Op-ed: We Need a New Farm Bill—for My Iowa Farm and Beyond | Civil Eats

Op-ed: We Need a New Farm Bill—for My Iowa Farm and Beyond

Wendy Johnson has spent more than a decade building diversity on her Iowa farm, despite financial and cultural pressure to stick to the status quo. Now, she’s pushing for system change.

Wendy Johnson at Jóia Food Farm in Charles City, Iowa (Photo credit: Tom Rafalovich (left) and Wendy Johnson (right).

Wendy Johnson at Jóia Food Farm in Charles City, Iowa. Photo credit: Tom Rafalovich (left) and Wendy Johnson (right).

I  grew up on a farm in Iowa during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. Back then, life here was not flourishing, but dying. I pursued a career in fashion and moved to Los Angeles, where I discovered my connection to food. Then, 10 years ago, I returned to Iowa to find that things hadn’t changed much: Our small town was smaller, more farmhouses had been left to decay, and the big farmers had gotten bigger. I returned to the farm and I have stayed because I love Iowa and see it as ground zero in the battle for the heart of the food system. Now, I’m regenerating land, building healthy ecosystems, improving the water cycle, and storing carbon in the soil—all while the system is actively working against farms like mine.

Iowa is one of the most altered ecosystems in the world. Once a rich and diverse landscape filled with prairie grasslands and oak savannas, today it is a grid of corn and soybean fields. The state is home to some of the richest soils in the world, a natural resource that took millennia to form, but those soils are being quickly washed and blown away through stronger and stronger wind and rain events due to climate change; we’re currently losing soil faster than at the height of the 1930s dust bowl.

In the last 75 years, Iowa has essentially become a mining state, a place from which profit is being extracted while people are left behind to clean up the mess. Nitrate pollution is filling our natural and abundant underground aquifers, algae blooms proliferate our freshwater lakes, and pesticides fill the air we breathe.

“We are literally polluting ourselves out of a healthy place to live while polluting waterways downstream and killing the seafood that thousands of people rely on for their livelihoods in the Gulf of Mexico, all in the name of King Corn.”

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can be found in all 99 Iowa counties. The state has over 23 million pigs, 60 million chickens, and only 3 million people. CAFOs are built here in large numbers because we have the perfect soil to grow their feed: yellow corn No. 2—a far cry from Mexico’s sacred maize. In return, the animals produce a liquid waste slurry rich in nutrients required to feed that corn.

The agriculture industry here has spent billions in corn development, infrastructure, and lobbying, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has spent trillions in taxpayer dollars protecting and subsidizing it. However, the animals’ manure isn’t enough to feed all 13 million acres of corn in the state so farmers also add fossil fuel-derived anhydrous ammonia and urea ammonium nitrate to their fields, as well as mined potassium and phosphorus also needed to grow the crop.

Iowa is one of the heaviest polluters of both nitrate and phosphorus. We are literally polluting ourselves out of a healthy place to live while polluting waterways downstream and killing the seafood that thousands of people rely on for their livelihoods in the Gulf of Mexico, all in the name of King Corn.

In Iowa, our property values are based on soil type and corn suitability ratings (CSRs). The higher the CSR, the higher the value of the land. According to a survey conducted at Iowa State University, average market rental rates today are currently $3.10 per CSR point. In the county where I live, the average CSR is 80, and so the average rental rate is $248 per acre. And most landowners renting to tenants rarely go down in rate because they know someone will pay more.

The same survey also looked at average farmland sales in counties with high CSRs (70 and above) and showed that it sells for between $15,000 and $25,000 an acre. Those kinds of land values also drive up property taxes; I have been told by many farmers across the Corn Belt that they can’t afford to diversify their crops because their property taxes are too high. There are other reasons why farmers, specifically in Iowa, will not diversify. The major one? They want to stay in the business of farming. They see growing crops other than corn and soy as essentially sacrificing those acres, and they fear that doing so will make them less viable.

Despite all this, I have been very gradually transitioning my family’s farm away from conventional corn and soy in addition to renting other land. In 2014, I started to transition a small portion of my family farm acres to organic, starting with 20 acres per year. On the organic land I rotate through four crops on each plot of land. For the first year I grow oats, then in years two and three, I grow forage for grazing and hay, then in year four I grow corn, and in year five I grows soybeans.

The income from the corn and soybeans helps subsidize the losses I take for the other three years. Meanwhile, the majority of the acres on the farm are still in conventional corn and soybeans, and I help manage those for my parents, who still own the majority of the farm.

