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Trying to Quell the Anger

As I sit in my office this morning with my three year old granddaughter playing in the other room while listening to Christmas music, I try to still the anger I feel towards industrial agri business and their mistreatment of the land. What will it take to stop this madness? What must I do to continue to fight  good fight? Are there new and different strategies to raise the issue of dwindling resources human and the land? Sometimes I just want to hide and hope that it will all go away, but in my heart I know that is not an option. I question whether I have worked hard enough but always wonder what more can I do? 

Lucy and friend Julia

Lucy and friend Julia

A recent Des Moines Register article http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20131205/BUSINESS01/312050037/Iowa-faces-an-anti-ag-attitude-problem?Frontpage&nclick_check=1 featured agri-business fear monger Jay Lehr ranted about Iowa citizens being anti-agriculture because they didn’t really understand how the rape and pillage of Iowa is necessary to feed the world.

Below is an op/ed piece that Linda Wells of Pesticide Action Network and I wrote in response to this corporate lackey’s nonsense. Linda and I were under the impression that this would be published but so far it has not appeared. Given that I am once again tardy on my blog post writing, I am using this piece we wrote.

Here is the op/ed piece:

Contrary to what Mr. Lehr is stating in his inflammatory remarks to the recent Iowa Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting, I believe I see an upsurge in Iowans appreciating Iowa agriculture but questioning the methods that dominate production agriculture. Iowans are concerned that agriculture has become so concentrated that it has had a negative impact on the quality of life for us. The fact that Iowans are questioning industrial agri business is healthy, it opens a dialog in order to make it possible to improve things better.

Iowans who question the industrial agribusiness approach aren’t under-informed or confused. In fact, many of them are farmers of all sizes, and they know quite a bit about biotechnology and agricultural chemicals. They know because they see the cost of seed rising with each new genetically engineered trait that’s introduced. They face pesticide drift that damages crops and brings hazardous chemicals into homes, schools, playgrounds, and backyards. They pay the price in taxpayer dollars, as public utilities filter more nitrates out of their drinking water. They see growing rates of autism, Parkinson’s, and cancer, all of which are linked to exposure to pesticides.

What Mr. Lehr is hearing are legitimate concerns about soil, air and water quality; conditions that continue to decline with a heavily based monoculture agriculture. Iowans are raising questions about what is good for Iowa. I have yet to hear that Iowa should not be an agricultural state.

Iowans understand very well that Iowa’s legacy is agriculture production, we also understand that over the last fifty years Iowa has become specialized in growing corn, soybeans, hogs and chickens. This specialization has come at a cost.

It seems to me when people like Lehr travel the country promoting industrial agri business their sole purpose is to polarize. Using this technique creates an environment of hostility and makes it virtually impossible to dialog to seek solutions. By the way, the Heartland Institute has a history of manipulating science research—like working with Big Tobacco to downplay the risks of secondhand smoke exposure.

Coming in for a landing

Coming in for a landing

Instead, more and more Iowans are setting their sights on a different kind of agriculture. It’s based on the belief that what’s good for the land is also better for farmers, farmworkers, consumers, and ecosystems. It’s about paying close attention to what’s happening on the farm and catching pest problems early. It relies on healthy soil, good seeds, and free-flowing information among farmers who learn from each others’ successes.

I couldn’t agree more with Farm Bureau President Craig Hill when he says that innovation can change our world. Innovation comes from farmers developing not just from corporate board rooms and laboratories. Many farmers are conducting their own on farm research with Practical Farmers of Iowa and some researchers from Iowa State University, University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa to develop better techniques for farming in a way that works with nature rather than dominating her. Cover crops is the current example of working to save our soil.

Perhaps Secretary of Agriculture Northey could make it a priority during his administration to bring together farmers of all sizes and practices with non-farmers to work on solutions to make Iowa a better place to live and work. Iowans are known for their hard work and commitment to problem solving, that is what has made our state great. There is a huge potential using science and technology to improve our land use practices. Let’s put our heads together, women and men, farmers and non farmers and move Iowa forward with creative thinking to develop new ideas for the future of our land and its people.

Wetland in Black Hawk County

Wetland in Black Hawk County


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Find, Frustrate, Fix

Three words that rule my life; find, frustrate, fix. Living on a farm that has been in the family for seven decades is a wonderful and interesting experience, especially if the last generation or two did not sort through and discard possessions and artifacts that were considered valuable.

