There’s more than bridges in Madison County

WINTERSET, Iowa – With its fertile pastures, meandering streams and quaint covered bridges, Madison County, Iowa, has become a symbol of rural America. The handsome farms with overflowing corncribs could have been drawn straight out of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

The county seat, Winterset, with its Victorian courthouse on an immaculate town square, is unchanged from the 1920s. A couple of blocks away is the little white cottage where actor John Wayne was born. No wonder filmmakers came here to shoot “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” The past is so perfectly preserved they didn’t have to build a single set. Amid all this pastoral beauty, it’s hard to imagine that this, too, is a battleground in the 2004 elections.

But here, as everywhere else in the nation, a movement is springing up like winter wheat to oust George W. Bush from the White House. This reporter spent a week here covering the Jan. 16 Iowa Democratic caucuses that drew 122,000 workers and farmers together at more than 1,000 schools, libraries and churches to choose delegates favoring Democratic presidential candidates.

The standing-room-only crowd in the St. Charles Public Library that night applauded when the chairman pointed out that it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They also applauded speakers from every one of the Democratic candidacies, typical of the tolerant, live-and-let-live culture here.

“We all know we have to get Bush out of the White House. We just have to,” said Kelly Harlow, the youthful John Edwards coordinator for Madison County. The crowd erupted in stormy applause. Edwards captured the St. Charles caucus hands down, although Kerry won an upset victory statewide.

Don Monahan, a Dennis Kucinich supporter, touched off more applause when he declared, “Bush is about power, greed, and money. We need to stop that, all of us together.” (The day before, the Des Moines Register featured Kucinich’s four-page pull-out ad offering the strongest position of any candidate on the defense of family farms.)

Robert Bell, a farmer and the chair of the Madison County Democratic Party, said the turnout was the biggest he could remember – and the most enthusiastic.

“We’ve got a lot more people here tonight than the fire marshall would like,” he chuckled. “I’m a Gephardt supporter myself, but I think all these voters will unite behind the Democratic nominee next November, whoever it is.”

If that spirit is replicated elsewhere in the nation’s heartland, it bodes well for the struggle to remove Bush and Cheney from power. Because of the undemocratic Electoral College system, rural voters enjoy political clout out of proportion to their numbers. So it is essential that the anti-Bush movement work doubly hard to win these voters.

Farmer-labor unity

Iowa is a textbook of how to do it. Reflecting the diverse composition and the unity of the Iowa electorate, both family farmers and urban working class, Iowa went narrowly for Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Steelworkers employed at the Firestone plant in Des Moines made common cause with farmers in the Iowa caucuses. That farmer-labor alliance has always been the base for progressive change in Iowa, as in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other farm-belt states.

Yet Bush carried a tier of rural states that sliced right down the middle of the country: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Independent farmers say Gore lost these states largely through his failure to come out fighting against corporate agribusiness and factory farming, and in support of the key demand of family farmers, fair farm commodity prices. Their anger is palpable about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has been a boon to agribusiness but a disaster for Iowa farmers and workers.

The night before this year’s caucuses, Gil and Inez Dawes, longtime residents of Madison County and both peace and justice workers for the United Methodist Church, took me to a meeting of “Farm Survival,” a group of family farmers who meet twice monthly at the Multipurpose Center in Winterset. They discussed resolutions they planned to introduce at the caucuses demanding that the Democrats come out stronger in defense of family farming.

“It still comes down to price,” said Betty Johnston, who with her husband Raymond operates a cattle and grain farm north of Winterset. “We are not getting paid what we should be paid for the crops we produce. It’s not fair. We are not on a level playing field.”

The price farmers receive after dawn-to-dark toil, she said, is below the cost of production. Independent and family farmers are kept barely afloat by federal subsidies, the lion’s share of which are reaped by agribusiness giants.

Fight for parity prices

“If the Harkin-Gephardt Bill had gone through, we’d have a lot different situation in farming than we have today,” Raymond Johnston said. “It would have cost taxpayers some money to begin with, but it would have saved money in the long run. Back in the days when we had parity prices, it made money for everybody.”

That bill, named for Iowa’s Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, would be a step toward restoring parity prices, a system of price supports aimed at insuring farmers the cost of production and a modest profit.

“They used to say that a dollar earned from the sale of farm commodities turned over seven times,” Raymond said. Thus farm income rippled out through rural and urban communities generating jobs and income for millions of non-farm workers.

“Let agriculture flourish and the towns will prosper,” he added. “But if agriculture fails, grass will grow in the streets of our cities and towns. The big banks and corporations already control our energy supply, manufacturing, our money and interest. If they gain control of our food supply, they’ll have it all. Agriculture is the one industry that is still not totally under their control.”

Another resolution they planned to introduce demanded stronger enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts to curb the enormous factory farms that poison the countryside with millions of tons of hog and chicken manure. Right outside the idyllic Winterset is Rose Acres, an agribusiness poultry operation that befouls the air and water of the pristine county seat.