Wendy Johnson at Jóia Food Farm in Charles City, Iowa. (Photo provided by Wendy Johnson)

Wendy Johnson at Jóia Food Farm in Charles City, Iowa. (Photo provided by Wendy Johnson)

Soon after I moved back, I began transitioning some family farm acres to organic and started selling humanely raised, chemical-free pork, chicken, turkey, and grass-fed lamb and beef to local and regional consumers. I also started a wool fiber business, selling bedding products and wool hides. After some major flooding events in 2016 and 2018, I decided to keep some of the organic acres in forage and graze it with sheep, cattle, and poultry to protect the land from wind and water erosion.

This spring, when the grass starts growing here in Northern Iowa, I will rotationally graze sheep and cattle on 60 acres of perennial pasture, plant a silvopasture of native hardwoods on 7 acres, continue to restore an 18-acre riparian buffer with thousands of planted native hardwood trees, harvest and graze Kernza, a perennial grain, care for a wetland, pollinator habitats, and a 1-acre micro-orchard of apples and chestnuts, and build an acre farm windbreak—all on high CSR land.

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One hundred and thirty acres of the farm is now planted with perennials (pasture and trees), and it’s the first time this has happened since the state was settled in the late 1800s. With these practices, I am providing what scientists call ecosystems services—and I’m losing money hand over fist doing so.

On our conventional corn and soy acres, my family uses no-till methods, plants cover crops to keep our soils in place, and maintains prairie strips and field buffers to protect more sensitive areas and help keep nutrients from running off. We are also reducing our fertilizer use. The current price for corn is high enough that we can net around $600 per acre on land we own and about half that on rented acres, and we are also protected and insured with taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance and direct payments from USDA on those acres.

Every year, I compare those numbers to what I can make with the diverse perennial system. Prices for our pastured lamb and beef fluctuate, but I can typically net around $150-250 per acre on land I own and around half that on land I rent. I cannot sell everything I produce locally at the prices I command—my farm is 2.5 hours from the closest urban centers, and cheap, imported food is abundant in Iowa—so I’ve had to take on part-time advocacy work to supplement what the farm brings in.

“The corn system is rigged to allow large producers to stay in business and grow while the smaller producers (1,000 acres or less) have to fight for every penny to stay viable.”

The practices we use in the perennial system are protecting our natural resources in their finest forms. The water leaves the farm cleaner than when it arrived, and we have better water-holding capacity when it rains. I have no phosphorus runoff and very little nitrate loss. The trees and shrubs provide nuts, fruits, and habitat for wildlife for a full ecosystem restoration. As floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events get stronger and more frequent every year due to climate change, our perennial system is more resilient. And it can actually help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, many of the farmers in the state plant corn on corn year after year, fencerow to fencerow with maximum tillage. They don’t plant cover crops, don’t protect more sensitive areas of their fields, pour manure on the land in the fall and winter, even though it will wash into the rivers come spring, and use fossil fuel like it’s a forever resource. We watch their soils blow and wash away, and they outbid everyone on land for rent and for sale—expanding their land portfolio all the time. And they’re bringing in much larger profits than my small, ecologically and community-minded farm could ever make.

The corn system is rigged to allow large producers to stay in business and grow while the smaller producers (1,000 acres or less) have to fight for every penny to stay viable. And for those in the next generation without land, entering this system is nearly impossible. Some estimate that there will be fewer than five farmers left in our county within five to 10 years. There is distrust between neighbors, and owners of the largest farms wait like turkey vultures for someone to retire, fall ill, or die so they can buy up their land. There is no community left and we live in constant fear of losing everything we work at protecting.

How do we turn this ship around? This year, Congress is scheduled to pass a farm bill, the once-every-five-year legislation that determines how nearly $1 trillion in tax dollars will be spent on U.S. food and agriculture. Currently, those tax dollars pay for polluters to pollute and for the big to get bigger with little to no diversity of crops or enterprises. The USDA does pay some farmers for conservation practices, but the demand is significantly greater than the funding, and the payments are far from enough to compete with the corn system.

We need a 2023 Farm Bill that financially rewards farmers who want to grow more diverse crops, plant and preserve trees and forests, graze perennial pastures with ruminants and poultry, and implement the hundreds of other conservation practices proven to keep soil in place, and our water and air clean. And support to businesses that build the infrastructure to support diversification. Doing so will make us all more resilient and won’t stop us from being able to “feed the world,” despite common misconceptions.

Simultaneously, we should disincentivize planting conventional corn in back-to-back seasons and tilling whole farm fields multiple times a year. We need to restructure commodity farm programs to be fair to all farmers and inclusive of all crops. Currently, if our corn crops fail, subsidized crop insurance will cover our losses and, in some years, we may even make more money that way than if we had farmed the land. But if we grow anything aside from corn and soybeans, it’s not protected, and we carry the loss on every acre.

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The next farm bill should also include an expansion on the existing incentives for small to mid-scale farms and businesses that produce food for local communities. We also need policies to expand and further support organic agriculture, including technical assistance, agronomists, and local infrastructure to make it easier to transition to organic, and cost share for certification. Incentives and programs that support new and beginning farmers will also be crucial to securing our food system. We need more farmers, not fewer. Current landowners should be incentivized to gradually sell their land to beginning food farmers rather than to the highest bidder.

Many point to carbon markets as the answer—and they may be part of the solution. But at this point I’m not able to tap a carbon market because my perennial operation is too small. The existing private carbon markets are mainly supporting farms with more than 1,000 acres, and so far, they’re only paying for new practices, rather than supporting early adopters. They also tend to proliferate the same fossil fuel-addicted corn system that put us in our current quagmire to begin with.

A growing number of farmers are looking for ways to step outside that system. I’ve heard from conventional farmers of all ages who are hungry for ideas and solutions for growing more food for local and regional consumers in a more resilient way and making a living doing it. The pandemic and severe weather events have shown them just how far from resilient our food system has become.

A growing number of farmers want change because they’re watching their rural communities disappear, their schools are consolidating, and hospitals and public services are shutting their doors. They’re seeing that the next generation of farmers can’t afford to come back to farm, and they’re seeing their friends’ and neighbors’ health and vitality suffer due to a lack of fresh, affordable food and clean water.

In the end, many of us can agree on the same core ideas. We know that we need more farmers, and the current corn system is pricing out the next generation. We all want choice in the marketplace, rural vitality and health, and more resilience in the face of severe weather, international conflict, and supply chain disruptions. That resilience will only come with diversity—in crops and other plant species, in markets, in people, and in enterprises.

Rather than uphold the agricultural status quo, the 2023 Farm Bill provides a historic opportunity to usher in a new era when all farmers will be incentivized and empowered to farm with diversity at the heart of their operations—the true freedom to farm–and healthy soil, clean water, carbon storage, and nutritionally dense food will grow from there.

Wendy Johnson is owner and operator of Jóia Food & Fiber Farm, a diverse perennial-based farm in northern Iowa growing perennial grains, grazing grassfed sheep and cows and humanely raising poultry and pigs. She started Counting Sheep Sleeping Company to add value to the fiber her 100 percent grass-fed sheep produce. Wendy also co-manages her family’s conventional corn and soybean farm. She often speaks and writes about the need for diverse enterprises and people on the land, the intersections of climate change and agriculture, food system inequality, ag policy, and the observations on the lands she cares for. Wendy is currently Climate Land Leaders co-policy lead and spokesperson and provides leadership on several boards and committees furthering the growth of a more diverse and resilient Iowa and Midwest. Read more >

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  1. Erin Marlow.
    Some good points made. Some assumptions made. Some pie in the sky thinking. Nothing is black and white of "conventional farms" versus "unconventional". There really shouldn't be a versus. There are a lot of people trying to do better. The system isn't perfect but there has to be a balance among reality and hopes and dreams at the scale we need to keep inexpensive (sort of), safe (sort of) food on the table.
  2. Lou Pendleton
    Ditto. It’s the same scenario where I am in northwest Ohio. Corn and soybeans, more and more CAFOs, no cover crops, automatic use of herbicides and pesticides, government subsidies for commodity crops and crop insurance, unhealthy food and environment. It really must change. I’m hoping for some policy changes in the new Farm Bill.
  3. Frank Vassell
    This is a tearful yet inspiring report of courage in spite of the status quo of clearing the land and leaving it bare. It is a compelling account of perennial woody agriculture of growing fruit and nut trees for generations to come. This is a bold story of restoration agriculture aka agro forestry by USDA. I am encouraged. I hope there are more willing farmers.
  4. Dan C
    We have spent the last century replacing people on the land with petroleum.
    The 'citizen' has no idea what they are worth even just as cannon fodder, nor what it really costs to have "always low prices."
    The system depends on people remaining blind consumers of resource flows (4 bucks gets a commuter 100 manhours of work to waste per gallon, and it gets 100 manhours of actual people (1500 dollars) off the land).
    Cheap food is the foundation of the Consumptionism economy. The economists keep rearranging deck chairs for wars, fairness, social security and crime, but they can't start paying the soil a decent wage (in labors) or it all falls down.
    Farmers have been competing against each other for the bottom of the wage barrel ever since McCarthyism murdered cooperatives and unions.
    Farm bills are written by banks. Show the banks how they will make more profits from small farms, and the farm bills will change.
    Since that requires getting rid of banks and most of civilization as we know it, well, good luck with that.
  5. Thank you for all your hard work, Wendy-- the farming and the writing!

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