A value that I have always admired was resourcefulness – utilizing what one has instead of running to the nearest shop and buying something new. The generation that lived through the depression has almost passed and those of us that grew up in times of plenty have an obligation to retain the value of resourcefulness as much as possible; not only retain it but practice it and pass that value on to the next generations.

An example of carrying resourcefulness to an extreme, in my opinion, is something that my dear father-in-law taught me while out making fence. He would pull the staples that attached the wire to the post to stretch the sagging wire. I remember clearly standing out in the field and watching him lay the staple on top of the fence post, taking the hammer and straightening out the staple in order to reuse it. He would do this when repairing machine sheds, chicken houses or whatever building needed a patch. This lesson has stuck with me for all my farming career – nearly forty years.

This brings me back to find, frustrate,fix. What brought on this thought on this fine September morning was trying to find a wood plane in order to fix the back door that rubs on the floor when opening or shutting and my frustration in not being able to find the wood plane.

As I ventured out among the outbuildings of our farm – the garage, the machine shed and the north shop – I encountered many memories of our life here. I found some items of clothing that were hanging in the garage where Lyle, my father-in-law would change from his town clothes when he made is way daily to the farm. He passed in 2003.

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I found a small step stool that he had made for our children to use at the bathroom sink. I brought it out into the light of day and thought that I would repair it for our grandchildren to use; much better than the plastic fantastic stool currently in use.Image

I am still on my mission to find the wood plane to fix the back door as I run across an old tin coffee can that holds our inventory of screw drivers. The can is sitting below a cabinet that Larry recently moved from the north machine shed into the barn in order to put it to better use than where it previously resided. It had been used as storage for nuts, bolts, screws, unbent nails etc. for a very long time. I noticed not long ago it had fallen over and the contents were dumped all over the dirt floor of the shed; another source of frustration – the clean up. Luckily we have a large magnet on the end of a handle that made clean up fairly easy.

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Following the track from the tin can of screwdrivers to the multi-holed cupboard, an aha moment found me organizing the screwdrivers into the holes – large straight edged to small straight edged to Phillips screwdrivers. What fun and how rewarding to organize and utilize and to be resourceful.Image

Wait a minute – I am still looking for the wood plane. No problem, I gave up the looking for and the frustration and called my sister to bring out her wood plane – rewarding and without frustration.


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Big Birds in the Sky Over Iowa

Recently the helicopters and airplanes have been spraying crops in our neighborhood as in many rural areas throughout Iowa. For the last thirty plus years that Larry and I have been farming, we have always taken the time to document the wind speed and direction in case anything should drift our way. We have also registered on the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Sensitive Crop Registry http://www.iowaagriculture.gov/Horticulture_and_FarmersMarkets/sensitiveCropDirectory.asp , a website that pesticide applicators are supposed to consult when they are spraying crops.

Drift Catcher training

Drift Catcher training

This year we went a step further and were trained as drift catchers, a program overseen by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) http://www.panna.org/science/drift . Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) www.wfan.org sponsored the training with PAN staff. Linda and Emily trained us to use scientific instruments to measure the drift of the substances that the industrial sector of agri-business is spreading across the countryside. There were approximately twenty folks across the state that participated in the training and are now certified drift catchers.

Last week the helicopter showed up and started spraying the fields to the south and east of our farm. Out came the equipment that we set up in the front yard of our home. The process of setting up and the equipment is very specific so two of us have been doing this together, Jordan, our farm helper and I set it up and Larry and I continued the monitoring for the week.

We had to set up the monitor, attach the glass tubes to the stand, attach and turn on the pump and calibrate the air flow through the tubes. Once this was finished the monitor runs continually for one week. The first twelve hours we changed the tubes then we went on a twenty four hour shift.

Jordan calculating air speed

Jordan calculating air speed

This was done on Friday. On Saturday morning bright and early the helicopter started once again. A big semi truck rig pulled up and parked on the hill just west of our house. A pick-up truck accompanied the pesticide laden semi truck. Once the process of was started and the helicopter needed to refuel or fill up with more chemicals, the pilot would steer the helicopter to the semi truck that was equipped with a platform on which the big bird could land.

