It’s not so simple

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Dueling stories about meatpacking and immigration published by The New Republic and Slate dragged Storm Lake and me in, so I would like to set the slightly altered record straight on both.

Each story came out last Wednesday. Each is about a new chicken plant proposed for Fremont, Neb. That is the same story Katie Couric is doing for National Geographic Television this spring, contrasting the more open embrace of immigrants in Storm Lake — which has been at the immigration game a good long time — to the ordinance in Fremont that prevents renting to undocumented persons.

The two most important points:

• The New Republic story claims that anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by racism. The story suggests that East Coast bias despite good effort is not calling it out. It’s not that simple — racism and the well-funded noise machine that spews it are just a part of what forms the sentiment. I know Northwest Iowa pretty well, having lived here most of my life. There is a lot of racism but it does not explain our Republican race-bating congressman, Steve King, in all his dynamic. People who are not racist vote for him and Donald Trump, who are both extremist boors if not outright racists. They create a perceived threat (Mexicans are overrunning us!) and offer a law-and-order solution (Build the wall, ship them out!). Iowa first validated Barack Obama for America and then voted for him twice. I think King and Trump are more cynical than being just sincere white supremacists. They understand that Northwest Iowa thinks it has been getting the shaft ever since they planted the state capitol in Iowa City and Minnesota was still part of our territory. Many of my ignorant friends conflate people of color with their having lost control of their own destiny; they don’t realize they never had control of it. It’s harder to hate the Chicago Board of Trade than it is a Mexican who doesn’t like American football or can’t speak English. They voted for Barack Obama to take on the Board of Trade and Wall Street. He didn’t.

• Second, the Slate story comes under attack from The New Republic story for not contemplating racism and the noise machine enough. I found the Slate story to be balanced and comprehensive old-fashioned reporting. The Slate story suggests that immigration will play out the same way it always has — the young immigrants will get an education and leave the small meatpacking town like the white kids before them. The Storm Lake experience tends to be different. We find that subsequent generations are sticking to Storm Lake because of tight family bonds we knew from our own families a couple generations ago. Storm Lake is growing organically while neighboring county seats are not. That is an inescapable fact. This lingering among generations is enhanced by aggressive efforts by Iowa Central Community College and Buena Vista University to provide life skills that can be employed in Storm Lake. It is happening.

Finally, The New Republic story says that we won the Pulitzer Prize for editorials on hog confinements polluting drinking water. As our readers know, the editorials were about local government transparency over their funding to defend themselves from a Des Moines Water Works lawsuit on nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River. The editorials also urged accountability for drainage districts that speed the delivery of nitrate to surface waters through underground tile; this flow is not regulated under federal or state law. It was not about hog confinements. In fact, this area of Iowa is especially well suited to dense livestock populations —it needs them for soil tilth — because of its flat lay and dense soil types. Livestock — that is, cattle and hogs — can and do convey a benefit to what we call “sustainable” agriculture and clean water. It all depends on how the livestock are deployed.

Now, about Storm Lake:

This is a county seat of about 15,000 people (we don’t know for sure because so many are undocumented) with a 3,000-acre lake and Buena Vista University, a small Presbyterian liberal arts college. It is dead center in Northwest Iowa, which has always made it a good salesman’s town and meatpacking center. People have always come and gone in Storm Lake since meatpacking was introduced here more than 80 years ago. We are about 150 miles from Fremont but not that far psychically.

The Farm Crisis of the 1980s began a wave of depopulation from which Iowa and Nebraska have not recovered. About the same time, Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) which revolutionized the cattle industry, set its sights on pork. When the unionized Hygrade pork plant closed in Storm Lake about 1980, IBP moved in after a year with no union and several hundred Laotian refugees willing to work for half of what the union boys did. Most of us didn’t blame the Southeast Asians — they fought our dirty war and we knew that the unions were busted. We knew who the new boss was in town. They beat the Mob at their own game in New York City. Who were we to trifle with them?

When IBP could find no more plow boys or Asians they sought help south of the border. That was 25 years ago. Storm Lake was more uncomfortable with Mexicans than Asians because we didn’t have the same guilt. We didn’t realize what the North American Free Trade Agreement was doing to those corn farmers in Jalisco who got uprooted and moved to Storm Lake after we shipped them all our cheap, subsidzied leftover corn and pork.

We all got over it. All but the Trump 30%, let’s stipulate. Storm Lake gets along wonderfully. The New Republic suggests that a Hmong woman could not seriously be better off in, say, Storm Lake instead of Queens. I visited New York recently — I can guarantee you that Hmong woman who wants to grow long beans and egg plant is immeasurably better off with two acres in Storm Lake than 200 square feet in the Big Apple. Our schools will support the Hmong woman’s children. The Baptist Church is sponsoring them and making sure their needs are met. This does not happen in Queens or even Des Moines. It still happens in Storm Lake, where not everything is racist. Storm Lake voted for Obama, for Clinton, for inclusion, and against Steve King and exclusion every time. We just elected a Latino to the city council and a Latina to the school board. We will elect more as they step forward, and they will.

We know what we can do here. We will not be building Teslas or running Amazon. We will grow corn and raise hogs — we hope here — for slaughter. There are huge environmental challenges to it all, not the least of which is all the corn we grow with all those chemicals so that we can feed all those turkeys and chickens and hogs. We have to get that under control. We have to diversify and heal the landscape. We can and will manage those things. We will be forced to — Nature is demanding it right now, and we are starting to answer with more sustainable approaches like winter cover crops.

Livestock create jobs. They are jobs on the first rung of the ladder to success. Rural Mexicans are building goat farms and horse farms. Hmong women are peddling at the Farmers’ Market and appear to laugh a lot doing it. Arturo Deanda is moving cars. Tyson pays $15 per hour to start, which is no crime. Would that most magazines pay unheralded writers that much. Que sera. Storm Lake is just trying to get by in a system over which it has no control, and to help poor people out of poverty and instability as we can. When you hear the horror stories from El Salvador you want to give them everything you have. That’s the simple part of the story. And that’s the biggest part of the story in Storm Lake, from one who was born here but can see its warts. Too bad if it is different in Fremont.