Dengler Domain: Farming

Sean Dengler.

As the weather warms up and farmers pull the machinery out of the shed to make the final tune ups before planting, I am lucky, blessed, and excited to have this be my first year on my own farming. If you asked me when I was a kid playing my PlayStation 2 if I wanted to be a farmer, it would have been a hard no. After working in the corporate world and a few other odd jobs, the beauty of working outdoors, farming with family, being my own boss, the risk which comes with the previous part, is an experience I did not want to pass up. I am confident in my future and what is to come in the near term, it is hard not to look into the future and wonder, will I have a place here in 10 to 15 years?

If it is not painfully clear, agriculture has been consolidating at a rapid pace. Gone are the grandparents’ farms on 160 acres lots. To make a living farming, one has to farm hundreds, if not thousands of acres of land. If a farmer does not have access to that much land, then it is a full-time or part-time job in town to supplement the highs and lows of farming.

This has led to the Great Decoupling. In the past farmers relied on the local co-ops, local implement dealers, local feed stores, and local hardware stores located within every small town. Unfortunately, due to the economics of farming and the push for more corn which 60% of Iowa’s goes to ethanol which could be upended by the future of electric vehicles and more soybeans which heavily rely on being exported to China, these economics have pushed farmers to get big or get out as former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said in the early 1970s.

Unfortunately, this mantra has led to bigger profits and wealth for the non-family farmers and agribusiness and not the actual family farmers themselves. While the bigger and richer have continued to acquire more assets, it has led and continues to lead to the consolidation of co-ops, implement dealers, and other businesses into more regionally based locations pulling workers who live in the communities and wealth out of the small towns which once supported these locally owned businesses.

This decoupling from agriculture to these small towns has led to fewer farmers farming the land around the communities and living farther and farther away from the communities their agronomic and financial decisions impact. It may not be one for one, but everyone knows what it is like to have less options and competitors like in the cell phone or the internet provider world. This potentially leads to more consumers being harmed by anti-competitive practices. With the recent egg price shortage, baby formula shortage, Tylenol shortage, this is due to too few businesses having too much control over the market. Imagine what would happen if we continued to let farms continue to consolidate.

There is also no reason Iowa should have an adult obesity rate of 36.4% which puts it at 11th in the nation when we have the best soil in the world. Putting programs in place to support farmers to grow crops for their communities and get paid well for doing so is better than the further exportation of our crops to an authoritarian country like China which is working against the United States’ ideals. Protecting our family farms leads to us protecting our society.

It will take a lot to turn the ship around, but Iowa will succeed if more farmers are on the land growing food for their communities. Whatever needs to be done, our elected politicians need to look out for rural Iowa and start to recouple the land around these communities with those who live in these communities. Whether it may be through antitrust laws, regulation supporting farmers to help their community, or old-fashioned elbow grease, rural Iowa has long been exploited by corporate America.

The current path for Iowa is not good for the long term health and success of farmers and the long term health and success of Iowans. While I am the luckiest guy in the world to have a shot at farming on the best land in the world, this current path agriculture is on might make me the last Dengler to ever farm in Tama County. Being a fifth-generation farmer, that is a sad sentence to write.

Sean Dengler is a writer, comedian, farmer, and host of the Pandaring Talk podcast who grew up on a farm between Traer and Dysart. You can reach him at sean.h.dengler@gmail.com.