Coming in for a landing

Coming in for a landing

Curious, I drove up the hill to talk to the workers to see what was being sprayed and just to chat. The guys were friendly and told me that the chemical was Domark http://www.schertzaerial.com/docs/Domark%20Quick%20Sheet%202012.pdf and they were spraying four ounces to the acre. In talking with these two guys in charge of refueling both gas and chemicals, I noticed they had a slight southern accent. I asked them where they were from – Mississippi, they replied. “So you guys travel all over and do this kind of work?” I asked them. “Yep, we just came from Kentucky and hope we can go home soon.” So I was talking with two white guys from the south who were migrant workers for industrial agri-business who had no ties to the community and were just doing their job. This was a new revelation to me. The local farm coops and businesses used to take care of this type of work where locals were hired and the money pretty much stayed in the community. Not any longer.

Interesting conversation for a Saturday morning in August. This country now has lackeys that sit in tractors and drive over thousands of acres for industrial agri-business making it pretty clear that the agri-business corporations don’t need to own the land; they own the people who do their dirty work – poisoning our soil and our water.

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Hopeful Signs of the Future

July 1st! This is a good day. The sun is shining, there are no rain clouds and I am inspired by the last two weeks of working with and meeting new and wonderful women plus a few great men.

For the past two weeks I have once again facilitated meetings for Women, Food and Agriculture (WFAN) http://womencaringfortheland.org/. These meetings are the follow up to last November’s meetings that took place around Iowa with Navigating the Waters, a project directed by Angie Carter exploring what women landowners know or want to know about wetlands; see blog http://firmlyrootedblog.com/2012/12/13/60/   This time around a team of Iowa State natural resources folks, Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff and Natural Resources and Conservation staff traveled to five sites to examine wetlands on farms owned or co-owned by women.

What fun it was to discover the living biota in wetlands and learn how wetlands are an integral and important part of the Iowa landscape. Traveling and learning from people who love their job was the highlight of these trips. We covered the counties of Black Hawk, Appanoose, Monona and Winneshiek to meet with women in those areas to study wetlands. I am sad that I missed one of the field days in Dickinson County.

Wetland in Black Hawk County

Wetland in Black Hawk County

The format of the field days was to meet at a central location, make introductions, board a bus (usually a school bus) and head to the wetlands to learn and “play”. I wish that every Iowan could have an opportunity like this. Learning to appreciate the role that natural landscapes play in our state would help the citizens of our state appreciate the value of a diverse ecosystem.

Appanoose County wetland

Appanoose County wetland

A sad dilemma of Iowa is that we are the least bio-diverse state in our country. Being a monoculture of corn and soybeans has caused great devastation to our landscape. Oh sure, when you drive down the road everything is green and lush, especially this year with all the rain. But if one looks closely, one can observe that we have become the number one producer of corn, soy and pork at a great cost to our natural environment. With the overuse of harmful chemicals the land has been rendered sterile and will only produce something if chemicals are pumped in – much like a drug addict.

Oh my, I have digressed into the negative and really didn’t want to go there today. Okay, I will get back on track.

Upon arrival at the wetlands, the scientists got out all the equipment needed to observe a wetland in its’ glory; canvas nets, binoculars and magnifying glasses, plus an array of laminated guides to help with critter identification. After instructions about sweeping our nets through the waters to gather wetland creatures, we starting finding and identifying the life in the wetland. It was an outdoor classroom with just the right amount of instruction and guidance. I haven’t done anything like this since I was in grade school.

Yea for the crawdads!

Yea for the crawdads!

 

Getting ready for the capture.

Getting ready for the capture.

Thanks to WFAN for allowing me the privilege of spending time with Iowa’s great women landowners. I am ever thankful that women are becoming acknowledged as major decision makers and must be present when talking about the future of the Iowa landscape.

 


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Time for the Rain to Stop!

There are reminders everywhere about how fragile the land is with all the rain that we have had lately. Several times over the past few days I have been thinking back to the great flood of 1993. Larry and I were milking cows then and keeping anything clean and out of the mud was impossible.

Perhaps Mother Nature is sending us strong signals to shame us into being good stewards of the land. Everything is washing away. This is the most fragile time of the year for the land. The soil is tilled and the seeds are planted leaving the land vulnerable to washing away with any rain that falls. Many farmers practice no till but the soil and water runs off into the creeks and rivers creating a vast poisonous broiling mixture of nitrogen, phosphorous and chemicals heading towards the Gulf of Mexico.

