American agriculture is changing fast — and Grinnellians are in the thick of it.
It’s an old saw: There are more cows than people in Iowa.
(And hogs. And chickens. And ears of corn.)
But though we spend four years surrounded by some of the richest farmland on earth, we Grinnellians are generally strangers to Iowa agriculture.
Few of us venture into a cornfield or understand how a combine works.
Yet Grinnell now ranks eighth nationwide, among all colleges and universities, in per capita graduates pursuing Ph.D.s in agricultural science.
That’s ahead of Iowa State (ranked No. 9), and Texas A&M (ranked No. 11).
Jon Andelson ’70, professor of anthropology and director of Grinnell’s Center for Prairie Studies, has recently noticed a spike in student interest in agriculture. It’s not the first time. “In the late ’70s when the shift toward industrial agriculture was beginning to become apparent, six of 12 students in my class on ecological anthropology went on to become farmers,” he remembers.
Then and now, says Andelson, “I think many Grinnellians in agriculture are motivated by ethical concerns.”
If that’s true, U.S. agriculture offers much to consider: Economic, ecologic, and health worries abound. We are quickly becoming a nation of larger and fewer farms — a production agriculture reliant on technology, chemical inputs, and genetically modified crops. There’s also a blossoming alternative movement characterized by community-supported agriculture, organic farming, and a resurgence of community food cooperatives.
The issues are far from clear-cut; many of agriculture’s largest environmental gains come not from small organic plots, but from more efficient production farming. Vast tracts of land require fewer fuel and chemical inputs and experience less erosion than in decades past.
And while some see the organic movement as humanity’s last best hope to feed itself, others fear its products will become boutique commodities that only the wealthy can afford.
But conventional or alternative, the agricultural sector lends itself to consumer authority. Although agricultural workers can offer options, it is the rest of us — voting with our mouths and wallets — who ultimately will determine the course of American agriculture.
Over the past few months, I spoke with Grinnellian farmers, food policy experts, food co-op organizers, consumer advocates, food justice workers, and urban agriculture pioneers. They were, to a person, thoughtful and passionate about their views and work. Through our conversations, three themes emerged: increasing consolidation and entry barriers for young farmers; the growing choice between conventionally farmed and organic products; and the role of the consumer in determining farming’s future.
What emerged is a fascinating picture of American agriculture at a turning point.
Matt Moreland ’90 and Lisa Laue Moreland ’87
South Haven, Kansas
Farm: 7,000 acres
Produces: winter wheat, soybeans, corn, 100 head of beef cattle
“Twenty years ago, 1,000 acres was big. Fifteen hundred acres is now average.”
An aspiring production farmer must be born into the sector or truck a mountain of debt behind, easily sinking $1 million into start-up costs. So as a generation retires — the average American farmer is around 60 years old — it tends to turn the land over to other incumbent farmers. The upshot: ever-swelling farm sizes.
Not surprisingly then, the Grinnellians I talked to with the largest farms started with family land. Matt Moreland ’90 and his wife Lisa Laue Moreland ’87 have seen the size shift acutely in two decades of farming on the Kansas/Oklahoma state line. “Twenty years ago, 1,000 acres was big,” Matt Moreland says. “Fifteen hundred acres is now average.” His parents, both high school math teachers, owned a few hundred acres of farmland. Moreland began renting 640 acres from his grandmother during his second year at Grinnell.
Since then, the proportion of land that farmers own outright has dropped significantly. Moreland’s family owns less than a quarter of the land they farm, which is spread over 40 miles and owned by a combination of investors (including one in Seattle for whom Moreland farms 320 acres) and families who no longer farm their own land. “People want to keep their family plots going,” he says. “It’s a great honor when someone’s retiring and the family wants you to farm that land.”
That’s good, Moreland says, as efficiencies of scale allow him to farm more land with a much smaller carbon footprint than in decades past.
Suzanne Castello ’87
Farms: 500 acres
Produces: hogs, sheep, cattle, chickens
“There’s going to be a shake-up, and … great opportunities for new farmers. It’s a race against time, to get enough people in the wings.”
Suzanne Castello ’87 fell in love with farming during a college job on a dairy. Even while she earned a master’s in economics from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the northern California native worked summers at an organic produce farm in northeastern Iowa. She returned to Iowa permanently in 2004 and has since raised cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens at Grinnell’s B&B Farms with her husband, Barney Bahrenfuse. When she decided to return to Iowa, she made cold calls until she found someone who would hire her to milk cows and teach her to raise hogs. “There’s a very steep learning curve,” she says.
Castello later married Bahrenfuse, who already had a livestock operation — but she adds that had she not married into farming, it would have taken much longer to get started. She says start-up costs hurt a sector that has already lost too many young farmers. During the boom time of the ’70s, banks pushed variable-interest loans on farmers, while “get big or get out” became the maxim. A decade later, when the land bubble burst and interest rates skyrocketed, many independent farms collapsed under their debt load. “We lost a whole generation,” Castello explains. “People told their kids to do anything but farm.” Livestock and produce prices crashed during a sweep of buyer consolidation in the ’90s, breaking another generation of small farmers.
Still, she sees hope: “I think the land bubble will burst again, and there’s going to be another shake-up. That’s going to bring great opportunities for new farmers. It’s a race against time, to get enough people in the wings who have saved up money for when it happens. What we need is for the stock market to go radically up and the price of corn to go radically down.” That would reduce the price of land and clear the market of investors and speculators so that farmers could afford to start small.
And those small farmers, Castello predicts, will be the new face of farming. “The people who are able to be innovators are people who don’t know it isn’t possible,” she says. “Going to Grinnell gave me the tools to take this on.”
Jordan Scheibel ’10
Farms: ½ acre
Produces: market produce
“I don’t think the industrial system can be maintained … There’s space for alternatives.”
Jordan Scheibel ’10 is in the first year of his own operation, Middle Way Farm, on a half acre he leases outside Grinnell. He says starting small isn’t impossible — but it requires creativity and persistence.
“In the local foods movement in Iowa, there seem to be two paths to getting started. One is the high-debt, fast-growth path, where people try to get up to a certain scale to make a full-time living from it,” he explains. “Then there’s the slow-growth, low-debt model, where you start small and build incrementally.”
To help build his business, Scheibel’s resources include a loan from the College’s student-run microloan nonprofit, Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell; volunteer help from Grin City Collective artist residency, a program with which he shares space and buildings; a part-time job at Iowa Valley Community College; and mentorship through Practical Farmers of Iowa, an organization dedicated to facilitating farmer-to-farmer learning and farmer-led research.
This season, Scheibel is running his own small but thriving community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. CSA members pay a fee for periodic boxes of fresh produce, allowing consumers to buy directly from farmers. “I decided I would create a pay-as-you-go system,” he explains, instead of the standard CSA practice of charging shareholders an upfront price. He says it’s been a popular innovation with his customers.
Scheibel hadn’t encountered much agriculture before Grinnell. “There aren’t many farmers left in Connecticut,” he says about his home state. As a student and new alum, he “became enamored with the process” while working for Grinnell Heritage Farm, another CSA and pillar of the local farming community.
Scheibel has a challenging row to hoe. Still, he predicts small, niche operations such as his will multiply. “I don’t think the industrial system can be maintained,” he says. “One of the best classes I took at Grinnell was U.S. Environmental History with assistant professor of history Michael Guenther. Being able to put industrial agriculture in a historical context, I began to see that it’s not inevitable. There’s space for alternatives. I have a lot in common with older people, who grew up when everyone had a diverse farm.”
Agriculture at a Crossroads
Jay Feldman ’75
Specialty: organic policy and public education
“Organic practices are much more capable of feeding the world. The question is: Will that happen in time?”
Jay Feldman ’75 is co-founder and executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a D.C.-based nonprofit that educates the public on pesticide use and works to effect organic policy change. He helped draft the original Organic Foods Production Act and is currently serving a five-year term on the National Organic Standards Board, a committee appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to review acceptable organic materials and advise on federal organic policy.
Feldman says organic production is the future of agriculture. He lays out his case against herbicide-dependent farming and genetically modified crops with intense, clear-eyed directness. “There’s still the GMO [genetically modified organism] locomotive, which is the old mindset of chemical dependency. But we’ve exhausted Roundup Ready and herbicide crops, because of weed resistance,” he says, referring to Monsanto’s controversial, genetically modified seed line.
“We are talking about the increase of 2,4-D, a chemical that was 50 percent of Agent Orange,” and is a widely used herbicide, he says. “Those farm models are outmoded. This so-called new technology is going down the same path; it’s the same train that is heading for a collision course with humanity.”
