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Farming Unites the World

Laurie with her daughter (left) and Ms. Ma Caiqing, a teacher from Hebei Province, China
It feels like Iowa is the center of the universe when it comes to farming -- not just this week, World Food Prize week (http://www.worldfoodprize.org/), when thousands of farming experts, scientists, agribusinesses, journalists and global hunger-fighters converge on Des Moines to honor farming achievements.  No, Iowa has always been seen as the birthplace for agriculture innovation, crucial to feeding a 2050 projected population of nine billion.

Although we talked about a lot of things including parenting, education, health and diet, Iowa’s farming reputation was also the topic of conversation this past weekend as my family hosted a teacher from Hebei Province, China.  Ms. Ma Caiqing is here with a small group of exceptional high school students, taking part in the Borlaug World Food Prize Global Youth Institute.

Ms. Ma says that among the educated in China, Iowa farmers are role models for excellence and economic sustainability.  Our ‘can do’ attitude, combined with innovation, brings countless food choices to us all.  Our decades of knowledge and expertise brings Chinese scientists, geneticists and farming leaders here, because they want to know how to bring more food choices to their people.  The work going on in China is being detailed in a series of inspired articles in the Des Moines Register, articles which Ms. Ma is bringing back to her Hebei Province classroom.  She wants to show them how media celebrates their progress in crop and livestock farming!  But, I couldn’t help but see the irony; while these Des Moines urban reporters literally went thousands of miles out of their way to praise Chinese farming innovation, they often seem tongue-tied to praise the Iowa farmers who birthed these agriculture innovations.

“Traditionally in China, farmers raised a few pigs in their lots or barns, feeding them food waste and vegetation. Because of concerns about disease and inefficiency, the government has increasingly pushed confinement operations,” writes Lynn Hicks, a longtime Des Moines Register business editor.  I absolutely believe the Shang Hai Farm he visited, with their 20,000 pigs and “virtuous cycle” of manure-fertilized crops, grown for feed, is a successful model of farming innovation worthy of praise; my point is, so are many similar Iowa modern hog barns—has Hicks visited them recently?

Our new Chinese friend was shocked to learn that modern farms are sometimes met with suspicion: construction sites vandalized, threats are anonymously left on farmers’ voicemails, family farmers who want their sons and daughters to return to the farm are shouted down at county meetings by protestors who have been bussed in from other communities.  On our editorial pages, unsubstantiated insults are hurled because innovation is unfamiliar; science is scary and big is bad.  Suddenly, raising “a few pigs in their lots or barns, feeding them food waste and vegetation” is the better solution?  It seems to be what some are demanding.

How can we hold up the tools of farming innovation, yet scorn the men and women right here who developed them?  How can we applaud farmers overseas for progress, yet slap Iowa farmers who also embrace it?  Environmentally-responsible barns, sustainable use of organic manure to fertilize crops, working with the community to site new barns and paying attention to how they look, and how they smell, is also a part of livestock farming.  There’s a group of experts who work to help farmers do the right thing (http://www.supportfarmers.com/).

Are the memories of our great-grandparents’ food lines, cold porridge and insufficient protein long forgotten?   Sure, we remember the dirt-under-the-fingernails work ethic of farmers and the beauty of farmland, but have we forgotten the hunger that prompted our nation to ask them for more.  As the late writer and poet Ellen Glasgow would say, “A tragic irony of life is that we so often achieve success or financial independence after the chief reason for which we sought it has passed away.” 

Innovations were sought because farmers needed to feed more people, bring more choices, more affordable choices to all.  Now that they’ve done more, we want them to do less?

“I am but one member of a vast team made up of many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers - mostly small and humble - who for many years have been fighting a quiet, oftentimes losing war on the food production front,” wrote Iowa farmer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Norman Borlaug. 

In the end, it’s not just about what we grow or how much we grow, but how we conduct ourselves, the choices we make, the role models we choose.  I found out this week we have a lot in common with Chinese innovators and educators.  There can be advances yet in agriculture, in both countries.  That story has yet to be told.

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Public Relations Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau.