be a connection to the author and her narrative. There wasn’t.

Bet the Farm was a quick read and if a person is interested in this topic, there are a number of other works by beginning farmers I’d read first.

I wish Beth and John good luck on their farm and would read another book about their progress after they have been farming five or ten more years.

Living in Society

Algae Growing on the Lake

Algae cover on Lake Macbride, Sept. 19, 2021.

The algae cover is growing on Lake Macbride. Every so often I take a longer daily walk and pass this spot where the trail is close to the lake. I’m not sure anyone is working on algae as a problem here.

The Lake Macbride Watershed is behind the times. Iowa Department of Natural Resources did not have a value for phosphorous entering the watershed on file, so those of us operating wastewater treatment plants participated in a recent study. I don’t know how they evaluated nitrogen and phosphorous coming from farm fields. I can tell you, our community of about 200 people is not the problem with excess nutrients entering the watershed. Our wastewater effluent is cleaner than the lake when it enters it from an unnamed creek.

Something has changed since we moved near the lake in 1993. Algae wasn’t so dominant then. Partly it is due to population growth in unincorporated areas with private septic systems. Partly it is due to runoff from farm fields. I believe the increasing use of field tile on farm fields contributes significantly.

I posted this photo on Twitter and thanks to Mother Jones writer Tom Philpott’s retweet it received 7,230 impressions and 393 engagements so far. That’s a lot for my posts. People are quick to condemn large-scale agriculture for the pollution.

The issue is inadequate regulation of nitrogen and phosphorus application on farms. Both are required nutrients for plants to grow. Since the move from organic soil to chemical applications in crop growing modern farmers are left no short-term option but to apply them. It makes sense that regulation could help us get cleaner water and less algae cover.

The large agricultural lobby groups don’t want regulation. Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and Iowa Pork Producers Association are steadfast in buying legislators through campaign contributions to prevent needed regulation for cleaner water. That is how our politics operates, at least until legislators or the governor are willing to change it.

Instead of a calming walk through the state park, the algae-choked lake reminded me of the living hellscape of resource extraction that impacts everyone. It began with the removal of Big Grove Township’s namesake forests after settlement, and continues through development of a policy that has farmers planting fence row to fence row. There is more human settlement, but that’s not the problem as wastewater treatment is well regulated by the state. Much as I yearn for more state parks like the one in our township, Iowa has very little acreage set aside for conservation from development.

At least I got some exercise along with agitation from my walk… and this photo of milkweed going to seed.

Common milkweed along the state park trail, Sept. 19, 2021.

Living in Society

With People Again

Sundog Farm on March 28, 2021.

Sunday was my first shift of soil blocking at Sundog Farm this spring. Besides shopping, medical appointments, and trips to government offices, it was the first time out since being restricted by the coronavirus pandemic a year ago. There were people (wearing masks) and animals (who weren’t)… and four dogs!

To see a short video of farm life on Sunday, click here.

It was partly cloudy with intermittent snow flurries. We worked outside with me making 35 soil block trays (4,200 seedling blocks) and a varying seeding crew of four or five, socially distanced across the concrete pad, planting broccoli, kale, mustard greens and other early vegetables. Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, I worked mostly alone in the greenhouse. Sunday felt a bit more normal. The farmer and I negotiated our barter agreement and will continue discussions next weekend.

While it was relatively easy for me to get the COVID-19 vaccine, it has been a struggle for the farm workers who are mostly 20-somethings. I’ve had two doses and they had one. Both the state and federal government could do more to get rural Iowa vaccinated.

It’s good to be back to work, though. Here is a photo of my first tray of soil blocks for the season.

Tray of 120 soil blocks. March 28, 2021.
Living in Society

Three Weeks Until Spring

Snow melts first over the septic tank.

The thaw began and there is no stopping it. The ground remained covered with snow for most of February, yet no more. Snow cover is slowly melting and will soon be gone. Above the septic tank was first to go.

36 hours after the COVID-19 vaccination I still feel normal. Even the soreness around the injection spot feels better. I emailed the farm to see if we can make arrangements for my return after the booster shot in a couple of weeks. The farmers are all twenty and thirty somethings so their priority group has not been approved for vaccination yet. There are protocols to negotiate before making my way back to farm work.

I applied to be a mentor in the Climate Reality Leadership Corps U.S. Virtual Training beginning on Earth Day. There are three virtual trainings this year, one in the U.S., one for Latin America, and one global training. To find out more, follow this link. If I’m accepted, this would be my third time attending, the second as a mentor. I’m feeling bullish about reengaging in society after getting the first dose of vaccine.

Democrats got solidly beaten in the 2020 Iowa general election. I’m not sure what I want to do to help rebuild the party. I’m also not sure the party can be rebuilt in a way to win elections anytime soon. In any case, it’s time for the next generation to take the reins. While I will remain supportive, I’m stepping back. Politics won’t be a priority as we slowly exit the coronavirus pandemic.

Getting out of the pandemic is a first priority. We are doing our part to follow the governor’s guidelines and hope others will too. What’s certain is I’m getting spring fever and can’t wait to get outside and do normal things again. It’s only three weeks until Spring!

