When you live on a six-generation century farm in Iowa with your four kids, folks assume life has to be harmonious and good. I'm sure people visualize a family working with a master plan that we hammer out together at dinner meetings. They visualize a well-oiled team, where smiling children jump out of bed each morning eager to get about the day's work.
I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but my kids are growing up on "Schizophrenic Farm." While my husband embraces conventional agriculture with all the bells and whistles, I have my kids involved in diversified farming that doesn't consider marketing monoculture as the best means of making a living.
Each fall I hear groaning about the price of corn and soybeans, and by December plans are being made for inputs to be purchased for next year's corn and soybean crops. Like elsewhere in America, most farmers in Iowa are on a monoculture treadmill that continues to pick up speed. When their energy is exhausted they will eventually get off the treadmill. Some will step down, some will fall off, others will be catapulted into ruin and, unfortunately, a few will drop dead.
The 2,500 farms lost in Iowa since 1999 are proof that something is terribly wrong in the heartland.
I want my kids to be able to see the potential for the world-class farmland they live on for more than a life of hard work with little financial gain. I want them to know that entering into grain and livestock contracts is like applying be a serf for some corporate baron. That baron will dictate their farming decisions, determine their salary and much more. I want my kids to be comfortable living outside the box, not following the herd. I want them to understand the value of independent farmers and business people.
I often remind them that a very proud people lived on this land just over a century ago. Their culture revolved around the buffalo. At birth they were wrapped in the skin of a buffalo calf. Pulverized buffalo dung was used inside the papoose carriers as an absorbent diaper. As adults their shelter, tools, food and clothing came from the buffalo. But the European settlers' relentless hunting reduced the herds. President Grant vetoed a bill protecting the buffalo from extinction. Advice from his Secretary of War said that to get rid of the buffalo was to get rid of the Indian problem. By 1910 sixty-million buffalo had been senselessly slaughtered until only 500 animals remained. The culture that depended on buffalo was near extinction also.
Today we have a very proud people living on the land that are as dependent upon corn as the Native Americans were upon the buffalo. Our babies use diapers that have corn products in them to aid absorption. Their infant formula contains corn syrup. Corn products are in our building materials, textiles, plastics and food. We can't imagine life without corn, yet it is just as vulnerable as the buffalo. Oddly, it seems government policy is again being used to oil the monoculture treadmill. Subsidy payments work to eventually decrease the value of corn and thus decrease the number of people on the land.
So while Dad goes off on his tractor to chisel plow, field cultivate and plant corn and soybeans my kids are raising antibiotic-free, hormone-free pastured poultry. They are going to participate in their first farmers' market this summer. The kids are learning about regulations, liability and bookkeeping as well as how to raise chickens and grind feed. They also talked their dad into not using hormones or antibiotics on his beef cattle this year. Now we are scrambling for a market to get rid of 35 "value-added" critters. As my son says, "A chicken is a nice compact unit, but you have lots more selling to do when you try to get rid of an entire beef." When the kids can capture a market and make it cash flow with a better profit margin than Dad, he won't fight change.
I hope I can be a fly on the wallpaper in 20 years when they reflect back on this part of their lives. What lessons are they learning? Surely diplomacy, as they learn the value of different farming systems and discover how they can work together. Hopefully, they will know how to be team players while closely evaluating which game they are going to be involved in. Mostly, I hope they learn how to work hard but instead choose to work smart. When you work smart you will have time to live a balanced life with a variety of activities and interests and not be stuck on a treadmill.
LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny, Iowa, is a farmwife and co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa. LaVon is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, a national fellowship program designed to educate consumers and policymakers on the challenges associated with sustaining family farms and food systems that are environmentally sound, health promoting and locally owned. The fellowship is funded through the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.