Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

February 14, 2014

Another View - Breaking Bad in Iowa

Charlotte Shivvers

Knoxville — My View today leans heavily on one Kamyar Enshayan.  He teaches at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and I know him through his work with Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State, and the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign.  In fact, Enshayan has led in bringing local food to local sites – schools, hospitals and restaurants.

His essay “Breaking Bad in Iowa” was inspired by the TV series “Breaking Bad.”  As most of you know, the series was about a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., who, when stricken with a terminal cancer, sought to assure his family’s financial future by teaming up with a student drug dealer and marketing methamphetamine.  

Breaking bad!  Inspired by that, and by his knowledge of Iowa’s horrible meth trade, Enshayan asked some friends over coffee, “What enterprise in Iowa would parallel the tragedy in 'Breaking Bad'?”  To his surprise they came back as one naming “commodity agriculture” and the network of global corporations that make it work.   

We see effects of that all around us.  For instance, here’s one that commodity agriculture helped create. Where schools and churches and stores used to support a thriving small town we now often see nothing – or a Rural History Buff sign like “Site of Old Town Wheeling.”   The corn and soy beans still grow but in larger and larger fields with the profits going to larger and larger corporations far away from Marion County.  “Sociologists and economists report that markets in nearly every agricultural sector (corn, beans, beef, …) are all controlled by a handful of global corporations, leaving farmers as price takers while production expenses rise.”  Small amounts of profit stay local; small farmers and farm workers have moved away to find a way to make a living. 

As in the TV show, the horror goes on largely beneath the radar.  There, it was dead bodies in the garage as neighbors jogged by.  Here, it’s the calm way Iowa life seems to go on despite  “pesticide drift from an aerial sprayer in your kitchen, a giant fish kill from a manure spill, respiratory illnesses among rural residents living near confinement hog operations, atrazine and nitrate in your rural well water, salmonella poisonings from factory chicken farms with proven records of evading public health laws, and flash floods downstream due to degraded soils and impaired watersheds upstream.” 

But here’s what’s amazing:  while the meth trade is illegal, commodity agriculture that has life breaking bad in Iowa, as mentioned above, is LEGAL.  Not only legal, but subsidized by our federal government.   In fact, the Farm Bill which was just signed did not really cut subsidies but instead raised the limits – and kept loopholes that allow large, wealthy farms to collect multiples of the current payment limit.  

Breaking bad.  Heart breaking, in fact.  All the more reason to join the growing movement toward “local food” – farmers’ markets, our Farm Crawl, CSA’s (Community Support Agriculture) that deliver local food in a weekly basket, and leaders like Enshayen who have promoted local food.  More reason to support those who give long-term, ecological care to the land like Practical Farmers of Iowa.  More reason to be thankful that our Board of Supervisors – Agan, Kingery, and Raymie – just passed a measure called the Master Matrix (recommended by the DNR) to give us a wee bit more protection against the horror of confinement animal feeding in our backyards.  Yes, we can create some good breaks, even here in the midst of all this “breaking bad.”