America’s cropland is awash with chemicals. Despite incentives to establish more sustainable – even organic – farming practices, most farmers are caught in an industrial system of chemicals, hybrid seed, and genetically modified (GMO) seed.
Leadership from the USDA and agriculture schools, like the one at Iowa State University, influence farm methods; but even recommendations to reduce farm chemicals have unintended outcomes. One way to reduce agricultural chemicals is planting cover crops in the Fall after the cash crop is harvested. Winter cover crops could mean using less fertilizer and herbicide in the Spring.
But cover crops prove difficult to “terminate” – a word used by the Iowa State University Extension office in their 2016 bulletin “Terminating Cover Crops — What’s Your Plan?” According to the authors, there are three ways to eliminate cover crops: 1) herbicides, 2) rolling and crimping, and 3) tillage. In the first option – herbicides – Iowa State Extension weighs the benefits of using contact herbicide, like paraquat, or translocated herbicide, like glyphosate. The type of herbicide depends on which cover crop is used and the timing for spring planting. The bulletin says, “Iowa State University researchers generally recommend terminating the cover crop with herbicide 10-14 days prior to planting corn to protect yield; however, that time frame is less critical for soybeans.”
Last fall, in Faribault County Minnesota, several farmers signed up for a program through their Soil and Water Conservation district. For every acre planted in winter cover, the conservation district would pay the farmers $50. Part of a state-wide program to help reduce farm-chemical run-off entering groundwater and waterways, these are considered “incentives” – not “entitlements” – which help farmers transition to more sustainable practices. The incentives were helpful. Faribault County farmer Tim Perrizo was able to pay for a custom aerial cover-crop seeding for one of his 70-acre fields. He used another incentive through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to seed cover crops over another 550 acres.
To dramatically reduce chemicals during planting season, farmers have to commit to rolling/crimping or tillage methods to terminate cover crops. Rolling a field of a cover like cereal rye depends on the timing. If the farmer doesn’t wait for the rye to shed pollen, they might have to roll the field twice or apply herbicides later after the cash crop is in the ground. Tilling a field is also effective but farmers will have to pass over each section two or three times. Many farmers are not accustomed to this more labor-intensive farming practice because, instead of growing 100 acres of corn like their father’s generation, they’re planting 1,000 or more acres of corn. Tilling 1,000 acres three times in the spring takes a lot of time. This means that many farmers continue to apply herbicides to eliminate a winter cover crop. Even Perrizo in Faribault County used herbicides to terminate his.
As a kid from rural Iowa, I have joked about growing up with herbicide for breakfast, pesticide for lunch, and fertilizer for supper. But farm-chemical exposure is no laughing matter. In fact, farm chemicals have created a multi-generational and slow-motion health epidemic across rural America and its diaspora. From people forced out of farming during the 1980s to people working today in California’s fruit and vegetable packing houses, exposure to agricultural chemicals appears in the form of developmental delays in children, Parkinson’s disease in adults, and cancer.
I was 10 years old when neighbors began using crop dusters to apply pesticides and herbicides. Crop duster airplanes offer ways to target a field infestation through the aerial application of chemicals. In some conditions, it’s preferred because using a tractor to treat a field means that whatever organisms are infecting one section can travel on the tractor to another field. On the other hand, dropping chemicals from an airplane will involve chemical drift: anyone in the vicinity of crop-dusting will be exposed.
Because planes were rare in Iowa skies, it was a treat to hear the distant buzz approaching a nearby field. It gave me enough time to ford a cow pasture and find a hillside seat to watch this aerial display. There’s a 25-day window between tassel time and germination to spray an infestation of cutworms, mites, or beetles. At age 10, the invasion of bugs didn’t have my attention. But the crop duster did.
An air tractor, as it can be called, races a finger’s width above tassels, with veils of pesticide blooming behind. Currents of green pollen curl with liquid fog before settling among sentries of corn stalks. At row’s end, the plane lurches upwards toward a distant summer sky; its belly glancing dangerously at the horizon before plunging again over another section of corn. One pilot error could send a plane skidding into the green carpet below.