“When it rains, it really runs, Betty said. “It attracts rats and snakes. It’s a real mess.”

Critics point out that these factory farms are a breeding ground for scourges like mad cow disease and avian flu. The livestock are packed so closely together that they must be fed heavy doses of antibiotics to protect them from infection and to stimulate rapid weight gain. This practice is also a factor in the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

If it stinks, there’s a factory farm

“Within two-and-a-half miles of us there are five big manure containments. There are 22,000 sows on those five farms and another building with 500 boars,” Raymond said. “It generates many millions of gallons of manure. All the foul water flows south so eventually it will get down to the State House. Maybe then the stink will get the legislators’ attention.”

Everyone present at the Farm Survival meeting belonged to Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), a multiracial urban and rural grassroots organization. Together with the National Family Farm Coalition and the Campaign for Family Farms, Iowa CCI engages in direct action to fight corporate domination and defend family farmers.

“These giant corporations don’t pay their taxes. But they enjoy all kinds of subsidies from the government,” sheep farmer Dean Emory told the meeting. “These factory farms are highly subsidized. An excess profits tax is needed.”

Agribusinesses defend their encroachment on the grounds that it creates jobs and provides cheap food. “But they don’t pay their workers a living wage. If they paid a living wage, more workers would take those jobs. The turnover wouldn’t be so high. We’re going back to feudal times, like the nobility and the serfs, the haves and have-nots,” Raymond Johnston said.

“When I heard Bush talking about going to Mars, I thought to myself, ‘It’s like the Tower of Babel.’ We should take one of those spacecraft and send him to Mars.”

NAFTA ruins family farmers

“Free trade” is sold as a boon for farmers north and south of the U.S.-Mexico border. But NAFTA has ruined farmers, Raymond said.

“A Mexican farmer spoke at the Iowa CCI convention. He was in tears, crying that cheap grain from the United States is driving him out of business. These big multinational corporations like Cargill and ADM are getting their raw material below the cost of production and it’s ruining workers and farmers on both sides of the border.”

“We all know we can’t win this fight alone,” Emory interjected. “Iowa CCI is everybody working together, keeping up to date, supporting one another, reaching out. This is one farmer that is not tied to the Farm Bureau.” He was referring to the U.S. Farm Bureau, an ultra-right outfit that supports Bush and the Republicans down the line.

Iowa CCI, founded in 1981, has 2,000 members in 93 of Iowa’s 99 counties. It charges that the 2002 Farm Bill signed by George W. Bush enforces the system of low farm prices, requiring “billions of dollars in federal payments to prevent a total collapse of the farm economy.”

The bill also encourages aggressive fencerow-to-fencerow farming and the expansion of factory farms and feedlot livestock production that contaminates ground and surface water,” a policy statement from Iowa CCI declares.

“Low farm prices have not resulted in low food prices, but instead, higher profit margins for a handful of multinational food processors and exporters,” the statement continues. “Iowa CCI members are calling on Congress and the President to take an international leadership role in establishing a sustainable family farm policy …”

It would include raising commodity loan rates to ensure that farm income comes from fair prices in the marketplace rather than taxpayers. It calls for short-term conservation measures to avoid overproduction; land stewardship grants to enable young people to go into farming; and a farmer-owned grain reserve to ensure food security and stable prices. This basic farm policy statement is available on the group’s website (

Crisis leaves kids behind

The struggle in rural America touches on every basic issue from world peace to the environment and education. Sherry Williams, a counselor at the public school in Pocahontas, Iowa, was at Dean headquarters a day or so before the caucuses.

Amid the hubbub, she told this reporter, “Family farmers are under pressure. It’s almost impossible to start a new farm. The large corporate farms get the bulk of federal subsidies and that makes it harder for family farmers to compete. Many are leaving their farms.”

She added, “We have declining enrollment all across rural America. Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ is a real pain in the neck for us. In our small schools, we have to multitask to meet the budget crunch. I’m the school counselor but I’m also the curriculum director. I counsel K through 12.”

But No Child Left Behind requires teachers to be certified in every area they teach, an impossibility in rural schools. “No Child Left Behind sets all public schools up for failure,” Williams charged.

“When you expect 100 percent performance, that is perfectionism and it’s not going to happen. All children can learn but not at the same rate. No Child Left Behind does not allow for that. It takes away more local control than anybody can figure out.”

She was expecting a heavier than normal turnout at her caucus and that the sentiment would be “any of the Democrats is better than Bush.” It will take pressure from the grassroots to convince the presumptive Democratic nominee, John Kerry, to embrace a program to address the crisis in rural America. He voted for NAFTA.

But standing in front of AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington recently, Kerry blasted “Benedict Arnold corporate CEOs” who use off-shore tax shelters to hide their profits, while exporting jobs to lands of cheap labor. For millions of rural Americans, it was music to their ears. This is a voting bloc that can be won to the “anybody but Bush” cause.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures