A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
“Over 80 percent of our school children here in Storm Lake, Iowa, are in danger of going hungry,” the director of a Food Insecurity Summit tells me. “They eat breakfast and lunch at school, then we send a backpack full of food home with them on the week-ends.”
These hungry students are mostly the children of immigrant workers at the local Tyson Foods factory, a meat-packing plant at the edge of town that employs a good share of the town’s residents. From Asia, Africa, Central and Latin America, the food workers go to work each day to wield knives on the kill floor and stand in one place for hours in the chilly production line, slaughtering, processing, and packaging the pork that eventually finds its way to supermarkets throughout the United States. With the relentless drive for profits in the food industry, and unions a thing of the past, the meat-packing employees find it difficult to make enough money to house, clothe and feed their families. Food is the first thing to go.
And so these social, religious, and local and state relief workers have gathered on a crisp spring day in Storm Lake (population 10,600) to explore better and more efficient ways to combat food insecurity in the American Midwest, the center of the agricultural heartland. Key people in the state convene for the entire day to address hunger issues among its most vulnerable populations—the elderly, disabled, students, the impoverished, the unemployed, and of course, the underpaid but fully employed like those working in one of Iowa’s 106 meat-packing companies.
Outside the window of the Iowa State University Extension building where the conference is held, farmers are just beginning to plow the ground to seed vast numbers of acres of corn and soybeans, mono-crops that are the backbone of the Iowa economy, crops that will be used in many ways: for animal feed, paint, synthetics, and corn syrup in soda pop. These crops will be sold and processed, exported through international trade deals, but few of these grains and beans will eventually end up in the bellies of the local hungry.
Instead, the good people gathered in the conference room brainstorm ways that they can better tap into charities and government resources to help the local immigrant population put food on their tables. Despite the low wages, these new arrivals keep the Tyson plant open and chugging along, keep the schools and churches populated, and keep local businesses hanging on. Without the meat-packing plant and its workers, Storm Lake might be headed toward the fate of so many hollowed-out agricultural towns. Boarded up businesses, closed schools, and declining populations are all evidence of the “get-big-or-get-out” mantra endorsed in the heartland since the days of Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration in the 1970s.
“We made the drive to increase agricultural production and efficiency, but we didn’t think what that would do to local towns and economies,” former Secretary Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in an interview in 2017. He hinted at the ways that bigger farms drove family farmers out of business, decreased the population base, and drastically cut the number of customers frequenting local hardware, grocery, pharmacy, feed store, and implement dealers—mainstays of any small rural town.
The Food Summit attendees highlight the work of the state food bank and the establishment of a food pantry at the local high school. First and second generation immigrants have opened the pantry to try to help more recently arrived settlers. “We need food, of course, we need food,” the high school student director says. “But we also need soap and other health and beauty products. Soap and shampoo are in especially short supply.”
A single bar of soap becomes a luxury. The desperate poverty levels of these full-time meat-packing plant workers are eye-opening. The attendees vow to pick up their unused health and beauty products provided by motels from their travels and send them directly to the high-school pantry.
The attendees continue their discussion but make a point not to blame the Tyson plant that has made major monetary contributions to the town. “Tyson has been more than fair to work with,” a local minister states. I shove back my chair and agree to myself that Tyson is just a cog in the wheel of a wider political agricultural landscape.
But who in this room sees the wider picture of our industrialized food system?
Who registers with a capitalistic scheme that treats food as a commodity and pushes for production over safety and the welfare of its workers? Who understands a structure that drives to eliminate diversified family farms? Who in the room has been to a farm auction where the family has been driven to bankruptcy? Who in the room has been inside a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) where these hogs are raised in such tight quarters that they have to be medicated with antibiotics against disease? Where the buildings, hogs, feed and veterinarian are owned by an out-of-state firm? The farmers who once worked for themselves are now the employees of the ag-biz corporation.
“I eat pork,” the minister admits, “so I see the necessity of meat-packing plants.” He accepts his place in this industrial agricultural universe.
I grew up supported by a small, diversified family farm on the edge of a prosperous small town in western Iowa. I have lived through all the changes in the agricultural system evidenced in the Food Summit room. From the post WWII period of prosperity, to the boom of the 1970s, to the bust of the 1980s Farm Crisis, to the consolidation of Big Ag. Through all these phases, I watched the actual farmers and agricultural workers struggle to make a living. But how did we get ourselves into this current mess where in the midst of some of the most productive farmland in the world, our agricultural workers cannot afford food? Or even a bar of soap?