Back then, I never imagined that I would work in one of the area’s nursing homes, giving care to people who were crippled by diseases which are linked to these agricultural chemicals. Back then, I didn’t know that extended family and neighbors were part of a massive shift toward industrial farming methods which would diminish our quality of life and cause great harm to our land and water.
How did America Establish Today’s Farming Methods?
America’s recent history with farming in the Midwest sees a change from horse-and-ploughs to tractors during the 1930s and 40s – especially after World War 2. This is my own family history: before I was born, we traded teams of horses for an Allis-Chalmers. During the 1940s, as US manufacturers transitioned from wartime supplies, the tractor became a favorite for manufacturers, farmers, and an agriculture leadership pressing for new ways to increase food production.
I grew up in the county next to Norman Borlaug’s childhood home in Northeast Iowa. Borlaug is credited for a time in agriculture history called “The Green Revolution”. In a nutshell, Borlaug’s Green Revolution was America’s investment in industrial models for food production after WW2: hybrid seeds, genetic modification, mono-culture, selective breeding, mechanization, and chemicals. After finishing his graduate studies at the University of Minnesota in 1942, Borlaug began a career with DuPont. He was tasked with fungicide development and plant genetics which paved the way for leadership roles in helping countries like Mexico and India increase crop production. Borlaug’s work prioritized world hunger over the health of America’s cropland and farmers. He was aware that the products he developed were harmful but they also produced an abundance of food. In 1970, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
To reduce global hunger, American policymakers, the USDA, and chemical/hybrid-seed manufacturers saw an opportunity for profit. Together, they convinced American farmers to take on debt and increase production to fight global hunger. The message coming from Washington DC, and amplified by chemical/hybrid-seed manufacturers, was intentional: convince farmers of their moral responsibility to risk their own security and health to fight world hunger. It’s a message that remains entrenched in America’s farmland today and fuels incredible revenues for seed/chemical companies. Cargill’s revenue is around $165 billion in 2022; Syngenta reports 25.9 billion sales; Chevron posts a 36.5 billion profit for 2022 alone; Corteva anticipates 18.1-18.4 billion in sales in 2023; Dow Chemical’s US revenue is about 56.9 billion; Monsanto is now owned by Bayer which holds over 120 billion in assets and generates revenues over 44 billion; BASF generated over 78 billion in 2021 alone.
Another architect of modern farming is Earl Butz. US Secretary of Agriculture from 1971-1974, Butz grew up on 165 acres in Indiana. He was a white man of his time: racist, vulgar, and arrogant. As America’s Ag Secretary, Butz doggedly pursued a policy that benefited seed and chemical companies over farmers. “Get big or get out,” he remarked during meetings and speaking engagements with farmers in attendance. Responding to concerns about the harmful effects of ag chemicals, he said, “Before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide what 50 million people we are going to let starve.”
In ag business, Butz’s focus on reducing world hunger was like Borlaug’s. These contemporaries knew that their methods and policies would eliminate farms like the ones of their childhoods. In a 1977 debate with Wendell Berry, Butz asserted his desire that the small family farm of his childhood should remain a thing of the past: “I don’t want to go back to the good old days when you carry water from an outdoor pump to the kitchen… wood stoves… oil lamps… lantern I carry doing chores… cleaning out the stables by hand… I don’t want to go back to the low level of cash income we had on the farm and the high degree of self-sufficiency…” Astonishingly, the industrialized system established by Butz kept farmers in desperately low levels of “cash income” and in total dependence upon creditors and chemical/hybrid-seed companies.