Like Scheibel, Feldman predicts a growing presence for organic agriculture in the sector. “We’re at peak conventional farming right now; it’s on a downward spiral. I think organic will become mainstream agriculture. If we are to survive as a planet, it has to. Organic practices are much more capable of feeding the world. The question is: Will that happen in time?”
• • •
But for many conventional farmers, the issue isn’t so clear-cut. Matt Moreland points out that staggering progress in farming technology has drastically diminished the environmental impact of large operations such as his. GPS technology built into modern combines and tractors pinpoints exactly how much each area of land produces and precisely how much fertilizer it needs, significantly reducing the amount of chemicals used. And no-till farming eliminates plowing the soil, which cuts down on erosion and energy consumption. “We use less than a quarter of the diesel fuel we used to,” he says. He also practices crop rotation to improve soil quality and weed control, allowing him to further decrease his chemical usage.
He wants people to know that farming can be ecologically responsible without being organic. “Organic is a nice thought, but no-till works for me economically. It’s going to be economics that makes me change.
“If there were enough demand for organically grown wheat,” he adds, “I’d grow it.”
Elizabeth Archerd ’76
Specialty: food co-op membership and marketing
“We’re doing this experiment on the whole globe. It’s not the wheat our grandparents ate, and we don’t really know what we did to it.”
The demand for organic may not have grown enough to draw large operators like Moreland, but Elizabeth Archerd ’76 has noticed a dramatic shift in public consciousness during her 30-plus years in the Minneapolis food co-op world. Archerd is director of community relations at Wedge Co-op, which turns 39 years old this fall. With 15,600 active members (each owns eight shares of the business), Wedge was the first retailer of certified organic meat and seafood in the United States and the first certified organic retailer in Minnesota.
Back in 1974, Archerd says, “Health authorities were pretty hostile to the health food movement; they dismissed granola as fatty. People thought we were downright communist.”
Wedge was a food source for people who distrusted mainstream agriculture. “There were always people resisting highly processed food. There was this small number of vibrant, straight-backed elderly people; they would come in and say, ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’” Archerd says. Co-ops such as Wedge also opened doors for the burgeoning organic movement. “Organic farmers were able to expand because they had outlets like Wedge that said ‘bring whatever you can grow.’ No one was saying we were going to build the perfect world, but people brought the energy as if that was their motivation.”
Today, she says, the movement, “has reached critical mass. We started as the city weirdos. Now people flood in to ask, ‘What do I do?’ It’s not a left/right thing. There are people on the more traditionally conservative side who see co-ops being as American as a barn-raising. They don’t trust big food any more than they trust big government.”
Echoing Jay Feldman, Archerd says agriculture and the planet don’t have time to spare. “No one has ever eaten this ultra-processed food in human history. We’re doing this experiment on the whole globe. It’s not the wheat our grandparents ate, and we don’t really know what we did to it,” she says. “People don’t trust what’s out there. They want assurance that this is something they’d want to feed their children.
“Wedge is more than just a grocery store. It’s carrying all these hopes people have.”
Corey McIntosh ’00
Missouri Valley, Iowa
Farms: 4,000 acres
Produces: corn, soybeans
“I think the world is going to need a healthy, collaborative mix of production agriculture and smaller-scale organic.”
Corey McIntosh ’00 is a sixth-generation farmer in Missouri Valley, Iowa, just east of the Nebraska state line. (His wife Tina Popson ’97 runs an environmental education program in the area). A classics major at Grinnell, McIntosh didn’t intend to return to the family farm until a year abroad in Athens, Greece, made him realize how much he missed the open spaces of his childhood. He now farms with his father and uncle. After they retire, he’ll manage the operation solo.
Like Matt Moreland, consolidation and rented land have helped McIntosh nearly double his farm’s size. He rotates his crops (corn and soybeans), keeps tillage to a minimum, and sees the debate between production and organic farming as less than cut-and-dried.
“For all the debate and controversy over GMOs, there are some definite benefits if the technology is used responsibly,” he says. “It has greatly reduced the exposure of farmers to dangerous chemicals. You can target certain detrimental pests and avoid blanket insecticide treatments.”
