Show of Hands

Here in the heart of agriculture, the issues of farming are vital. Each day, there's a growing sense of urgency. 

We started out at Rock Valley High School- which is in Sioux County, the county in America that produces more meat than any other. When we asked by show of hands how many were farmers or grew up on a farm- every hand out of a hundred went up- except two or three.

During the film, I leaned over and asked AgEd instructor Micah Weber what the main types of farms in the area are- usually an area will have just hogs, or just egg-laying hens. It's rare that a region has more than one or two of these areas of concentration. Micah responded with---broilers, cattle feedlots, hogs, and dairy-- and they've also got slaughter houses. The only segments they are light on is egg-laying hens (where eggs are laid) and cow-calf operations (where calves are born before going to the feedlot). The operations in Sioux County are conventional. 

It was a really cold morning, and I got the sense that the kids and the adults- myself included- were still a bit dazed from getting out of bed and into the biting wind of a 9 degree morning. The conversations were a bit monosyllabic, and generally folks tried to reach an answer with as few words as possible. When we opened up for questions- one young woman asked the question that is burning in every young person who wants to farm in Iowa- and elsewhere- how are we going to get land? One of the young farmers mentioned that his father recently bought acreage at $10,000 per acre, and not far from there acreage had just sold for $20,000 per acre. For those not up on Iowa land prices, this is high. Very very high. And you can imagine, that a 17 year old who wants to farm in the heart of farm country would be very frustrated. I gave as uplifting a response as possible- that there are new websites underway, one that is thinking about being named eFarmony, that would match aspiring farmers with land in Pennsylvania. And that there's also a guy in Boulder, CO who got his neighbors to let him use their land...  as cool as these ideas are, they aren't tangible solutions. The ugly answer right now is that we don't know how to get land in the hands of young farmers. 

But there's reason to be optimistic, too. The two conventional hog farmers on the panel in Rock Valley said that we all have to sit down at the table together, and figure these challenges out. There's positive things from each type of production we can use that will help us build something better. After a couple questions, we called it a morning. The sun was peeking out, the ice on the windshield thawing and we jumped on 18 East for Spencer.


Spencer is a big town with broad streets, big houses and a healthy vibrant downtown.

We got in half an hour before one, and were greeted by lots of kids in sleek black FFA shirts with blue letters. Keaton Hildreth- the Ag Ed instructor- greeted us, and we talked about the best way to structure the screening. Because we had a little extra time- from 1-3:25pm- we decided that we would stop the film at the end of each section and discuss the issues. We decided to break the 80 students into 8 groups of 10, with community members joining each of the groups. It's a challenge in a large auditorium to have a conversation because all the seats are facing forward, so kids often awkwardly pivot or sit on the armrests of chairs. Farmers stand to face the group as they talked to the students.

A bright energetic young farmer named Cassie- more on her later- introduced the film, and people munched on the complimentary popcorn and sipped gatorade as we pressed play.

With the weather warming, and the juices flowing from lunch, the conversations in the afternoon were much more engaged. Students and community members both were quick to share opinions- agreements and disagreements. We bounced around, recording conversations, and listening as people talked about the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of production highlighted in the film. One conventional hog farmer mentioned that he had recently borrowed $750,000 for a state-of-the-art hog barn. 

After the third question and answer session in small groups, three of us, myself and Greg- a conventional hog farmer- and another fellow who's name escapes me- a towering man with huge farm-strong hands, stood up in front of the auditorium. Greg's son asked the first question, one about whether setting up a CSA- a distribution model highlighted in the film- could ever be sustainable in Spencer. To get an idea of the feasibility, Greg asked the audience of 80 kids- by show of hands- how many of them would be willing to work on a grass-based farm if there was land available and a job this summer. What happened next was a defining moment so far on this trip. Nearly every hand in the audience went up. My heart soared. Here we are in a room full of FFA members, and they are all eager to get out onto land and start farming, like the generations before them have. They want to farm any way they can, and perhaps, because of the lower upfront costs, they want to try raising broilers on some pasture this summer. It's an inspiring thing to witness. To feel. 

We've got the people, we've got the will. Soon we'll find the way.  

After the discussion, the discussion kept going. About ten of us- old and young and in between- talked about issues that were brought up in the documentary, and about the challenges farmers face. Cassie- the one who intro'd the film- talked about how she raises hogs and has them slaughtered at a local locker, selling the pork directly to customers so that she can keep the entire dollar spent. As she talked, you could see the pride in the community members standing around. Bright young farmers like Cassie are going to lead the way into the next agriculture, bridging the generational gap. Young farmers Ethan and Patrick also stayed until the end, so excited to farm, and to share their knowledge. 

We took a couple extra bags of popcorn as we said goodbyes and thank yous and headed out to Pizza Ranch for dinner.

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published this page in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:11:37 -0400