During the 1970s, driving across Northern Iowa or Southern Minnesota, I began to notice some of the smaller farms were vacant. Instead of driveways cluttered with tractors and pickups, cows clustering near a barn and chickens littering lawns, these small farms were empty. During the 1980s, more farms were shuttered and many destroyed – buildings torn down and ploughed under for bigger farms to plant even more acres. The 1980s Farm Crisis cemented the elimination of the sustainable American family farm. In a single year – 1983 – Iowa experienced 500 farm auctions every single month. This doesn’t mean that 500 families lost their entire farms. Some farmers were able to sell off part of a farm in order to save the rest. But by 1990, 1 in 4 farms had been completely abandoned to the banks. Today, these roadways which had once been busy with family farms and small towns, are mostly desolate corridors of corn and beans.
Visiting with family and neighbors who farmed during the 1960s – 1990, I hear about confidence coming from lenders and seed companies. Some farmers talk about how they assumed higher profits would follow after signing papers to buy an extra thousand acres. Others mention optimism, like peer pressure, coming from the USDA leadership and the Farm Credit Service. The value of land seemed stable and taking a risk to add 500 acres and buy hybrid seed on credit became routine. Farmers – white farmers – could double their operations with credit and produce more food which would mean higher profits. Enthusiasm for growth came from all parties involved in food production; many in my extended family and my community were encouraged to take risks.
Year after year, farmers became confident in this new cycle of credit and growth; until a perfect storm of inflation, a grain embargo, and falling land values made lenders edgy. Without regulatory oversight, lenders were able to call in farm debt. Despite answering a call to shoulder the financial risk and fight global hunger, there were no protections for farmers when lenders changed tac. Grain prices began to fall and crops weren’t worth what farmers put into them. The loan agents who awarded credit for spring planting were put in the position of telling the same farmers that if they didn’t pay off their debt within 30, 60, or 90 days, the bank would take over their home, land, and equipment. Earl Butz said he did NOT want farmers to operate on a “high degree of self-sufficiency”; he got what he wanted.
The Green Revolution may have saved millions from starvation, but it also built an ag-business industry on the backs of farmers across America’s Central and High Plains regions. In 1950, the United States had over 20 million people living on over 5,382,162 farms. Today, there are about 3.5 million people – including absentee farm landlords – making farm-business decisions concerning about 2 million farms. This means that 1% of the US population is making decisions about America’s food production methods.
Farmers who live where they farm care about the land. Most continue to be dependent on Big Ag systems. Generous subsidies needed to transition from conventional to sustainable methods don’t exist; as always, farmers have to assume the financial risk if they want to switch. Considering that the average age of a farmer today is 57, it’s difficult to reinvent the wheel after 40 years of hard labor. Younger generations who might pick up the torch for sustainable crop farming don’t have the collateral to enter agriculture. With cropland prices ranging for $10,000-15,000/acre, it is impossible to begin: 5 Million for 500 acres is unthinkable.
In Faribault County, Minnesota, the incentives offered through the USDA and Soil & Water Conservation offices encourage some farmers to try new methods. But it’s going to take a lot more than $50/acre to make sweeping changes in cropland management. When our states are under the leadership of policymakers who think “incentives” are forms of “entitlements”, it’s unlikely that farmers will receive substantial assistance. Like the 1970s & ’80s, we’re in another era of “get big or get out”. The farmer who manages 1000+ acres will surrender to those who can afford million-dollar investments and payrolls for a labor force.
Borlaug’s advances in plant genetics and the development of synthetic ag products fed millions of people while displacing his own neighbors. Financed by DuPont, Borlaug is the father of a system that indentured America’s farmers with cycles of debt, scarcity, and dependency.
Today’s conventional farmers are not enemies of sustainable or organic farming but they cannot transition to $50/acre either. We might need to rally crop farmers to unite, once again, around an idea: instead of “global hunger” it will be something like “better local environment and local population health.” Like the Green Revolution of Borlaug’s day, a new idea like this will need enormous investment from Washington D.C. Tapping the assets of chemical/hybrid-seed manufacturers – those corporations who peddled poisons and farmer dependence for decades – should also pay the price.