Before the development of what we know today as agriculture, hunting and gathering societies prevailed. Men and women equally spent most of their days moving throughout the landscape searching for food, preying on small game, picking wild fruits and berries, and digging tubers. Then, independently, in multiple parts of the world, at the close of the last Pleistocene glacial period or Ice Age, humans began to develop agriculture. Gradually, humans discovered that they could save seeds and plant them to create a crop. They found that they could domesticate and breed animals.
Humans became more stationary, no longer destined to roam great distances in search of food. Both farms and cities developed. Agriculture spawned the sciences—not only agronomy, but math and the physical sciences. With more leisure time and more permanent residences, the arts blossomed. And so did hierarchies, land ownership, and the pesky problem of who was going to do all the hard agricultural work that supported this more “sophisticated” way of life.
In the 5th Century B.C. in ancient Rome, farms were small and family owned. Gradually, the size of farms increased as the wealthy elite bought land from farmers who could no longer make a living. Economics factored into this problem. And peasants were often called away to fight in wars. Their families struggled to keep crops planted and harvested in their absences. The polarized ownership of land caused enormous tensions in the last century of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the Romans worked out four systems of farm management: 1) family farming by owner, 2) tenant sharecropping, 3) forced labor by slaves, and 4) tenant leasing. Sound familiar? The four techniques still dominate land management structures in contemporary agriculture.
Though by the Middle Ages, we’d added another important farming structure: feudalism, an intricate hierarchical system of land ownership and agriculture. In the feudal system the nobility owned large stretches of land under the crown—and ultimately the pope—in exchange for military service. Vassals, in turn, were tenants of the nobles. The peasants, or serfs, lived and labored on their lord’s land, giving him a share of the produce that they raised. In return, the nobility offered protection from invaders for its agricultural workers. Initially, the food needs of each fiefdom were relatively self-contained. The majority of the food in the feudal era was raised and preserved locally to feed both the nobility, the vassals, and the serfs.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, a merchant class arose out of the feudalistic structure. Roads, canals and sea faring vessels improved and food became a commodity to be bought and sold, and shipped to distant growing cities. Capitalism was born and agriculture was driven by profits, not by local needs. So began the push to produce food cheaply to reap the greatest income. Profits came before stewardship of the land and capitalism often lead to the depletion of the soil and the devaluing of its people.
Serfs were no longer viewed as necessary, protected workers, trading their labor and produce for security. Instead, serfs were thrown into a monetary economy. The nobility taxed and charged the serfs rent for their small farms, often forcing them off the land to settle in the industrial centers. The drive for ever-increasing profits allowed colonialism and its resulting empires to take root. Political powers invaded other lands to exploit its minerals, soil, people and their productivity. Racism reared its ugly head. Natives were often debased to justify their exploitation.
Empires engendered vast armed forces and these military men needed to be fed. The drive to produce cheap food accelerated. The results were often disastrous for agricultural workers. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845–50 is an example of this whole rogue system playing itself out. Yes, the Famine was caused by a blight on the potato crop in Ireland, and yes, the Irish peasants were mainly eating potatoes. So, when the blight hit, one million Irish died and another million immigrated. But why? Were they too ignorant not to grow other crops? Too lazy not to fish? After all, they were surrounded by the ocean.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Ireland was a colony of Great Britain. The British aristocracy had seized the land and set in motion the peasants-will-pay rent and taxation system. The British were most interested in the land in the Midlands (the center of the country) for food production as it contained the best soil with the highest productivity. A large number of the peasants were displaced and shoved to urban areas or to the west coast where the topography was wild and beautiful but so rocky that making a living was marginal. Given the economic squeeze, the soil, the climate and availability of seed, the one viable crop was the potato.
The Irish existed this way for years. Fortunately, the potato is a very nutritional food, and the Irish population multiplied, exerting even more pressure on the little tillable land in their control. Their daily menus looked something like this:
Breakfast: Potato and milk
Dinner: Potato or slice of bread, small bit of fish
Supper: Potato and tea
But in 1845 when a blight swept across Europe, the Irish were hit hard. Their bodies weakened by starvation, the majority succumbed to typhus. Unable to feed the peat fires in their stone cottages, the thatched roofs fell in by their own wet weight, and the Irish were buried in their homes. Or some were carted to the cemetery in the one village coffin, the trap bottom opening to dump the body into a mass grave. No time or resources for building separate coffins. Every last scrap of wood, including piers, fishing boats, traps, and poles were sold for food or money to pay the taxes and rent. When these two things went unpaid, families were cast out of their cottages, their thatch roofs often set on fire by their landlords. Many an Irish lament wails the loss of a traditional family farm, colonialism driving the homeless off to other lands across the sea.