The region currently does not accommodate alternative methods well, he adds. “When I came back from Grinnell, I had hopes of steering our operation in alternative directions,” he says. “But there’s no infrastructure to do it on a large scale. The infrastructure is in place to grow corn and soybeans efficiently.”
McIntosh incorporates conservation and sustainability where he can, but doesn’t see traditional farming going away anytime soon. “I think the world is going to need a healthy, collaborative mix of production agriculture and smaller-scale organic,” he says. “I think the larger farms will continue to grow; and as that happens, it will allow more room for smaller, more specialized operations to crop up. I’m seeing more CSAs, and those adaptable, niche organizations are filling a need.”
Growing organic produce in regions such as Moreland’s and McIntosh’s is further complicated by agreements between grain states and produce states; federal subsidies only go to farmers growing the crops allotted to their state. That often leaves organic production up to small, nonsubsidized, niche operations.
Consumers Will Decide
Ali Wade Benjamin ’92
Specialty: writing, blogging, community activism
“You don’t need to convince everybody; you just need to convince enough that the companies hear them. As soon as they change, everything changes.”
Both production farmers and organic activists agree that consumers, not farmers, will decide the future of American agriculture. Ali Wade Benjamin ’92 is a writer in Williamstown, Mass. Friendly and approachable, she’s passionate about food issues without being dogmatic. Last year, she published The Cleaner Plate Club, a guide for parents struggling to find healthful meals their children will actually eat. She also was the lead researcher and casting director for an Emmy-winning Sesame Street special on food insecurity in the United States.
For Benjamin, helping consumers engage with agriculture in practical ways is a vital component for change in the agricultural sector. Upon moving to Williamstown — home to many family farms — she says, “I had these ideals; and then, particularly as my daughter got older, I found them bumping against the reality of modern family life. There was a lot I didn’t know. I’d get these bags of vegetables from the CSA that were so beautiful, and there are no directions; it’s not coming out of a box.”
When consumers are able to connect with food issues, they wield a powerful voice. For example, Benjamin explains that a few years ago, consumer opposition to rBST — recombinant bovine somatotropin, a hormone that increases milk production — led to a revolution in the milk industry. First boutique dairies, then Ben & Jerry’s, and finally Wal-Mart Stores, bowed to consumer voices to eliminate the hormone. “It was totally consumer pressure, and almost overnight,” Benjamin says. “It doesn’t take that many consumers — you don’t need to convince everybody; you just need to convince enough that the companies hear them. As soon as they change, everything changes.”
• • •
In his policy work with Beyond Pesticides, Jay Feldman sees local consumers as the heart of the organic movement, even at the federal level. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 “requires a level of involvement from the local community and environmentalists that you don’t see in other areas of government,” he says.
So “it is a tenuous movement, reliant on some degree of consumer trust. Consumers are digging deep into their pockets to support a system of agriculture they believe is verifiable and is adhering to relatively high standards,” Feldman says.
The key, he adds, is showing people that digging deep translates into lower costs in the long run. “We pay more as taxpayers if we are buying into the chemical-intensive system, because we’re paying for cleanup of our waterways; we’re paying through lost workdays and increased hospitalizations and health care costs; we’re paying in terms of production costs and lost pollinators,” he says. “All these things are secondary costs associated with chemical-intensive agricultural production. What we don’t pay at the grocery store, we pay as taxpayers.”
Higher costs at the store may mean lower taxes overall, but many Americans cannot afford to pay those costs up front. Agriculture may be changing— but for whose good?
Benjamin says as organic food becomes trendier and more expensive, issues of accessibility need action now. “If we don’t focus on feeding all families equitably and healthfully, then the sustainable food movement risks becoming a caricature, with rich people eating food that others can’t afford,” she says. “We shouldn’t have two food systems, one for people who can afford to eat healthfully and one for everybody else.”
Benjamin has worked with Williams College students to improve accessibility to nutritious, low-processed food. One student suggested making packages of healthful food that come with instructions, “like soup in a bag,” to help people learn how to manage a new kind of cooking. She also worked with students on a proposal to double the value of SNAP dollars (Massachusetts’ food stamp program) used at the farmer’s market. Young people, she says, have local food “deeply embedded in their mindset.”
Benjamin, who grew up in suburban New York City, says her agricultural awareness began with her first visit to Grinnell. “I remember this kid saying, ‘It’s crazy, there are real farms here!’ I had never thought about it before.”
