Farming and Food Part 4


I worked for my dad until about 1960 when his health began to fail and he had to stop farming and rented it out, eventually selling it around 1963 or 1964. Meantime I began working in construction. 

As years moved on, I was removed from the farm scene and lost track of what was happening. I do recall, however, the farming boom in the seventies when farmers were buying newer and bigger machinery, more land when they could get it, and even airplanes. High grain prices apparently spurred the boom, which came to bust in the early eighties when prices suddenly dropped. Many farmers were leveraged to the hilt from borrowing for machinery and land as well as extravagances such as airplanes. Land prices fell, foreclosures were abundant, there were farm sales every Saturday where you could buy a $50,000 piece of machinery for pennies on the dollar. 

It wasn’t until the mid-nineteen eighties when I began teaching design at Iowa State University, a Land Grant University specializing in arts and sciences including agriculture, that I began to see what was happening.

The few farmers that had made it through the early eighties downturn had bought more land at cheap prices. Corporations and millionaires were buying land for tax shelters. Bigger, larger farms made small farms a thing of the past. Enter Monsanto, Cargill, DeKalb, and other seed and fertilizer giants who convinced the farm community about mono-culture farming, aka corn and soybeans, through the use of their seed, fertilizers, and pesticides which caused the once fertile soil to become lifeless by itself and could only produce crop yields by using the now ‘patented’ seeds and the accompanying fertilizers and pesticides. It became a racket that sucked farmers into the game and once in, it was difficult if not impossible to get out. Local landowners again had large loans for the land and giant machinery to farm 1000 acres, which was now considered a small farm. Distant investors wanted a return on the land they had bought and were renting out for more acreage for the locals. Sort of like the song, Hotel California. Once you were there you could never return. Sustainable was a thing of the past.

One final thought for this part, in the 1990s, someone donated a considerable amount of money to the Iowa State College of Agriculture with the stipulation that it be used to create the Aldo Leopold School of Sustainable Agriculture. (From Wikpedia: Aldo Leopold January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948) was an American author, philosopher, naturalist, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1949), which has sold more than two million copies.) 

As the story goes, the president of Monsanto called the ISU president letting him know that if this sustainable agriculture school moved forward, all Monsanto research funds would be immediately pulled. With the amount of research funding from Big Ag Corporations, the school of sustainable agriculture never happened. It goes to show the control large corporations exercise over research facilities such as Iowa State and how they skew research to meet their needs. Sustainable farming was not one of them.

Next, Our food today . . .

Food and Farming Part 3


Part 2, Farming & Food

Somewhere in the 1950s, I remember my dad installing attachments to the corn planter, round canisters similar to but larger than the canisters that held the seed corn, in order to apply fertilizer to the soil as the corn was planted. These weren’t very big, as I recall, so there couldn’t have been a great amount used. What the fertilizer was, I have no idea, but the change had begun.

Also in the 1950s, my did began a beef finishing operation. This was a a small scale prelude to much larger finishing operations of today. This process involves bringing in steers (castrated males), usually yearlings, from free range grass ranches located in mainly Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming, into confinement pens where they are fed a diet mainly of corn and soy protein products to fatten them to increase the fat in the meat for better taste (as it was marketed to the consumers back then). Nowadays, steers are also fed copious amounts of antibiotics, to prevent disease because of confined crowding, along with growth hormones, obviously for quicker weight gain. Little do most consumers know what they are really consuming in their steaks. Humans today are consuming so much secondary antibiotics from their meats that when they might really need an antibiotic, it can be ineffective.

As my dad moved more and more into beef finishing, building more pens, the dairy cattle were sold, the chicken population was cut to serve only our needs, and the pigs were gone as well. Our system of crop rotation was changing to grow as much corn as we could. It was a slippery slope into synthetic fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide intense mono crop farming of today.

Most other farms in our neighborhood continues on with the older ways, but the die was cast and my dad only portended to future.

Next, moving forward into today’s farming practices . . .

Farming and Food Part 2


For the sake of brevity, I’m simply calling this further rant, “Farming and Food”.

I grew up on a 160 acre family farm in Iowa. My dad raised pigs, had chickens, milked dairy cows, and used work horses. We had one tractor. We butchered our own hogs, smoked our bacon and hams, and made our own sausages, which were great eating. Our chickens were for egg production, about 15 dozen a week which were sent into town the be sold in the grocery store. And, of course, many times we had a roasted chicken for Sunday dinner (after they had quit laying).

