How’s it all working out?



Iowa farmers have lost money for four years and are likely to dip into the red for a fifth year in 2018 as a trade war brews with China. The pork industry was expanding to meet projected Asian demand. Then the Chinese slapped tariffs on our pork and tanked markets. Soy markets are roiled by the prospect of tariffs, which China has said it intends to impose on beans. Ethanol already was slapped with a tariff along with pork when President Trump announced tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum. This imbroglio is setting export markets on their ear.

It is riveting to watch politically, and sickening. The same interests that supported Trump now find him biting their hands. The commodity groups are beside themselves. Republican politicians are sputtering. The Renewable Fuels Standard is under attack.

Meanwhile, pork futures markets are tumbling. Down 17% since January.

The Administration says it will protect agriculture. The early number is $15 billion in some sort of safety net, perhaps funneled through the Commodity Credit Corporation. It sounds as if we will pay producers to grow things that the markets are telling us they don’t want. Last year, Iowa farm proprietor income dropped 46% from 2016, according to Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson. He notes that most of the burden drops on the 20-30% of younger operators renting land and in hock for machinery. Congress, by the way, is typically mired down in squabbling over a new farm bill among regional, ideological and various commercial interests, and between the House and Senate, with an agriculture secretary who doesn’t know what’s coming next.

We should be asking ourselves, at this point, if this whole thing is working out for us.

Turns out those questions are being asked. When the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors requests a state hearing to object to new hog confinements, even though the supervisors know it will do no good, the conversation is changing. When the Pocahontas County Board of Supervisors is holding hearing on a “Good Neighbor Policy” for livestock operations, you know something is in the wind. This is Pork Central.

We have so many hoghouses the state can’t keep track of them anymore. The Des Moines lobe from Storm Lake to Clear Lake is saturated with manure. It shows up in the Saylorville Reservoir in the form of potentially deadly toxins for drinking water consumers in the Des Moines area. Our aquifers serving Storm Lake and Fort Dodge are being depleted by water-intensive modern industrial ag enterprises, according to the US Geological Survey. And, any motorist driving near Iowa Falls has borne the stench of concentrated hog production. From Laurens to Newell, people who were raised around hogs have had it up to their noses.

Many of these county supervisors are farmers themselves, or even livestock producers.

But, confinements are the only way for those younger farmers to stay afloat on $3 corn and soybeans under political quarantine.

Our best loam is in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico so that we might grow soybeans for China that China does not want that badly, or to feed hogs for China that it can afford to get elsewhere, obviously. They own Smithfield Foods. (Will part of that $15 billion go back to the Chinese?) There is a reason the Chinese want Iowa seed and livestock technology: to feed themselves, as they should.

We should ask ourselves if it is worth it to throw $15 billion at production agriculture so it can produce more of what the world is not buying. Perhaps we should direct those funds toward idling acres that otherwise would be planted to two rowcrops: corn and beans. Iowa has no alternatives, the way things are set up. Or, put that $15 billion to some sort of new construct towards regenerative/grazing agriculture that actually serves farmers, rural enterprise and communities struggling for their survival.

The $15 billion will not go to the young, stressed farmer who needs it. The money never gets there.

We need more land in grass and less in corn. Cheap corn and beans lead to cheap hogs, which leads to weaker rural communities. When you plant virtually every available acre to those two crops, how can we think that anything will change after so many years of losses? The only way it changes is through a disaster on someone in Brazil, or Illinois.

This should prompt farmers and taxpayers to ask what they have bought into, or have been forced to buy, especially over the past three decades. We have fewer farmers, making relatively less money, with worse environmental and community conditions than before we built the ethanol-pork-export paradigm following the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. Trump’s seemingly radical actions actually are exposing the fault lines in the entire construct. We depend on China. We depend on Mexico, too. Iowa farmers cannot live without those markets, and in fact can barely live with them. Strangely, they are forced to ship their basic natural asset — soil — down the river to serve the only markets that exist for them. Those markets are manipulated. That’s not a conspiracy theory. We are seeing it before our eyes. Trump protects one market, steel, at the expense of another, pork. The Chinese respond in kind. That is manipulating the market, and our national politics, by the minute. The Chinese might not want us to ask the natural question: Why are we doing things this way and killing ourselves at it?