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Day after day witnessing the disaster that is unfolding in front of me makes me feel rather discouraged. The more the land is torn up to create one more acre for production puts the entire ecosystem at risk of losing biodiversity as well as the very thing we need in order to grow crops – the soil. It took Mother Nature thousands of years to build the soil to now have it disappear so rapidly. If we don’t take care of what we have, we leave future generations with nothing; with a wasteland.

Not only am I discouraged, I am angry. I have spent nearly all of my life in a battle against injustice – racial, gender and ecological. I have seen little victories along the way but nothing substantial enough to really make a difference.  Victories have been co-opted making us grateful that we won a little piece rather than the largest piece. My confidence in changing the world has diminished. This is not a good thing. There is a part of me that wants to hide my head in the sand and ignore the world at large. The activist part of me won’t let me do that.

Being a mentor places a lot of responsibility on one’s shoulders. It is important for me to charge ahead, even in times of discouragement, in order to set the example of fortitude and feistiness. Some days that is a hard task to accomplish. I don’t have the option to check out. I am in this life to create change and must continually move forward as an example.

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My refuge is my family and our farm. I can escape from the reality of the world around me – to a certain degree. I can go out and pull weeds, plant seeds, hear the birds, smell the flowers and look over our little patch of biodiversity with pride and feel a sense of accomplishment. But as I leave the sixteen acres I am confronted with the sterile landscape around me. The land has been raped and pillaged and I have not made any influence at all on those neighbors who continue to abuse the land.

Obviously this rainy, cloudy weather has influenced my state of mind. I need sunshine! I need inspiration! I need to burst out in song, dig in my feet and renew my commitment to justice – for the land and for the people.

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Reflections

Shame on me. I have not written for six weeks and so I have shot my four week commitment. Life has been busy, mostly with a house renovation project. Our one hundred and six year old house now has a bathroom upstairs! For the first time in our houses history there is running water on the second floor. It has been a long winter accommodating carpenters and a huge mess but we now have a wonderful space that is a present to us as we age. Hmmmm……

On March 20, 2012 at 6:05 a.m. Spring arrived. I don’t think Mother Nature has quite got the message yet. It has been cold, snowy (thank goodness for the moisture) and windy. Not at all like the day Larry and I were married thirty seven years ago. We were married in 1976 at 6:30 a.m. when Spring arrived at the Buck Creek United Methodist Church just two miles down the road. Friends and family came from all over the country to help us celebrate. Although most of our friends partied the night before and didn’t make it the early morning wedding, everyone showed up for the noon lunch that we served in the basement of the church.

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The women of the church served the food that Larry and I had prepared and frozen during the previous weeks. Serving a crowd of one hundred plus was a monumental task for the church ladies. Our church does not have running water nor an indoor bathroom. It does have a beautiful setting on top of a hill and a user friendly outhouse.

Once the meal was over we left the church for the Marne (pronounced Mar nee) schoolhouse to dance to our good friends The Loose Brothers. They had a gig in Omaha that night so we had an afternoon dance.

The weather cooperated fully. It was between fifty and sixty degrees. The next year on our first anniversary we were unable to go anywhere given a spring blizzard.

Our life on the farm has been like a roller coaster ride – good time and bad times, but mostly good. When I met Larry, he said he was going to be an organic farmer. His love for the land has been indisputable. His love for me and our children is rock solid. Everything is connected. There are no blurred lines.

Our commitment to the land has brought us incredible solace and peace of mind. As I reflect on our life’s journey I see a path behind us that has had a lot of hills, valleys, curves and bends. We have had our share of joys and sorrows and have been rewarded by many people who have visited here and have influenced us.

It is obvious by now that I am in a reflective mood this morning as I write this. Hopefully spring is just about ready to arrive, late though it may be. My thoughts this morning are an acknowledgement of a long, dark, cold winter and a welcoming of the miracles of birds singing, flowers blooming and a busy, busy time when reflection will be a luxury.


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Feeding the World We Want to Live In – Plenary Speech EcoFarm 2013

Good evening. A huge thank you to the staff of EcoFarm http://vimeo.com/43695511 and to the staff at Asilomar http://www.visitasilomar.com/for taking care of us and providing us with a bit of respite from the frantic world we live. Thank all of you for making the journey here to learn and share and to make the world a better place. Words cannot capture what it is that I am feeling here, on this stage, talking to the game changers of agriculture.