My mother had a big garden in which we had fresh veggies all summer and many things canned for our winter. We essentially raised all our own food. Of course we had to but some staples like flour, sugar, coffee, butter, etc. Every year my dad would buy a half of a beef from another farmer and it was butchered at a a local butcher shop that had large freezer units where we stored the meat frozen until we needed it as we did not have our own freezer until much later. 

All our crops of corn, hay, oats, and pasture were rotated. Animal manure was used for fertilizer. Our crops always flourished. We gave the soil time during rotations to regain what it may have lost in a previous crop, especially corn. We would plow the hay ground in order to plant corn, then disk the soil and corn stocks in for a crop of oats, followed by grass for hay and pasture. So all organic material was returned into the ground which both enriched the soil and added “tilth”.

Occasionally my dad had lime spread on the soil to help with ph balance, other than that no other fertilizers. I remember that dirt being rich and black, and it would crumble in your hands. 

This is what modern organic farming is about and we did it back then because that’s the way farming was done.

Next, changes . . .

The Awakening of Russell Henderson


Every Sunday, I try to post an excerpt from my novel, The Awakening of Russell Henderson. Here’s another. The book is available at http://www.amazon.com/author/edwardlehner.

“Karen, I’m sending you a plane ticket. Get on it and come out for a few weeks. I know things are slow with work right now, so take some time. Please. You are welcome here. Everyone knows what’s going on. We would love to have you. Please?”

“I don’t know. There’s too much, just too much to do.”

“What is there to do? Mom and Dad are out to lunch and no help. John’s taken the boys. You need time with people who will love and support you.”

“Thanks. Really, thanks. Let me think about it. Okay?”

“I’m getting a flight for you to San Francisco. It’s Sunday. I will try to get you a flight for Wednesday. Be on it. You don’t like wasting money. I’ll send you the details. See you Wednesday.”

“Russell — ”

“Get packing. Wednesday.” I clicked off and went online to get her a flight. I got her a business class flight leaving Cedar Rapids at 10:30 with a one hour layover in Denver. She would be in San Francisco at 2:30 on Wednesday. 

Present Day Farming and the Food Chain


After my previous post which covered my old family home and a rant on corporate farming practices, I feel inspired to share more of the fallacy of cheap food and the hidden costs on our society’s health.

I’ll begin talking about our soil and what I discovered first hand some thirty years ago. In 1990 my wife and I purchased 14 acres of central Iowa farmland, complete with an old homestead consisting of a decent barn and several out buildings. The house had burned down some years before. The farmstead occupied maybe three to four acres, the rest of the acres having been intensively farmed with corn and bean crops.

It was spring of 1991 when we started to put in fence for our llamas we were raising at the time. Digging the post holes, about three feet deep, I found not one living organism or, what we called soil tilth. A good soil with good tilth is full of earthworms and other soil type creatures, the soil would be filled with organic matter and would crumble in your hands which allowed for good percolation of the rain water. This soil was nothing but thick heavy muck that lacked any nutritious life whatsoever. The only way anything would grow would be by the application of copious amounts of fertilizer such as anhydrous ammonia. Any organisms had been eradicated by heavy use of pesticides.

That spring we planted a pasture grass seed which took hold and gave us our first hay crop later that summer. Needless to say, we did not use fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. I spent many hours walking that new grass chopping out weeds and thistles. We built a new house and moved there permanently later that year.

That first spring, when warmer weather came and it was time for flowers and such, we noticed that there were no flowers which were a main staple around farmsteads. Peonies were especially hardy, but there were none because, we guessed, by herbicide drift from the fields. The other thing we noticed was that there were no land critters so common in Iowa. We had a lot of big old trees, but no squirrels that would normally hang out in such trees. Also, there was the absence of songbirds. 

Over the years we continued to avoid using anything but organic methods to raise our grass and hay crops. Every year they flourished more. We grazed the llamas, alternating their pastures. While the grazed one, another would regain growth.

It was maybe five years later when I was relocating a fence and was again digging postholes that I noticed how the earth had changed over that time, how healthy the soil had become, now filled with earthworms and other rather ugly little underground critters. This soil crumbled in my hands. I was amazed at how that ground had recovered. I will also note, we had birds of all sorts, a few squirrels and some rabbits who now lived there. All in all the land had recovered.

Next, more about farming methods.