Dengler Domain: Beginning farmer

Sean Dengler.

To be a beginning farmer today if one does not have access to land and machinery from family or an older farmer is not wise. This is not good for rural Iowa. Rural Iowa succeeded when more farmers were on the land. As Iowa heads down this current path, there is not an effective way out. Schools will close, small businesses will shutter, and the sense of community will continue to weaken.

What does not help is land prices which are currently sitting at an all-time high for Tama County. One of the main drivers behind the price is ethanol. Through government support, which helped promote those windmills before they were pushed out, the government has picked winners and losers. By supporting ethanol, it has led to a specialization in crops being grown. With the lack of diversity of crops in the fields, it has led to more consolidations leading to an economy of scale in rural Iowa. These consolidations can be felt throughout rural Iowa as health care and other services continue to dry up in each town as the land consolidates.

With farms consolidating, this has led to using the easy button to control weeds which is using chemicals. Instead of using a mix of cultural and mechanical processes to also help control weeds, it has led to greater herbicide resistance in weeds like water hemp. Nature always has a way of correcting itself when something is done to excess.

In addition to these chemicals, putting down more nitrogen to help maintain yields is also a solution. When putting down the nitrogen in the fall, there is a greater chance it will leach into the water leading to the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. The abundance of chemicals and nitrogen leaching into our water system could possibly be the reason Iowa ranks second to Kentucky in cancer incidence in the United States and from 2015 to 2019 was the only state where the rate of new cancers increased, according to the National Cancer Institute. According to Investigate Midwest, exposure to nitrate in drinking water is well-recognized by scientists as a risk factor in many of the same high-incidence cancers seen in Iowa – lymphoma, breast, blood, and colon cancers.

Cancer researchers, including a group from the University of Iowa, have linked various cancers to long-term exposure in air and water to trace levels of insecticides and herbicides, as well as nitrates with Iowa leading the charge in spreading more pesticides, commercial fertilizer and more animal manure than in any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Iowa State University, this does not bode well for Iowans.

On top of this, some of the nitrogen does not need to be applied. Crop researchers have known for decades that as much as 70% of the nitrogen in fertilizer and manure is not taken up by crops and drains into ground and surface water as nitrate. It is not only happening in Iowa, but four other states in the Corn Belt rank in the top-15 of cancer incidence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With crop insurance being subsidized (your tax dollars), this has led to marginal land being farmed. Sometimes, this is land next to streams where it is easier for nitrogen to leach into the water supply. When drainage tiles are installed on farms, this leads to water leaving the land quicker and a greater chance for nitrogen to leach into the water. Where there is no drainage tile on good black soil, it will take longer for the nitrogen leach. It might be slower for the farmer, but it is healthier for the public.

If there was more diversity on farms in what they grow and animals being raised, then the health issues may be better. Currently, the way the system is set up is not what nature intended. Nature likes diversity. There could be less herbicide-resistant weeds, less of a Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, and less cancer if farms were more diversified. The centralized nature of big agriculture has not been good for rural Iowa. This would also lead to rural Iowa communities being diversified as equipment dealers would not only be selling the biggest equipment. The dealers would have to be more specialized, and this leads to more people supporting the agriculture industry in addition to more residents in the community, more students in school, and more wealth to go around.

Here are some land prices facts. According to Iowa State University, in 1982, 48% of land was held by people below the age of 55, including 24% below the age of 44. Fast forward to 2022, and only 13% of land was held by people below the age of 55, and only 4% below the age of 44 At the same time, in 1982 people above the age of 65 held onto 29% of the land while in 2022 it grew to 66%. This is not a sustainable trend for rural Iowa. Older landowners have different priorities than younger landowners whether it be farming practices, the future of the land, and other considerations. The long-term success of rural Iowa can be sacrificed at the expense of short-term profits.

Should anyone be blamed for holding onto farmland? Nope. According to Iowa State University, in 1950, land prices in Tama County were $245/acre. It slowly grew over the next few decades before exploding to $2,266/acre in 1981. We all know what happened in the 1980s.

After this high, land prices stayed below this high for a couple of decades until the system changed. What changed the system? The United States government passed two bills.

Passed by a Republican-led Congress and signed by George W. Bush, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 aimed to double the use of renewable fuel by 2012, mainly ethanol made from corn, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Then came the The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 which was passed by a Democratic-led Congress and signed by George W. Bush which expanded the Renewable Fuels Standard which required 36 billion gallons of ethanol and other fuels be blended into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel by 2022.

Due to these laws, land prices went from an all-time high in 2003 of $2,369/acre to another all-time high of $9,145/acre in 2013 for Tama County. After a few down years, land prices surged from $7,510/acre in 2018 to $12,406/acre in 2023. How is this sustainable for rural Iowa? It is not. Unless the government changes its policies around the economics of agriculture through less subsidization related to crop production and/or more regulations for farm runoff, these prices are here to stay. This all gives a reason as to why landowners hold onto land into their older age even though it is at the expense of the non-agricultural residents of rural Iowa.

Some may argue the prices are driven by no one making more farmland. While true, the lack of diversity of the farms is driving these land prices. When the industries are set up to produce the same crops every year with no change in sight, prices will keep rising even considering the environmental harm it is causing. When regulations are minimal, the weakest get harmed the most.

Iowa has some of the best, if not the best soil in the world. Instead of farming these marginal lands, we could raise fruits and vegetables for fellow Iowans. It does not make sense why Iowa has the best farmland, yet our obesity is 11th in the nation for adult obesity according to the Iowa Department of Health & Human services. With Governor Reynolds given obesity as one of the reasons for discontinuing the Summer EBT program for children, she could make the decision to go down the right path to help promote a healthier Iowa.

In the famed words of Iowa conservationist Aldo Leopold, for whom the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University is named and which lost its funding in 2017, said in his book, A Sand County Almanac, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

This is where rural Iowa is at it. More than ever, the land around rural communities is viewed as a commodity. With fewer farmers and landowners who farmed, land management companies control the process. This leads to everyone trying to extract as much money out of the land as possible without a care for the community. This disconnect has led to more discontent and the erosion of American values. Citizens look to politicians who say the right things, but ultimately, may hurt the people who voted for them even more. Down the spiral society goes until realizing the commoditization of land and everything else in the world is maybe not the best route. The United States of America does best when every citizen has a chance to succeed.

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.