Meanwhile, during the Famine, the British controlled large warehouses full of food bound for their armed forces in the rest of their empire. Politics, racism, and personality power plays combined to starve the peasants on this colonial island or push them to immigrate. Of course, what did the Famine Irish find when they stepped onto America’s shores? A nation who had thrown off British colonialism only to be torn apart by a civil war over slavery, a brutal agricultural system from the ancient past.
African-American slaves, tolling in the American south to produce commodities—cotton, tobacco and sugar cane–for export—were often underfed. Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), an escaped slave, social reformer and abolitionist, described his living conditions in his second book My Bondage and my Freedom (1855):
I have often been so pinched with hunger, that I have fought with the dog—Old Nep—for the smallest crumbs that fell from the kitchen table, and have been glad when I won a single crumb in the combat. Many times have I followed, with eager step, the waiting-girl when she went out to shake the table cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out to the cats.
In his autobiography, Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Douglass illustrated how food was used as a form of deprivation control on plantations:
Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.
Of course, deprivation control, slavery, capitalism, colonialism and imperialism all eventually lead to civil war, rebellion and uprisings, revolutions, coups, strikes, assassinations, and more. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin and others had their own school of opposing political thought that played out throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, agricultural workers squeezed out and pushed off their own farms became factory workers in urban areas. Then in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, farms themselves became factories with farmers nothing more than hired laborers. Where farmers were in short supply, immigrant labor filled the demand for cheap, mechanized food processing.
John F. Kennedy, running for president in 1960, tried to lay out his agricultural policy on a campaign swing through Omaha, NE, addressing a hall filled with rural residents. His Massachusetts accent dropped out the “r” consonants from his speech, an odd sound to Midwesterners.
Kennedy asked, “What is the mat-ta with the American fahm-a today?”
“He’s sta-ving!” A farmer yelled back. The whole room roared with laughter.
But no one is laughing now almost sixty years later in this conference room in Storm Lake, Iowa, with the suicide rate of people engaged in agriculture the highest of any profession in the United States, and the town’s immigrant work force not knowing where their next meal is coming from. So what do we do to get out of this food insecurity mess? Food banks and pantries are a necessary Band-Aid for the situation, but a larger revolution needs to occur. A political revolution is needed to change the whole system, but seems slow in coming. Meanwhile, a food revolution is already happening and seems much more doable in our society at this time. A food revolution, designed to move us away from the slave/serf/factory-farm worker model of agriculture, has been brewing for a couple of centuries.
Utopian communities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries formed to gain spiritual and physical independence from authoritarian rule in church and government. The utopian communities of the era all attempted new social and economic structures, from the Oneida Community in New York who practiced communalism and complex marriage, to the Brook Farm community in Massachusetts who practiced Transcendentalism, to the Octagon City in Kansas who took up vegetarianism. The Icarians, the Amanas, and Amish all established thriving agrarian communities in the United States, finding large tracts of open land primarily in the Midwest, particularly in Iowa.
All the utopian communities had difficulties. Most of the groups were still patriarchal, imposing their own strict rules upon their members and lasting less than twenty-five years. The Icarians, one of the longest-lasting non-religious experiments, functioned for 50 years, finally falling apart due to lack of equality of the sexes. The Amana Colonies, a German sect, lived a local economy-based communal life for over 75 years, but were eventually done in by the economic pressures of the Great Depression and the social pressures of lack of free will in a communistic system. The Amish, still thriving today, are one of the longest-lasting communities with a unique blend of capitalism and socialism.
The Amish are entrepreneurs with each family owning and living on their own diversified farm that includes crops, livestock, fruit trees and a vegetable garden. They are self-supporting, pay all their taxes, but do not take anything from the government including disability, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, or food or housing assistance. Families are expected to be entrepreneurs, but they also pool a certain amount of money to create a safety net for use for medical emergencies, land acquisition and other large expenditures. The Amish are mostly self-sufficient, functioning on a locally-based economy, but they also sell some commodity crops and livestock on the open market. In addition, most Amish have a home business—wheelwright, mason, carpenter, baker, harness-maker, shoe repairer—trades that are only advertising through small, hand-painted signs stuck in the ditch near to the lane to their farms.
The Amish created an anachronistic fundamentalist society. Their rejection of modernity in terms of consumption, education, dress, transportation and levels of technology allow the them to live in a simpler way than the rest of us, but at the same time, they lose a third of their young people to the outside world. The Amish have a strong unifying religious faith that brings them tight bonds, great strength and solace, but it also creates rigid boundaries for their youth. But leaving the security of the Amish way of life is not a light decision. Within the confines of the culture, there is great comfort and security. No one is alone or abandoned, no one is homeless, no one is institutionalized, and no one goes hungry.
We’re all not going to take up horse and buggies and live on our own farms like the Amish, but we can embrace some of what they teach us about food insecurity among agricultural workers. We can start growing our own food. Gardening is a radical political act. Gardening creates autonomy and strong social bonds. Gardening removes some of the hold of the feudal lord/factory farm boss over the working person. It breaks the agri-business model, increasing your nutrition and health, easing you off the grid of the medical-industrial complex model.
Organic gardening with its no-till methods and use of composting, crop rotation, water conservation and use of non-GMO, more diversified seeds, provides land stewardship and actually counters the effects of climate change. In organic, no-till systems, carbon is actually trapped and deposited in the ground. If all the farm fields in the world used this method, climate change could be addressed through agriculture alone.
During WWII, gardening was considered the most patriotic thing a family could do. The war years saw Americans growing 40 percent of their own produce in their backyards in “victory gardens.” Colorful government posters complete with drawings of middle-class Americans with hoes and spades in garden plots in their yards, read:
PLANT A VICTORY GARDEN.
Our food is fighting.
A victory garden will make your rations go further.
YOU CAN USE
the land you have
to grow the food you need.
Once the war was won, patriotic Americans were encouraged to fall in line and support the chemical food industry, so backyard plots were seeded over with herbicide-sprayed and fertilized grasses. People lost the sense of food self-sufficiency and returned to grocery stores that soon grew into supermarkets.
No time nor motivation for growing your own food? Gardening is not only a political act, but also a spiritual act as we are reminded by Wendell Berry in The Art of the Common Place:
The ‘drudgery’ of growing one’s own food, then, is not drudgery at all. (If we make the growing of food a drudgery, which is what ‘agribusiness’ does make of it, then we also make a drudgery of eating and living.) It is – in addition to being the appropriate fulfillment of a practical need – a sacrament, as eating is also, by which we enact and understand our oneness with the Creation, the conviviality of one body with all bodies.
No backyard, no space for a garden? Try container gardening, potatoes in a five-gallon bucket, tomatoes in a tub. Still pressed for space? You can grow micro greens for a family of four for just pennies in a tray on your window sill. Sprouts can be grown for even less in a jar. How do you use sprouts? Do you cook them? Eat them raw? What do you do with those potatoes and tomatoes now that they are harvested?
We need to learn to cook and teach these skills to our children. We need to revive teaching gardening in the school, a curriculum that every old one-room schoolhouse used to incorporate into daily lessons. We need to return to family meals and nurture the positive experience of eating good food together, strengthening our own social connections, and decreasing our medical expenses.
“I grew up in Cuba,” one of the Food Insecurity attendees raises her hand and volunteers at the conference. “With the embargo, we were cut off from medicines and drugs from the U.S. A lot of us had diabetes and other illnesses. So the government sent around information to encourage us to garden and cook in healthful ways. They sent cook books and other educational materials. The rate of illness dropped and we had little need of the medicines that were out of our reach.”
To supplement home-grown efforts, we can frequent farmers’ markets and sign up for shares on CSA farms (Community Supported Agriculture). Both of these venues encourage sustainable practices, eliminate the middle person, and put more dollars directly into the farmers’ pockets. CSA members pay a fee in the spring when farmers need to make expenditures for seed and other supplies. The shares help the farmers’ cash flow and give them an estimate of quantities for their growing season. In return, the members receive weekly deliveries of seasonal vegetables, often right to their door.
Even more encouraging, some of the immigrants and indigenous groups represented in the Storm Lake conference have found ways to return to farming themselves. Hmong refugees who came to the United States from Laos after the Vietnam war, began cleaning up empty and abandoned lots in Des Moines, IA, becoming what is now fashionably called “urban gardeners.” Mexicans in Marshalltown joined the Comida Project, an initiative designed by Iowa State University and the local community college to help immigrants return to farming. They now farm on land near the college and on 20 acres on the edge of town donated by an Anglo resident.
