Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Shirley Gray’s nails are painted an orangey red that matches her lips and hair. The kind of orangey red that, before Trump, was the domain of spicy, powerful grandmothers with something to say. Even with lungs that now don’t always cooperate, Gray is still as involved in her rural Iowa community as ever - if you want to know who can fix your toaster, who to talk to in the county Supervisor’s office about a hole in the road or who grows the best tomatoes in the region, Shirley Gray is your woman.
Gray is also an old family friend, someone I had met several times before at dinner or when she came to give us some of her locally famous peach trees that grow as volunteers in her yard. As a farmer, an entrepreneur, a mother and grandmother, a gardener and a friend, I knew she was a reservoir of wisdom about all things this-neck-of-the-woods.
So it was a logical choice to start with Gray as my first subject when I decided to interview the neighbors around my husband John’s family’s farm in rural Iowa. They might all have known each other for generations, but for me, an outsider, getting to know some of them while learning about Iowa history and farming felt like a good use my languishing journalism skills. At the very least, I told myself, these old (and not so old) timers most certainly would spin a good yarn.
But I realized too, that I had a lot of preconceived notions about Iowa and farming after reporting on sustainability in agriculture for almost 20 years. The midwest has been cast in the role of corporate lackey, to put it mildly. Full of farms that do what they are told by large companies like Monsanto, Dow or Bayer, survive on government subsidies and grow gmo corn and soybeans. Farms that at some point in our not so distant past stopped growing a variety of healthy crops and instead switched to growing a single commodity used in processed foods, the same foods that are now linked to obesity and diabetes in communities across the country.
How did things get this way, I wanted to ask Gray? Did she remember a time before corn and soybeans, a time when the push for sameness on farms did not yet exist?
The answer is both yes and no.
Gray married in 1958 and the couple bought “every inch of the land” on which they grazed cows, and grew hay, corn and some soybeans. Her parents too farmed cattle, hay and corn, as did her grandparents.
“My parents were farmers, both of my grandparents were farmers. Probably as far back as ever we were farmers. My husband’s parents were farmers, his grandparents were farmers, in fact, the land was homesteaded back in 1854. So we have always been farmers.”
In fact, since the building of rail lines in Iowa in the 1850s, there was never a time in Iowa when people did not grow corn. And while families in Iowa did grow other crops, they did not sell them. People did not raise tomatoes for market, nor did many sell the peaches, apples and cherries that grew on their farms.
"We had a large garden and raised everything we ate," says Gray. "We butchered our own hogs and beef, and canned tomatoes and fruit for the winter too. We bought very little in town."
But while having fresh food you have grown yourself may sound ideal, the real problem was that Gray’s family and the vast majority of farmers in the midwest in the early 1900s were basically subsistence farmers. And while subsistence farming might sound romantic on paper, most of the world’s humans do not want to live hand to mouth. It means a life of little to no cash, and no cash usually means no credit. No credit and you cannot purchase larger items you might need or want: a car, an education, a house. A tractor or combine, or even next year’s seeds.
When soldiers returned from World War II having seen the world, many of them decided to move to the city instead of return to the farm where work was hard and the income small. And so without people to run the farm, farms were sold and gardens tilled over. Land consolidated in the hands of the few who could invest in the new equipment - machinery that made work easier, cleaner, less sweaty - while farming much more land. There were new seeds too that could compete better with the weeds and meant a lot less work (and who does not want less work when all you do is work?).
In other words, agriculture evolved, much as everything else did in the US. Like the rest of us, farmers wanted the comforts of modern life - air conditioning, TV, and a lot less weeding. People then as now wanted more - more opportunity, more choices, more education for their children - which meant growing and selling more products. Unlike tomatoes, corn stored well and could be transported easily over long distances. Better seeds meant corn also yielded more for less labor, which meant more money in the pockets of farmers, even if they grew less and less of what they ate on a daily basis.
Of course, the very act of writing something down simplifies it. Evolution is hard to capture on paper, and this accounting leaves out some important parts of the story, namely the role government played in supporting farmers and agribusinesses over the course of time.
But it is important we understand that even today, having a tiny farm that grows a variety of foods is not a real money maker. Very few people can afford to subsistence farm, even if magazines make it sound sexy by calling it “homesteading.” Farmers - like all of us in the 99% - need to make money.
If we are trying to evolve into a food system in the US that takes into account the impacts of farming on the larger environment, for example, or the way resources are allocated around the planet - we have to first understand why the current system exists. It exists because it has worked: Shirley Gray’s kids went to college. The land is worth far more than when she bought it, and it usually produces an income, even when she is renting it out. She drives a nice car and owns several homes in the area she can rent out for more income. She is comfortable.
While the old farm Gray grew up on sounds very much like the ideal farm pictured on milk cartons and in hipster magazines around the country, in reality, we also need to ensure that those who farm can make money. If we want real change in farming, and therefore in our public health, we need to figure out this key part of the puzzle. We need to allow farmers to get ahead, just like the rest of us.