Even more important, she says, were professors who helped shape her vision of the possibilities for the world around her. “My adviser was Jon Andelson. He is an idealist, and I hadn’t met too many idealists before Grinnell. I knew a lot of cynics,” Benjamin says. “It was lovely, to think intensely about why we have the world we have — and what world we want.”
Farmer Jim Riddle ’78 makes the case for federal certification
“Organic is working with nature and understanding nature, rather than thinking we can control it,” says organic fruit farmer Jim Riddle ’78. Riddle has dedicated his career to organic agriculture. He and his wife, Joyce Ford, manage Blue Fruit Farm in Winona, Minn., and last year won a national sustainability award from the Ecological Farming Association.
Riddle also helps create organic standards nationally and worldwide. He was founding chair of the International Organic Inspectors Association 1991–98, and served on the USDA National Organic Standards Board 2001–06. He also helped engineer a Minnesota cost-share program that reimburses organic farmers for 75 percent of the certification costs; the program was later included in the 2002 national farm bill. “That’s probably the political accomplishment I’m most proud of,” he says, despite frustration that the program lost funding in the current farm bill extension. Currently, Riddle is working with Minnesota legislators on a bill to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
“We’ve created quite a bureaucracy to verify that organic is authentic,” he says. “But having federal organic standards has facilitated growth, research, consumer confidence, and investor confidence.”
In addition to farming, Riddle works as organic research grants coordinator for Ceres Trust of Milwaukee, which distributes more than $2 million per year for organic research in the north central region of the U.S..
Requirements for certification by the USDA National Organic Standards Board:
- Operation is free of prohibited materials for three years.
- Completed paperwork explaining crop rotation, inputs, sources of seeds, manner of harvest, pest control, conservation practices, and more.
- Inspection, then approval, by a certification agency regulated by USDA
Angela Bishop Baker ’01 and Casey Baker ’98 open doors to food accessibility.
Salt of the Earth Urban Farm sits on a quarter acre in northeast Portland, Ore., teeming with fruit trees, chickens, ducks, and thickly planted bushes and vegetables. Angela Bishop Baker ’01 and husband Casey Baker ’98 have lived there since 2009, when they leased their land-trust home for 99 years in exchange for farming it.
They’ve turned their yard into a vibrant permaculture that grows 1,500 pounds of produce annually for Birch Community Services, a local gleaners’ organization that serves low-income families.
Bishop Baker also runs free gardening workshops to teach low-income families how to produce their own food. She surveys the community-service clients about what skills they’d like to learn and plans workshops accordingly. “Tuition” for a two-hour workshop is an hour of volunteer work in the garden; local restaurants provide a free lunch. “Permaculture mimics natural systems,” she says. “There are no straight rows. We encourage wildlife. The garden is extremely biodiverse, which means it’s less susceptible to disease. There is something planted in every inch. Our trees and berries make us carbon neutral. We care for the Earth, care for the people, and share the surplus.”
Agriculture on Campus
Grinnell’s student garden and local foods co-op connects students with the community.
Nestled between two College-owned houses across the street from Younker Hall are nine vegetable beds, a greenhouse, a toolshed, and a brightly painted sign welcoming visitors to the campus garden. Since 1999, the plot has been a hands-on bridge between students and Iowa’s agricultural roots.
Ellen Pinnette ’15 was one of two student apprentices at the garden in the summer of 2012. She asked fellow students what to grow and hosted volunteer days so those summering in Grinnell could get acquainted with the garden and take home a few fresh vegetables. Extra produce goes to a town community meal, to a local foods buffet, and to Mid-Iowa Community Action, a nonprofit that serves low-income families.
There’s also a student-run local foods co-op that has been a growing force since it started in 2006, when Hart Ford-Hodges ’10 bought local Paul’s Grains in bulk and took orders out of her dorm room. It now includes nine coordinators — students, staff, and community members — and 11 local producers, all members of the Grinnell Area Local Foods Alliance (GALFA). Sarah Shaughnessy ’13, last year’s lead co-op coordinator and Pinnette’s fellow 2012 apprentice, says the co-op offers honey, grains, and baked goods in the off-seasons and is working toward meat and dairy licensing as well. “You’re in the middle of the prairie, surrounded by producers,” she says. “There’s a lot of opportunity.”
For more photos: Grinnell Farms