Sudanese refugees have received an USDA grant to farm on the old Johnson County “Poor Farm” outside of Iowa City. On their own settlement, the Meskawki Tribe near Tama have begun The Meskawki Food Sovereignty Initiative. They grow their own vegetables and livestock on Red Earth Farm, then provide education in food preservation and cooking.
Little by little, we are unbinding ourselves from the serf/slave/factory farm model, but the lords of the castles are pushing back. With state tax funding dwindling for land grant universities, Big Ag is stepping in to fund research. And the Monsantos of the world have an agenda to fulfill and results that they want to see. Again, under our system, they are under more and more intense pressure for profits. So the food revolution is not coming from our government or research universities. Rather, it is a grassroots movement of gardeners, farmers, chefs, and consumers who are aware of the politics of the larger agricultural landscape.
Networking groups and associations abound, performing the work of connecting like-minded people in the food revolution. Practical Farmers of Iowa and MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) are two of the most prominent in the heartland, but nearly every state now has its own organization that promotes conservation of the land, healthy food and decent treatment of agricultural workers.
Mainstream media plays into the status quo, so it is up to alternative sources of journalism and the arts to fill in the gap and provide necessary information and perspective to the public. The internet is exploding with YouTube channels, zines, blogs, and social media outlets with needed sources of information. Community radio stations are blossoming. My own foundation AgArts (www.agarts.org) attempts to move the dial toward more agricultural awareness through theatre, literary, visual, movement and the musical arts.
For example, I have toured the United States with a play called Vang, about immigrant farmers. The production raises consciousness about the contributions immigrants have made to our food system as well as the cultural richness of our country. Too, I have educated audiences about farmland transition and helped to save family farms through a play called Map of my Kingdom that has seen over sixty performances throughout the country.
“Food insecurity is just the tip of the iceberg,” one of the conference leaders says, engaging us in a kind of bingo game where our fates are controlled by external circumstances—the farm economy, illnesses, accidents, natural disasters, inflation, housing prices, and the whims of unpredictable employers. In the game, we are underpaid Wal-Mart grocery section workers who need food assistance, need food banks and pantries, as humiliating as they are, because our full-time jobs just don’t pay enough. We’ve come to accept the fact that tax payers and Good Samaritans fill in the gap our employers create.
And while I vow to join with others at this conference, scooping up all those little sample-sized health and beauty aids at my motel, sending them to the Tornado Food Pantry at the Storm Lake Food Pantry, I also vow to keep on working for a more just society. Many thoughtful writers and activists have looked at the food insecurity problem and have seen low wages, pay inequity, gender and race discrimination, poor housing, poverty, lack of transportation, lack of educational opportunities, and lack of adequate health care. Bingo. All true. Too true.
But at the core of all of these issues is a societal structure that has created a heartless food production system. I vow to try to educate a wider audience about just what it means to be an agricultural worker today. Most of us will read about Storm Lake, Iowa, meat-packing workers profiled in the New York Times. We will sip our lattes in coffee shops, lean back from our computer screens and shake our heads. But how many of us have actually been to a meat-packing town? Sat down for coffee with an immigrant worker in the plant? How many of us have ever been on a farm and know anything about its daily operation? Visited a stockyard?
The majority of Americans have become more and more distanced from the hard-working pairs of hands that feeds them. We now have a rigid urban/rural divide with ingrained prejudices on both sides. We need to find ways to not only break bread together but to find out how and why the grain in that bread nearly broke so many workers’ backs. I vow to join with others throughout the world who are finding unique ways of moving the food system toward a more sustainable future, one where humans will have more ownership of their own land, will have more freedom of choice of what they will eat, will earn a decent wage that will feed a family, and where food insecurity summits will be a thing of the past.
Berry, Wendell, The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint (2003).
Douglass, Frederick, My Bondage and Freedom, Penguin Classics (1855).
Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Bedford/St. Martin’s Press (1845).
Heiser, Charles, Seed to Civilization, Harvard University Press (1990).
White, K. D. (1970). Roman Farming. Cornell University Press (1970).
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849, Penguin (1962).
Copyright 2017 Mary Swander. First published in About Place Journal. Reprinted with permission.
Mary Swander is the Poet Laureate of Iowa, the Artistic Director of Swander Woman Productions, and the Executive Director of AgArts, a non-profit designed to imagine and promote healthy food systems through the arts.