Art Cullen is Bringing Rural Farm Politics to the National Stage

The Pulitzer Prize-winning news editor from Storm Lake, Iowa addresses the urgency of climate change in the Corn Belt and the impacts of agribusiness in his community.



When Art Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017, it marked an important change for the small-town newspaper editor.

Cullen and his brother John run the Storm Lake Times, a twice-a-week paper staffed mainly by family members that seeks not only to knit together a strong community in the diverse, 10,000-person town of Storm Lake, Iowa, but also to keep a record of—and engage in an active conversation about—the way agriculture there has changed. The prize led Cullen to write Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper, which serves as a clear-eyed chronicle of a meat packing town built on the backs of several generations of immigrants and an era when Iowa agriculture has been shaped by a small handful of powerful corporations.

The Pulitzer judges described his editorials as “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” And Cullen’s book strikes a similarly dogged tone while complicating many of the race, class, and cultural divides at the center of our current political moment, while asking the reader to look closer and think harder about what is unfolding in America’s heartland.

Civil Eats spoke with Cullen recently about his role as a rabble-rouser, the fight that earned him national attention, and his hopes for the future of Corn Belt agriculture. Read an excerpt of Cullen’s book here.

Your description of what happens in Storm Lake illuminates important discussions about everything from immigration, meat processing consolidation, and corporate consolidation to climate change. And yet, a lot of people had probably never heard of Storm Lake before 2017. What has the last year been like for you?

One of things [winning the Pulitzer] has done is it has allowed me to write about these themes on a national level. I’ve been able to write columns for The Washington Post, New York Times, and The Guardian. So that has really helped elevate the discussion of, for example, immigration beyond the border to the interior and how important immigrants are to rural communities that are dying—and nobody’s really talking about that. I wrote a piece for The Guardian recently on soil degradation. In the past, no one wanted to read about soil degradation, but now people do. So, in that way it has been great.

You compare the way you and your brother have kept the Storm Lake Times going to the struggle to keep independent farming viable. How are they alike for you?

Traditionally, Iowa was a state full of independent farm business owners. Similarly, the state used to have 300 independent newspapers. And now, there are just a few of us left out here in the wilderness. The same thing happened with agriculture; independent operators went to work for Smithfield, Murphy Farms, etc. and the whole [system] consolidated. It’s like with Wal-Mart—the manager gets a key to the door and takes instructions from Arkansas. The guy running the hog house gets the key to the door it takes instructions from Smithfield, Virginia. And the newspaper publisher gets the key to the door and takes his instructions from Arlington, Virginia, where Gannett is. That’s what rural America has become.

Art Cullen (middle) with his son Tom (left), a reporter for the Storm Lake Times, and John, the newspaper’s publisher. Photo by Dolores Cullen.

Our motto is: “If it didn’t happen in Buena Vista County, it didn’t happen.” A chain newspaper just doesn’t care about the place in the same way and neither does a chain shoe store. And it’s unfortunate and tragic really that in 40 years we’ve gone from a state of pretty solid small towns to one where two-thirds of our counties are on the edge of sliding off the map.

There’s been meat processing in Storm Lake since the 1950s—before many other towns. How it has changed there and what does that show us about the bigger picture of the industry?  

It all happened very rapidly. The workers at Hygrade [which operated in Storm Lake until 1981] had unsustainable union contracts. If those guys were making the same wage today it would be about $120,000 a year. And meatpacking traditionally operates on pretty narrow profit margins—just 1 to 2 percent cash flow—so Hygrade couldn’t hack it anymore. And the union wouldn’t take a pay cut, so Hygrade just shut down. Reagan came along and unions lost their power.

And then Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) came in and it was just the exact opposite. They slashed wages in half, made sure none of the union people were left, brought in immigrants who couldn’t raise a ruckus, and turned the town on its ear. And then Tyson came in as sort of a kinder gentler meatpacker and increased wages pretty substantially. It also automated a lot of the jobs where repetitive stress injuries were the highest. Now is Tyson paying $18.00 an hour with a $2,000 signing bonus, and the company runs both a pork and turkey plant in Storm Lake.

There are over 2,000 workers there and they’re offering a living wage for Storm Lake—but for a very tough job. It should be more, you know, $25 an hour in my view. But they’re making progress. Furthermore, the community is settling down; immigrants are having families and they’re sticking with their jobs. Turnover has been reduced. A lot of people who came in as first-line meatpackers have graduated into their own businesses or are into management jobs. It’s kind of the American story; you get your foot on the ladder here and start climbing—and yet it’s not a story that’s told very much. Now, there are a whole lot of environmental issues surrounding consolidated meatpacking. But for where Storm Lake has been, we’re doing pretty well now.

As new meatpacking plants go in to other communities in Iowa, are they looking at Storm Lake as an example?

There are two new pork processing plants coming in—one in Sioux City and one in Eagle Grove and Storm Lake is making itself available to them both. In fact, our police department goes around to meatpacking communities and talks about how to work with immigrant communities—[training police forces not to] arrest them for being undocumented, for instance. The schools also train other schools in how to use English immersion. They’re looking to us, but I don’t think they have any idea how their community is going to change. It’s going to overwhelm the community at first and it’s going to take them about 10 years to figure it all out. We’ve been doing it since 1980. And we’ve figured it out better than most communities. I’ve looked at a lot of meatpacking communities and I’ll compare Storm Lake to Fremont, Nebraska or Garden City, Kansas any day in terms of how people [from outside] are accepted and embraced and we don’t try and screw with voters and so forth.

Why do you think it has worked out better there?

Storm Lake has always been a regional salesmen’s town and a college town. So, we’re used to people coming and going here, unlike some rural communities where the same last names endure for 150 years, they never change and they just slowly die. Storm Lake has always kind of rejuvenated itself as outsiders come in.

The second reason is that in most Iowa communities if somebody works hard they’re considered okay. So, there really isn’t the kind of xenophobia you find in some other places. For example, 65 percent of Iowans told The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll that they favor a pathway to legal immigration for undocumented citizens.

You wrote about a positive visit you made to Storm Lake’s sister community in Jalisco, Mexico in 2005 and then update it by talking about how people often leave that part of Mexico because they don’t feel safe anymore—that that’s more of a driver for their coming to the U.S. than the economic reasons.

The new-generation cartel has taken over Jalisco. I wouldn’t feel safe going back there.

Are people still making the trip from there to Storm Lake or are they coming from other places now?

They’re going back and forth between Jalisco and Storm Lake and that pipeline is very much alive. Nobody talks about it. They used to until Trump got elected. They weren’t so worried about Steve King. Everybody figured he was just an outlier, but then Trump got elected and the Latinos in Storm Lake have gotten very nervous, even citizens. They’re laying low because they don’t want to get hassled—they know what happens and how things get confused.

A combine harvests corn on a farm outside Storm Lake. Photo by Dolores Cullen.

In 2015, when the largest public utility in the state—the Des Moines Waterworks—sued your home county and two other counties for nitrate pollution, and the case was dismissed, it was seen by many as a win for big agribusiness. Your paper was in a unique position to run a “two-year editorial campaign” to find out who was funding the opposition to the lawsuit. Can you talk about what you learned and why it mattered?

What we wanted to know is: Who was giving our county board of supervisors their marching orders? And that was an essential question that the taxpayers of Buena Vista County deserved to know. [It was an expensive court battle], so we asked: “Are you going to assess the property tax base then or the drainage districts for your defense costs?”

“It’s none of your business,” they said. And, in fact, it was our business because we didn’t know if we were going to get a multimillion-dollar judgment thrown on our heads. And even farmers who are on the side of the Board of Supervisors deserved to know who was calling the shots because their livelihoods were at stake.

Well, it turns out Monsanto, the Koch Brothers, the fertilizer industry, the seed and chemical industry were and are still calling the shots. And everybody deserves to know that. Because these companies don’t necessarily have the same interests as farmers and farmers don’t necessarily have the same interest as [the people who drink water]. So, it’s important for every constituency to know who is actually pulling the marionette strings—and it turned out it was nobody in Buena Vista County.

At one point you tried to arrange a meeting between the counties and the utility company, and you acknowledged that you may have stepped outside of the bounds of journalism to do that. How do you balance your roles as an engaged citizen and a person whose job is to share information?

