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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Learning to live at the heart of industrial agriculture

If you look at a map of the Corn Belt, as with the historical range of the tallgrass prairie, you will find Iowa right at the center, completely covered by a swath of corn agriculture that stretches from Nebraska to Ohio. When I went to the Community Food Security Conference in Des Moines last month, several people referred to our location as “the belly of the beast,” meaning that Iowa is at the heart of the industrial agriculture that most activists who were attending the conference opposed.

The cliché of this phrase aside, this sense of being at center of the problem you are trying to address I think lent a different feel to the conference than say, if it were in Madison, Wisconsin or Burlington, Vermont, both cities that are surrounded by organic agriculture. So what does it mean for us at Grinnell College to be in the “belly of the beast”?

First, I think it means something different to me than it does to the marketing staff at Grinnell College. I happened to find a short promotional poster booklet for the college in Burling Library last week. It has since disappeared, but a quick look through it gave me an interesting window into the approach of the people promoting the college. Like the ad at the Des Moines airport that falsely suggested the presence of wind turbines on campus, the promotional booklet appropriated and romanticized agriculture as a metaphor for the different activities and programs at the college—showing, for example, a swimming pool with swimmers and giant soybean pods in it and a child eating an ear of sweet corn in a corn field.

While these images may seem pretty innocuous or just plain ridiculous, I think they indicate a misguided appropriation of agriculture as a cheery metaphor for the Grinnell experience. It’s a problem because the agriculture they’re appropriating has been devastating to Iowa’s ecosystems and the health of its communities. I can understand the bind that the college is in—ignoring agriculture as part of Grinnell, which seems to have been the case in the past, is not a good approach either. But uncritically romanticizing it seems equally if not more problematic as a promotional strategy. In this context, using agriculture as a promotional tool seems akin to a college in Detroit using the manufacturing industry as a backdrop for its innovative approach to education. Agriculture is doing to Iowa in many ways what the demise of manufacturing is doing to Detroit.

So what is our role as a college in relation to industrial agriculture? For one, I think it is our responsibility to draw attention to the immediate problems that industrial agriculture is causing. One is the effect of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides saturating the ecosystem and affecting human health. Another is the unhealthy food system that is supported by industrial agriculture. Last is the depopulation of the countryside and the slow death of small towns. As farms get bigger, young people stop farming and growing corn and soybean ceases to be a viable livelihood except for the largest producers.

Sitting in the belly of the beast shouldn’t mean we have to disregard these problems altogether by ignoring them or by whitewashing them. It should mean that rather than appropriating agriculture out of context and changing its meaning to fit the status of the college, the college should use its resources and its knowledge to engage with agriculture in context and change its own status to fit with the place that Iowa has become. The Prairie Studies department, its internships and the classes that fall under its heading are all doing that, but the college itself remains largely out of place. I think the current tactics of promotion that the College uses is symptomatic of that.

I want to conclude by saying that I don’t think that I have a solution for the dilemmas raised in this article. It’s become more clear to me as an individual that what I want to do is engage with agriculture and be part of a revitalization of rural communities and the food system. But I’m not sure what exactly this will mean for the College. It is obvious that the dining hall will play a very important role in this and that it has the potential to do much more than it is doing now. A consumer as large as the dining hall can single-handedly put a lot of money back into the local economy and give a lot of local growers reason to increase their production. But what I’ve seen so far is a fundamental intransigence in the structure of Dining Services to having a sweeping vision and purpose. Prairie Studies has obviously already shown some of the possibilities of being meaningfully engaged in place. Other than that, I think there will need to be a general realignment of the curriculum, public programs and other aspects of the academic program and campus life if we ever want to this place to be the center of something very challenging and momentous.

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