Kitchen Garden

Farm Journal #1

Chicken at Sundog Farm

Happy New Year to my friends at Sundog Farm!

Hope everyone is well surviving the coronavirus pandemic. It made 2020 difficult, to say the least. Jacque and I remained virus free, although neighbors on two sides of us caught it and former Solon Mayor Steve Wright died from COVID-19 complications, as you may have heard. The virus is all around us and I’m reluctant to leave the house much.

I’m wrapping up old business and I saw the check from the sweet corn come through on my account this morning. Your sister still hasn’t cashed the $30 check from April for a t-shirt, so if you can give her a nudge on that, I’m not sure how long the bank will continue to cash it. If it doesn’t clear soon, I’ll presume she won’t cash it. Insert snarky comment for her about running a business here:

I’m not sure what I’m doing this coming season. Well, I know some things. When the derecho destroyed my small greenhouse I bought another. I plan to start onions in January using the channel trays I bought from you last year. I also got a heating pad from Johnny’s and may get a grow light. I don’t like having the trays inside for fear mold will form in the room where I put them. I also don’t want to run my space heater in the greenhouse continuously. I think you started onions in the basement. Is that true? If so, when did you start them and at what point did you give them light?

As far as soil blocking, I think the pandemic will remain with us for most of the season so we have to address that. As I may have mentioned, I don’t really like working by myself all the time. It did protect us from each other last year and one hopes the situation is not permanent. Last year I didn’t wear a mask, although I am now the proud owner of five homemade ones and can bring one along and wear it when I’m with people. Since it’s your farm, it is really up to you to tell me what to do. So what I’m saying is I’m open to the idea of a barter exchange in 2021. It’s time to start talking about that, although no particular hurry.

To better use the home time I started a writing project. Hoping to have a first draft done by next year at this time.

Hope you are bunkered in for the snow storm. Supposed to get 5-8 inches, I hear.

Regards, Paul

Living in Society

Building Back Better – a New Farm Bill

Chet Culver and Joe Biden in Cedar Rapids, May 18, 2010. Culver lost his re-election bid as Iowa voters preferred Terry Branstad redux.

My favorite Biden-Harris campaign slogan was “build back better.”

Under Donald Trump, Republicans continued their deconstruction of a government largely built by Democratic administrations beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They have been trying to undo Democratic programs since FDR passed the New Deal. The Trump administration provided an unprecedented opportunity for them to get to work and they took advantage of it with a wrecking ball. The country will never be the same.

Voters rejected Trump, sort of. He received more popular votes than any previous presidential candidate. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris got more, though, more than 7 million more. Now Biden has a chance to stop the destruction and salvage the good work our government is or should be doing. Whether and how he can build back better is an open question.

In Barack Obama’s presidential memoir, A Promised Land, he indicated the limits of his presidency were substantial. Obama wrote his political capital was mostly spent by the end of summer of his second year in office. The difference between Obama and Biden is the Obama administration briefly had a 60 senator, filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate during his first term. We don’t yet know if Biden will have a majority of even 50 U.S. Senators, plus the vice president. That depends on the outcome of two U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, 2021 and there is no reason to assume Democrats will win those two seats. There is even less reason to believe Mitch McConnell has changed since 2009. He will obstruct what legislation the Biden administration proposes from day one whether he is in the majority or minority.

Biden did win the 2020 general election with substantial margins in both the popular vote and in the electoral college, which meets on Dec. 14. After the electoral college vote, even Trump acolyte and President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate Chuck Grassley said he would recognize the winner. There is no question the winner is Joe Biden.

While we wait for the electoral college to meet, Biden has been appointing his cabinet. Many of the appointees are familiar for their role in the Obama administration.

For Secretary of Agriculture Biden picked the same guy as Obama, Tom Vilsack, who served during the entire Obama presidency in that role. In Iowa people are divided about the Vilsack announcement yesterday. One expects a lackluster technocrat who will undo the damage done by Trump appointee Sonny Perdue, yet do little to accomplish what ag groups say is needed: enforce antitrust laws, strengthen local food systems, advance racial equity in ag, mitigate climate change, and bolster nutrition assistance.

I’ve been with Vilsack on a number of occasions and “lackluster” well describes his personality. If the alternative was four more years of Sonny Perdue, then we are better off if Vilsack does little else besides keep the chair warm. He’ll do more than that. The current farm bill expires in 2023, so a major task of the Biden administration will be to create and pass the next one. It is possible to influence Vilsack, and I don’t mean just by large, corporate agricultural interests. The fact that Chuck Grassley gave a thumbs up to Tom Vilsack last week is a sign that massive subsidies to the wrong kinds of agriculture will be preserved.

We can’t wring our hands and do nothing about the farm bill though. It is the single biggest agricultural policy statement during the next four years. That we don’t start from ground zero with the secretary of agriculture has pluses and minuses.