I’ve never taken the view that that we’re here just to share information. We’re not stenographers; we’re reporters. In terms of our editorial page, we are going to be as strident as we can be to achieve what we think is good for our community. Off the editorial page, we’re subjective in what we cover; we select the topics that we think are important—like nitrates in our surface water—and we’re going to report on them until every last question is answered. And maybe that’s advocacy, but the inherent conflict that we see now between agriculture and the environment deserves all our energy because it’s our future.

On a related note, you write that after covering the lawsuit, you and your brother, “began to realize that the far bigger story is climate change.”  

Well, the Waterworks lawsuit kind of describes the politics that are set up around our inability to move forward with climate change. And everybody’s talking about a Green New Deal, but the Green New Deal is already in the law. All the mechanics are there from It’s all there but we just don’t use any of it, because we lack the political will to execute it.

We could have reoriented livestock to [make the industry more climate resilient] if [former Attorney General] Eric Holder had enforced the Packers and Stockyards Act—which he refused to do during the Obama administration. And before that Republican attorneys general as well as secretaries of agriculture refused to enforce the Packers and Stockyard Act [to create a level playing field for small meat producers]. Hence we now have three major meat packers in the U.S.—Smithfield, JBS, and Tyson.

Grazing animals are an important part of the solution to Iowa’s soil problems. What we need to do is take about 30 percent of our acreage out of corn and soy revolutions, put it into grass, and put cattle on that grass. We will eliminate 95 percent of our surface water pollution problems. Plus, we would put a huge carbon trap in the soil, that’ll be a net benefit to the environment, and we’ll create local jobs in small community-based processing facilities. If I were president that’s what I’d be doing!

In the book, you pointed to the shift away from ethanol as another piece of that puzzle.

Yes, [ethanol] accounts for about a third of the corn we grow in Iowa. Take ethanol out of the equation—which the car industry currently is doing by shifting to electric vehicles—and you could graze more animals.

We’ve got to give [farmers] a ramp off and we’ve got to convert to a grass based cellulosic ethanol that can eliminate oil consumption and is completely sustainable. And actually farmers will make more money because corn prices will go up when you reduce acreage and people are willing to pay for sustainably sourced protein. Small grazers are proving it right now. Markets are starting to demand it. Farmers are discovering now after five to six straight years of losses that they cannot afford to grow three-and-a-half-dollar corn. They’re blaming it on Trump’s trade policies right now, but the fact is that that it’s been stuck there at a break-even-to-losing proposition for my entire adult life.

Thirty percent of farmers have been under stress every year since 1980. And some of the only people making money in agriculture right now are people who are grazing beef on grass and rotating crops so they’re growing corn every third year. A lot of them are eliminating soybeans entirely from their rotations. The average organic farm in Iowa is grossing $1,000 per acre. Conventional corn growers will gross $700-800 per acre at this year’s price. That’s the difference between profit and loss.

Can you tell us about your current effort to engage the presidential candidates? Iowa, as we know, is a pivotal state in the primary process and yet the Democrats haven’t always done a great job of showing up and having a presence there—or in other rural areas.

We’re working on a candidate forum in Storm Lake on March 30. And there are some [candidates] who are showing up now. The main the main one is John Delaney, the [former] congressman from Maryland. He has 16 field offices in Iowa, and he’s buying ads in our paper. But then there’s other candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand, who today rejected our invitation. She’s using the Hillary Clinton campaign book and Hillary Clinton never came here.

Now Amy Klobuchar will understand it—and I don’t know for sure how her campaign is funded, but there’s a lot of big agribusinesses in Minnesota, like Cargill. [Note: Klobuchar is attending the forum.] Bernie Sanders is going to be here. Elizabeth Warren is attending. And we were working on Kamala Harris; she should be here because again she needs to score some real points. Maybe Bernie Sanders is the guy who’s going to speak up for rural America. I’ve been skeptical, but he seems to be. He and John Delaney—at opposite ends of the spectrum—are the two candidates who have reached out the most.

 

 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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  1. David Bangert
    Tuesday, March 12th, 2019
    That combine in the photo is harvesting soybeans, not corn.