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Economic development lies in agriculture, not away from it

Since I moved off campus in June I’ve started reading the Des Moines Register. Over the past six months I’ve gotten a sense of what passes for economic development in Iowa for the state government, and many municipal governments and citizens. One part of statewide economic development is offering tax credits to certain areas of industries such as renewable energy and scientific research.

Recently there was a scandal about the tax credit program for the TV and film industry. Before this scandal broke, the Register would often have pictures of movie sets or famous actors in Des Moines or around Iowa. It seemed to be pretty star-struck. After allegations that had been surfacing during the summer came out in September that filmmakers had misused tax credits to make personal purchases, like vehicles, and that public officials were complicit in allowing this to happen, the Register immediately started running front-page articles on the scandal. A number of Iowa politicians lined up to voice their indignation at the misuse of the tax credit by filmmakers. They did not, however, go so far as to note that giving tax credits to filmmaker in the name of “job creation,” is already a misuse of state tax revenue. It seems to me that most jobs created by a film would be low-paying and short term, which does not contribute to true economic development.

Another recent story in the Nov. 19 issue of the Register described how an underused Illinois prison, just over the Mississippi River from Clinton, Iowa, might become a federally run facility for Guantanamo Bay detainees. While many people have talked about the threat of terrorist attacks by bringing detainees onto American soil, the people of Clinton seem to be elated, overall, at the prospect of the jobs that would come with the prison becoming “Guantanamo North.”

I don’t blame people in economically depressed areas for wanting jobs of any kind to come into their area, but I can’t help but think that prisons are not sound economic development. Even if prison jobs appear to be “good” because of their salary and benefits, a prison is a terrible, corrosive working environment. What’s more, prison jobs invest people in maintaining their job security by supporting the current criminal justice system as a way of feeding prisons with a steady diet of criminals. To consider prisons as a legitimate source of job creation is indicative of how twisted and ethically bankrupt the concept of economic development has become.

The current mindset of economic development seems to be that agriculture is a dying industry, since it gets less profitable each year and fewer and fewer people are becoming or staying farmers. Agriculture has become simultaneously Iowa’s “proudest heritage” and the heritage it can’t wait to get away from. The prospects for attracting or keeping manufacturing jobs, which have become more important to Iowa’s economy than agriculture in the last 30 years, also seem to be bleak.

The proposed solution is to develop Iowa in some other direction, to make it attractive to investors and to bring it into the “21st century.” Sometimes this takes the form of short-term, unsustainable employment that ultimately benefit the already wealthy (i.e. film tax credits). At other times it takes the form of steady employment that provides livelihoods but, like prisons and maybe even Wal-Marts, offers no enhancement of community or individual’s lives.

What I want to propose here, as others already have proposed and are actively working on, is that Iowa reconsider the role that agriculture should play in a real and meaningful economic revitalization—building an economy in Iowa from the soil up. Rural Iowa is being depopulated as farms get bigger and farmers become fewer. There is an unprecedented opportunity to repopulate the countryside with small, diversified farms producing fruit, vegetables, grains, meat, eggs and dairy for local markets. Many of the components of this kind of economy are already in use—farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, grocery co-ops and farm-to-school programs that connect farmers to school food services.

There are already many farms and programs which show the possibilities of a new kind of economic development. Marshalltown Community College has started a program that gives new farmers access to land for a small rent, which is being heavily utilized by Hispanic immigrants. There is a farm in southern Iowa that combines prairie restoration with bison ranching; another in Laurel, Iowa (Paul’s Grains) that grows a variety of grains and mills its own flour. When I think of economic development, I think of these enterprises. It’s projects like these that attracts me to Iowa and make me believe that local agriculture holds the ability to change everything—not just the way we eat.

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  • R

    Ronald ScheibelDec 22, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Jordan – your article is informative and well-thought out. You write with a social conscience that offers deep insight into an a issue that needs long-term planning. The only real sustainable economic direction for a land with such a rich history of farming is to bring that profession into the next level of sustainability. The smaller farms with specialties offer an opportunity for grass-roots businesses to work a needed niche in the food chain without the overwhelming requirements of a huge farm to sustain. These smaller farms that you advocate can develop products that are unique in their own way and can’t be mass produced. This type of enterprise farm can subsequently develop distribution to smaller local and regional markets that support the long term financial health of the smaller enterprise farm. Ultimately, many smaller, financially successful farms employing local workers is an economically viable solution to the mass production farms that have become the norm in a state that always prided itself on it’s agricultural past.

    Excellent article.

    Dad

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