We wanted a landslide election for Democrats in 2020. The electorate had other ideas. We’ll have to do the best we can. It remains possible to find common ground with Republicans although the slim majority in the U.S. Senate makes change more difficult regardless which party holds it. After the disastrous 2010 midterm elections Obama had a productive lame duck session the rest of that year. Comparatively speaking, Obama had the wind in his sails and Biden’s decisive win in the presidential race did not have the coattails needed to enable change of the kind Obama was able to make.

I live in a red state that went big for Republicans, including President Trump. I’m just happy the rest of the country felt otherwise about defeating the president. I hope Vilsack can get beyond his previous support for big agriculture. It will be up to us to make sure he does.


Food Policy Council

Lake Macbride on June 24, 2020

On Jan. 30 I received email notice of my appointment to the Johnson County Food Policy Council. My application was chosen by the board of supervisors to complete a term ending June 30.

I declined to re-apply at the end of my term.

The idea of having a food policy council may have been good when it was organized. During my brief tenure, each meeting seemed a random conglomeration of thoughts, statements and opinions heading down a dead end street. To a person, everyone I met while serving was talented, including the county-paid coordinator Ilsa DeWald. So what was wrong about the food policy council?

The goal of fostering relationships between farmers, buyers and government in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids region is important. For their part, non-conventional farmers are a well-organized group of entrepreneurs that take advantage of networking within Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union, and other organizations. If you know some of these farmers, they seem to all be talking to each other about everything, all the time. That’s really no different from any successful farmer, regardless of what they grow.

The challenge of a local food movement is establishing enough mass to be a meaningful presence. The kind of changes needed in our food system are complicated and require engagement by many organizations, businesses, and individuals. That includes entities beyond vegetable, meat and flower producers.

By far, large corporations dominate food sales in our region. Reducing their presence or market share is not a point of discussion for the Food Policy Council. Even if it were, there are not enough local food producers to compete with or challenge them. The basic tenets of consumer participation in financing the growing season on a farm, knowing the face of the farmer, and understanding how our food is grown are main attractions for people who choose local food for their kitchen. As recently as last week, many community supported agriculture projects continued to accept new members this summer: demand has not been enough to significantly disrupt grocery operations.

The highlight of my tenure was participation in an annual forum titled, Land Access and Beyond: How Can the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm Support Beginning and Current Farmers? By participation I mean I made lemonade, helped set up, and led a couple of discussion groups. The forum was well-attended by a diverse group of people.

The board of supervisors decided to develop the Historic Poor Farm and this has been part of discussions of the Food Policy Council. Access to land is important and the Poor Farm has enabled some beginning farmers along a path to land ownership. Supporting the Poor Farm is a worthy endeavor for the Food Policy Council.

Part of the inability to engage in a single direction was the coronavirus pandemic. It affected council members both those who farm and those who don’t, and threw a monkey wrench into the machinery of effective policy planning. While we met via video conference, that’s not the same as being together in person with all of the possible side conversations. If not for the pandemic, I might have a different view of the council’s work.

I was happy to do what I could to advance the cause of local food in our food system. I value my time on the Food Policy Council.

Kitchen Garden

Spring Share and All

Tomato seedlings taking a ride home.

Today is the first spring share at our community supported agriculture project.

The farmers developed a no-contact method to deliver shares during the coronavirus pandemic. Each member’s share will be prepacked in a cooler and left under the oak tree that dominates the farm entrance.

No more self serve from bins in the walk-in cooler until risk of infection passes. With portable coolers there is less to sanitize after pickup.

Sunday was a drop-dead gorgeous spring day in Iowa. Cumulus clouds floated in blue sky and the temperature was perfect. Neighbors were outside working in yards, kayaking on the lake, and walking the roads and trails. There are only so many days like this each year before insects arrive to eat our greenery. Each leaf on each tree looked perfect in the mid day sun.

The first tray of tomato seedlings took a ride home in the passenger seat after my shift at the farm. The forecast is rain the next couple of days so I’m not sure when I will plant them. The portable greenhouse is getting full.

A group of friends from high school participated in a Zoom meeting last night. The host, who also played keyboards in our 1970s band, organized a weekly meeting using the service. I found value in the conversation.

One of the guys on the call is an unemployed nurse who found work last week helping a team from the Iowa Department of Public Health administer COVID-19 tests to slaughterhouse workers. Beginning Friday he spent three days in Waterloo with a team drawing blood and doing nasal swabs to about 3,500 people. Today they head to Columbus Junction for more. I’m glad he found work.

Whatever the reason for the governor’s hesitation, unchecked spread of the coronavirus happened in Iowa because of it. Chasing it in meatpacking plants and care facilities alone will be a major undertaking. She started this scale of testing too late to head off the worst aspects of the pandemic. We are in this until researchers develop a vaccine and distribute it world-wide. Word on the street is it will take three years to accomplish that.

Yesterday we completed our ballots for the Democratic primary. Like many, we are voting by mail because of the coronavirus. Primaries are the time to vote your beliefs. Once voters express their preference, we’ll support the nominees in the general election to retake our government. We can flip the Iowa House of Representatives this year, and if stars properly align, the U.S. Senate. It will be an unusual election because of the pandemic.

So much depends on so many things. Yet when spring is as glorious as it was yesterday the work ahead in politics fades from view. Our collective journey home continues.