Iowa’s Grapes of Wrath: Preserving Land for Food Production in the U.S.

Paul Durrenberger

In Grapes of Wrath American writer John Steinbeck told the disheartening story of defeated farmers in 1939 Oklahoma. A bulldozer demolishes a shanty as the family that lived in it looks on. The driver says he’s only doing his job. The tenant farmer contemplates shooting someone, maybe the driver, maybe the bank. But Steinbeck explains, there’s a whole system at fault, no single individual, no-one the farmer can shoot that would make a difference.

Most farm houses of today’s Iowa have been bulldozed away to be planted to corn or soya beans. Nothing has changed since 1939, except to have grown exponentially in the direction Steinbeck so aptly decried. To show a profit today’s surviving farmers grow corn and beans on ten thousand acres. Most have left. The banks, and the people they answer to still burden all farmers with massive debt for farmland, machinery and operating costs for machines, fuel, fertilizer, and chemical pesticides. So Steinbeck’s vision has come to Iowa with a vengeance. The tractor driver was right, there’s nobody to shoot. It’s not the people, it’s the system they’re in.

What holds this all together, so obvious but as invisible as air, is the cost, and value, of the land itself. The cost is a capitalist construct; the value is a social one. Nonprofits and government agencies across the U.S. are spending billions of dollars to retrain the next generation of young people who grew up in sterile suburbs who now want to get their hands dirty, work long hours and grow healthful food. There is a growing local foods movement across the country.

One of its spokesmen has been the arch-conservative, Joel Salatin whose books and guru status have made him perhaps the most famous proponent of local food in the U.S. He never mentions anxiety over meeting a mortgage payment to the bank. He never mentions a landowner informing him he would have to leave. He inherited his land, machines and buildings. Good work, as Americans say, if you can get it. But these issues of land access surface like running a machine too long without oil if they are not addressed.

Banks are invisible in the local foods movement that assumes that the cost of access to land is part of the farm’s “business expenses.” Everything in the U.S. must be a business. Its reason to exist is to generate profit. Not food, not health, not dwelling space, profit. In the capitalist U.S., wherever there is hope of profit, there’s a bank. But it’s invisible because, like the air we breathe, it’s just assumed to be there, a necessary part of the structure, so pervasive it doesn’t need to be said; it’s part of the culture.

In the U.S. anyone who can get a bank loan can buy land. The interest the bank charges will nearly double the price of that land over that time of the loan. If you fail to make the periodic payments, the bank will repossess the land. Farmers who have somehow acquired from savings, inheritance or relatives a down payment for a piece of land refer to “owning” the farm they are paying the bank to use. Repossession is the tragic fact behind much American literature of rural areas.

Those who can’t purchase land may rent or lease it, but none of the proponents of local foods addresses the insecurity and bad business sense of leasing degraded land for one year at a time. Most agricultural land in the U.S. has been ravaged by a hundred or more years of constant mining with chemical fertilizers or by other means. It takes at least three years to begin to see the benefits of conservation practices. There are innumerable stories of young people being dispossessed from their rented or leased land just as they are getting started.

In Iowa, the fight to save the family farm was at a fever pitch during the 1980s farm crisis in which borrowing to expand production caught up with many farmers. Today, the complex interrelationships of seed, chemical, implement, food processing and financial corporations and the state universities that justify it all has turned the entire landscape into miles of industrial corn and soya beans that pollute the water and air of the state and despoil its soils.

But the concept of family farms persists as the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. The best place to see an Iowa family farm with its red barn and smiling livestock is on a Christmas card.  That Jeffersonian ideal has never dimmed. In 2014 at the instigation of a former labor union organizer, Suzan Erem, family farm advocates, conservationists, planners and developers came together to found the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) to address the fundamental problem of access to land.

For any individual, access to land is a game, like tic tac toe, that you can only win if you refuse to participate. That was the moral of the 1980s movie War Games that addressed the cold war nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. To enter the game is to lose.

There have been innumerable farm crises in the U.S. since the Great Depression when, in response to increasing rural unrest, the government began to design policies to regulate agricultural production. Today those policies are one of the principle determinants of anything agricultural in the country. So, some NGOs spend their effort to try to influence policy.

That is an endlessly losing approach because, leaving little room for maneuver, international chemical, seed and food corporations that profit from American farming control those policies. When a policy that even slightly challenges their hegemony does emerge, e.g. the laws and rules to define organic certification, corporations find ways to subvert it to make it profitable leaving the proponents of the legislation wondering how they could have lost their main objective even though they won a legislative battle. With a government system so thoroughly coopted, there is no point trying to influence policy or elections.

SILT uses two approaches. The first is to permanently restrict the use of farm land to sustainable food production with farm conservation easements, qualifications to the ownership of the land that take it off the market for everyone except food farmers. The second is owning farmland on which SILT offers affordable, lifetime leases while allowing farmers to purchase the house, barns and business. Some states in the U.S. encourage conservation easements by providing funds to pay for them. Not Iowa. Individuals who no longer have use for their land donate to SILT easements or ownership. By these means SILT has to date preserved over 1100 acres and 13 farms for producing food.

The land becomes like body organs or air: not for sale. No more mortgage interest. No more land speculation. Food security for the community and the region. More fresh food available to improve public health. Access to land now and into the future. SILT offers hope and ways to realize that hope.

SILT grew from the convergence of several trends in the U.S.: a land ethic, a food/organic initiative, a back to the land vision, and a critique of corporate capitalism – all of which combine to create an innovative approach to affordable, healthy land and food in a place largely vacant of both – the American Midwest.

For more on this organization and for ways to contribute to these efforts, see our webpage at SILT.org

Paul Durrenberger is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Penn State and University of Iowa, and Co-founder of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, 1398 Franklin Avenue, West Branch, Iowa 51358

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