I am honored and privileged to be here speaking to you. My husband and soul mate Larry Harris and I greet you from the former rolling prairies of Iowa where testosterone driven industrial agribusiness continues to rape and pillage and where the majority of farmers are the instruments of destruction. There are vestiges of paradise among the millions of acres of GMO crops and those places continue to grow, but in reality we live in the belly of the beast. Given this situation we continue to work to restructure the face of agribusiness to a more nature friendly, people friendly agriculture. Work that will take us the rest of our lifetime and beyond.

As I have prepared for this event the theme Feeding the world we want to live in has conjured up in my mind, many, many interpretations. First of all – in Iowa we have worked hard to dispel the notion that farmers feed the world. Many commodity growers feel a strong moral obligation to “feed the world”. The moral obligation has been a ploy used by agribusiness to dupe the farmers into being their lackeys. Don’t get me wrong, the farmers of Iowa and rural America in general are good solid, conservative (in the social justice sense) citizens that feel strongly about family, community and country. It has always been a question with me at how they so willingly carry the water for corporate agribusiness.

Feeding the world you want to live in can also conjure up what is political and economic – “I am going to raise food for people who can afford to pay me what I deserve”. Now I realize that opens up a can of worms and those are for us to ponder. Is there anything wrong with this type of philosophy? Not really – it is the way of capitalism and that is an economic system that many people feel works in our country. It is a self-preserving type of philosophy and it helps people survive.

Feeding the world we want to live in – the philosophy that permeates this conference, I believe is based on how can we make this a better world as we feed the soil and feed the people.

The slide show represents my community of farmers, my farm and my neighborhood. The destruction of the soil and the land are represented in the pictures I have taken in about three square miles of the farm where Larry grew up and where we currently farm. The slash and burn of the trees and shrubs for a few more acres of production represents the short sightedness of our neighbors. I try hard to understand why they do this and it always comes back to farm policy. Farm policy that has favored large corporate agribusiness over the health of the soil and the rural communities. Commodity agribusiness owns Washington and until we seriously have laws that control campaign spending we, the small and medium-sized farmers will continue to lose.

As the words of the conference brochure suggests – This is a time to reflect on the achievements, honor the past, look critically at the present and plan thoughtfully for the future.

I have rearranged the words of the conference brochure somewhat and started my presentation with a critical look at the present. In order to set the stage for the future, we also need to acknowledge the past and the present for the positive work that has been accomplished.

There are many people who have gone before us to raise awareness of the dangers of chemical agriculture and use of harsh chemicals to control pests and insects. Of course we all know Rachel Carson – one of the most highly respected whistleblowers. She did not have any easy time raising the alarms of harmful chemicals.

Rather than name names and risk overlooking some especially important people, I want to suggest and encourage you to think of the “heroines and heroes” in your own lives that have guided your way; people who may have influenced you sometime in your life that may not be on the “register” of well-known/big names. People like a parent, a neighbor, a teacher or professor, a farmer, a scientist – someone who caused you to stop and think – someone who taught you to question authority, someone who took the risk of taking a different path. There are huge numbers of people who fit that description. People in this room who have been selflessly working the land, teaching students, working on local, state, national and international policy to transform the way things are currently done.

We have to be bold to do things that are not the norm; to do things out of the ordinary but so critical to the foundation of the legacy of soil health.

What I care about:

Women – working to raise the voice of women

Agriculture – that the land is treated as a living entity and the care given is similar to the care for humankind.

The future – farmers and families on the land

There is a lot of work to do to get there:

Land reform – it is important to have discussions about who owns and how the land is owned. How can farmers build equity if they are renting? Can it be through soil health? Can the measure be how the land is taken care of? Is there another way of getting into farming other than being born into it or marrying someone associated with farming? What will happen when the next land bust happens? Will there be land available for potential farmers to own or will it be owned by investors, corporations and foreign countries?

How can we, in reality, most effectively merge our aspirations for sustainable and just agricultural futures on the path we have chosen?

When faced with the overwhelming causes that deserve our attentions, how can we effectively collaborate to bring about the most sustainable, equitable and just path forward for all living creatures?

Holly Near, a favorite singer of mine has put it succinctly:

“Can we be like drops of water falling on the stone
Splashing, breaking, dispersing in air
Weaker than the stone by far but be aware that,
As time goes by the rock will wear away
And the water comes again………”

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