Storm Lake, Iowa--
Jim Gustafson was alone, save for his two old dogs and a cat, standing against an October breeze rustling the dry corn.
"I like it this way," he said, unloading a wagon of corn with an auger into a bin for drying. "Nobody's driving my equipment, confusing things, and I can go at my own pace."
Gustafson, 54, is used to it. He is the only Democrat on a five-member Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors. For the past 14 years he's been tilting at windmills in northwest Iowa.
There he stands -- farming 240 acres with wife, Mary, taking care of 60 sows farrowing on the pasture. There he sits -- railing in the board room against corporate agriculture that is setting Iowa on its ear.
Gustafson was the first elected official in Iowa to suggest an outright ban on any new livestock waste lagoons in the state. He has been among a handful of leaders statewide trying to make life more difficult for the big hog operations that are allowing manure to run into rivers and groundwater.
"Somebody has to stand up for the little guy. They're the ones who built this rural community," Gustafson said.
HIS GRANDDAD Charlie Gustafson came to Scott Township from Sweden when he was 3 years old in the late 19th century. He reared three boys on the profits from hogs, cattle, chicken and sheep.
The boys -- Leonard, Floyd and Bernie -- did as Charlie did. They farrowed hogs in A-frames while their boys chased pigs around the pasture. Floyd was the founder of Port-A-Hut, a small business that sells individual farrowing sheds to mostly small producers.
"All the families would get together in midsummer to do the pigs," Jim recalled. "We'd round 'em up and wean the pigs from the sows with a picket fence. There'd be two kids on a pig -- they'd be 15 to 40 pounds each -- and the vet would give them all their shots. Then we'd throw them in a dipping tank and the boars were castrated.
"By the time that hog walked out he thought he'd been through World War III. We had a great time doing it. It was one big donnybrook all day long."
Jim's engineer son, Tony, helps during the harvest when he can. But the days of families and neighbors working together are so much a part of reminiscence. Seven boys, ages 8-13, and four men would work. Jim says none of his children probably will farm.
Today, a farmer either has to work all day in a confinement building, pile up debt to farm thousands of acres, or get a job in town.
Gustafson took the job in town, at the courthouse. It pays about $16,000 a year.
HE BREAKS OFF an ear of Iowa gold -- No. 2 corn.
On those cool August evenings the corn borer moths were in flight. They leave their traces through the ear -- a hole that drives right to the stalk and makes the plant turn limp.
Off the road a mile down a farmer walked behind a huge red combine with a bucket, picking up the ears that were knocked down by the machine.
If it isn't corn borers it's gray leaf blight. Or pseudorabies. Or the Flood of '93. Or the Drought of '88. Or the Farm Crisis of '82-'88.
Each year, through each crisis, a few more farmers leave the land. Each farm and attendant machinery get a little bigger. Population in BV County dropped 5% in the 1980s. Now, the experts say, it's stagnant.
Back in the 1970s, when Gustafson was a hog buyer for Hygrade Foods in Storm Lake, the biggest producer of all topped at 300 sows. Most of the farmers had 50-60.
Then the confinements came, making the 50-sow herd look like a hobby farm, and the 300-sow operation just another small-timer.
In 1978, when Gustafson left Hygrade, fat hogs were fetching $48 per hundredweight. That's where they are now, and after last year's purging at $29 per hundredweight, pork producers here think happy days are back.
"In time, the small operations will be gone," Gustafson said. "Murphy (the biggest corporate outfit of all) can buy vet supplies for 25 cents, when I pay a buck."
WHEN THE BIG boys' lagoons started leaking -- 25 million gallons of putrid brown waste spewed into the New River of North Carolina -- the somnolent were aroused.
Iowa never was a hotbed for farmer organization. It is the foundation for the Farm Bureau and National Pork Producers Council, the Corn Growers and Pioneer Hi-Bred International. Iowa is agribusiness.
When Hygrade left Storm Lake in 1979 the town was despondent. The state did everything it could to attract revolutionary meatpacking giant IBP to the vacant plant. It allowed IBP to dump raw sewage into the 3,000 acre lake in emergencies. Of course, there were tax concessions, too, in return for IBP investing $26 million in the plant.
After 12 years in town, people are growing vocal about IBP and the large hog confinements that gather around it. In adjacent Sac County two weeks ago, the board of supervisors was barraged with 1,200 petitioners decrying plans by Iowa Select Farms to put up buildings housing 25,000 head of hogs on one site.
Gustafson, after years of talking alone, is finding company.
"You've got to try. You've got to try until the last independent farmer is gone," Gustafson said.
Yet he is a realist. He knows the NFO failed in its commodity holding attempts. He knows farmers don't stick together for long.
"Every time the price of pork or beef gets too high at the meat counter, there's a big stink, and then it dies down," Gustafson said. "Farmers have had this problem forever."
THINGS ARE LOOKING bright these days on the farm. Despite the corn borers, the crop is coming in at last year's record level and has dried well.
Northwest Iowa is the garden spot of the nation this year. And corn prices are up.
So it goes that farmers are lulled into complacency.
Not so Gustafson. He senses a fire starting that may last, because townsfolk are up in arms over the stink of big lagoon systems and the threat to their drinking supplies from leaks.
His political nemesis, State Rep. Russ Eddie, a Storm Lake Republican, is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Eddie co-authored legislation that sets a state standard under which large livestock operations can operate. It was labelled as an environmental bill because it requires producers to file waste management plans with the state.
Gustafson senses an opportunity.
One farmer at a hearing on the lagoon moratorium accused Gustafson of spreading a "smokescreen" to protect the small producer under the guise of environmental protection.
"I think House File 519 (Eddie's bill) is a smokescreen for the big corporations," he replied.
Then he goes off on "multi-million corporations" for not showing responsibility to the community. He is sounding like a campaigner.
After all, a farmer needs a job in town these days. A man has time to think about his prospects while standing alone watching an auger churn.
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST