Dengler Domain: Farm

Last week, the North Tama Telegraph published an article about residents stopping Iowa Select Farms from putting up a CAFO in Tama County. The aura of building next to the homestead of the “Butter Cow Lady” was one reason it was doomed despite Iowa Select Farms receiving DNR approval. This is a big win. According to their website, Iowa Select Farms is the fourth-largest pork producer in the United States, marketing over four million hogs a year.

This stinks. No one “farmer” should have this much control in the industry. This is not good from a supply chain or rural Iowa standpoint. Imagine if a major issue happened with this pig farm and the repercussions that could in turn affect the world supply. One does not have to look far for the answer – the recent baby formula shortage that took place as the result of one plant shutting down is still producing repercussions across the United States. For rural Iowa, a long time ago, one farmer could make a living from one 160-acre plot or not much more by growing and raising a variety of crops and livestock. The small farmer kept the money in the community by frequenting local businesses making for healthier rural communities.

Due to the ag industry consolidation, it is harder for the smaller farmer to play ball. Fewer small farmers, mean fewer businesses are being supported in each rural community, leading to longer travel distances for services and parts. Less of the pie is going to rural communities while the lucky few on the good end of consolidation get the lion’s share.

Whether it’s the seed industry, chemical/fertilizer industry, cell phone industry, or airline industry – consolidation is everywhere. While some argue consolidation leads to better research and cost-effectiveness, it benefits the consolidated company much more than its customers. When it comes to rural communities, the big ag consolidation leads to getting the short end of the stick.

Take a drive across rural Iowa, and nothing is more evident. Whether it is the empty acreages with worn-down buildings or hollowed-out main streets, these are symptoms of the effects of consolidation. While good for business, it is bad for Iowa. The ag industry’s consolidation is one reason for children traveling farther and farther for an education due to school consolidations. The lack of adequate government funding to keep up with the ag industry’s consolidation also has driven these consolidations. No better example shows this problem than the recent Sun Courier article about the tearing down of the school in Gladbrook. One can quantify a merger, but one can never quantify the pain a community feels when there is no longer a school.

What can be done? Enforcing antitrust laws can help. When few companies have an outsized market share, it is not good for the small farmer or consumers. Using the government and/or farmer-led organizations to provide the right resources for small ag companies and small farmers to compete and successfully grow is a strategy to pursue. If wanting less government intervention, allow the free market to work through fewer government mandates and subsidies. There is no magic elixir, and unfortunately, people have tried to solve this problem for years without success.

Diversifying Iowa’s ag economy would help. Another helpful solution would be to introduce new streams of income for rural communities by promoting the beauty of Iowa through the travel industry. Any option should be on the table. Continuing down the path Iowa is currently on is not looking good for rural Iowa. It will be more of the same. There need to be fewer companies like Iowa Select Farms and more people I do not know because the rural economy is growing with new farmers, new entrepreneurs, and new ideas.