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‘Iowaroma’: more than just fecal matter

For Grinnell College students and many Iowans, the looming food crisis encroaches ever so often in a manner that would compel anyone to pinch their nose and survey their surroundings for the source for a familiar repugnant odor. The “Iowaroma,” is one symptom of a food production system that is being described as “on the edge of disaster.” This week, the College’s Center for Prairie Studies, in conjunction with the Joe Rosenfield Program, hosted a three day symposium entitled “How Will the Midwest Survive? Visions for the Future” to discuss this smelly food crisis.
On most warm evenings, 5 p.m. evening winds carry with them a reminder that this college rests deep in the heart of the most productive agricultural land on earth. Land that because of its fertility has been taken advantage of and abused. The “downwind of death” scents that wash over Noyce and ARH are one harsh reminder that while Iowa supplies more food than any other, this production system comes at a price. According to the speakers of this week’s symposium, if we don’t reconsider how we treat the soil that sustains people the world over, it may give up on us.
Francis Thicke, author, farmer, scientist and keynote speaker of the first event of the symposium, hit home for many students when he explained that the “Iowaroma” so common to Grinnell is not so innocent as farmers fertilizing their fields. As part of the intensive, indoor hog production systems that now surround the town, holding tanks that contain up to 400,000 gallons of hog manure sit and belch their aroma for up to six months at a time.
Yet manure lagoons did not dominate his discussion. Dr. Thicke’s talk focused on the three major problems in agriculture today (the three themes). The same three themes make up the three components of his book, “A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture.”
The U.S. energy dilemma, environmental degradation and the detriments of corporate agriculture were the common currents in all of the talks. To confront these problems Dr. Thicke’s discussion introduced practical solutions, both historical and others that he studied or implemented.
Perhaps the most interesting was the process of pyrolysis, which Dr. Thicke defined as, “the heating of biomass in the absence of oxygen to produce combustible gas and liquid fuel. Half a million cars ran on pyrolysis during World War II amidst a fuel shortage.”
More than a hundred cars and tractors utilize the pyrolysis technology around the country and the market for converting gasoline-powered machinery to machinery that runs on biomass is becoming increasingly competitive.

One student, and son of well-known “farmer Naylor” from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, reiterated a tone of the symposium but based his comments on personal experience.

“You want to know one way industrial agriculture has destroyed the land,” said Dylan Naylor ’13. “You see these vast cornfields on either side of the highway and realize that they are all just one plant or another, and there used to be plenty of species all over. Now there’s just corn or soybeans out there because we spray the fields with herbicides to kill all the other species.”
Beyond the problem of monoculture, the meat processing aspect of corporate agriculture entered the discussion in the second day of the symposium.
On Wednesday in ARH 102 a film was shown entitled “A Little Salsa on the Prairie.” The film documents a drastic change in the ethnic composition of Perry, Iowa. In the early ’90s only 47 Latinos lived in the town, but by 2007 the town was almost 25 percent Latino. The Tyson meat packing plant attracted a mostly Spanish-speaking workforce from as far as Central America.
The film featured one interview where Latin-Americans were described as “suspicious” and displayed some of the Perry community’s resistance to the changing demographics. Members of the Grinnell community, like Theatre Professor Emeritus Sandy Moffett, embraced the demographic change, but attempted to implement a model to counter the trend of industrial agriculture. His farm sells grass fed beef to the Phoenix Café in Grinnell, and a number of other buyers.
“I have been farming for 10 or 12 years consistently, but off-and-on for much longer than that,” said Professor Moffett. “It’s an ‘avocation’ with me and not a vocation. Mostly I’ve been interested in prairie restoration and conservation more than strictly farming, and I sell my products to whoever wants grass-fed beef.”
On Thursday afternoon in JRC 101, Jay Walljasper, a contributing editor to the National Geographic Traveler, offered an alternative solution to the impending food crisis. He suggested an idea targeting the ever growing field of cooperative agriculture called “the commons.” After expected silence from the audience, he prompted the crowd to define for themselves what “the commons” are exactly. Though an ancient form of societal cooperation, this term has little meaning in today’s average vocabulary. Walljasper offered his interpretation.
“Community ownership is a good model since land is a resource in which everybody has stake,” said Walljasper. “So I can get out of town safely—we are not talking about collectivizing the land like Soviet Union because that was an abject disaster.”
Speakers and audience members at the symposium hinted at the need for a communal project.
“The problem is corporate agriculture, or maybe attitude—the common perception is that our problems are too big to solve,” Moffett said.
According to Naylor, for the Midwest to survive, everyone involved needs to come together. He urged people not to solely blame farmers.
“It’s not the case that farmers are oblivious to how their methods harm the land, it’s just that feeding your family is more important,” Naylor said. “The system does not give farmers much of a choice but to exploit the land to squeeze it for dollars.

Farming is the lifeblood of Iowa. From both an economical as well as cultural perspective, farmers have raised this state from swampland and prairies to the most productive agricultural ground in the world. However these resources have ultimately been lost, due to abuse by the modern agricultural system. According to every scholar, farmer and writer and activist who shared their perspectives and work this week, if we are to preserve the agricultural resources that the Midwest has left to offer, American citizens need to engage nothing short of an agricultural revolution.

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  • M

    Marcus EaganMay 4, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Thank you sir.

  • D

    D CapersNov 11, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Well, Mr. Marcus this was an interesting story about the community and capitalism.