Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Version of the Iowa Corn Tour

Hello there!
I hope your week is off to a great start.  I'm writing a post today (words only!) because I think this is a post that needs to be written and nobody else is going to do it.
In my last post I briefly mentioned the Iowa Corn Tour fiasco that had taken over twitter for a day.  Essentially, a few bloggers were flown, put up in a hotel, fed, and given gift bags by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.  The bloggers tweeted often and enthusiastically throughout the trip about how excited they were to learn about the non-risks of high fructose corn syrup and the sham of organic farming. 
This caused a major uproar among a few bloggers, in part because of the blatant lack of transparency about the tour itself.  This outrage was nicely summarized by Milehi Mama in this post, in which she expresses her distaste at the content of the tweets and the lack of openness by the sponsors.  My favorite quotes from her post:

"Many of the tweets weren’t about the benefits of corn, but were about why organic farms are a scam and why we just shouldn’t care if our food is processed.  Sadly, good information like the benefits of frozen vegetables were hidden in the misleading mudslinging. 
I don’t have a problem with bloggers taking tours of industry, or trying out products, or liking high fructose corn syrup and eating Cheetos.
What do I have a problem with? Bloggers blindly accept any information given, and use the corporate platform to spread misinformation in the name of promoting a product, especially without transparency."

She ended her post with a perfectly appropriate send-off, asking all of us to 'blog with integrity'.  
I completely agree with her points, but I think the following has been missing from this conversation:
There are people in this state making huge changes in the way Iowans feed themselves and the world by growing sustainably and educating people.  
It makes me incredibly angry to see my state depicted as being dedicated only to big agriculture.  The Iowa that you see in tours like this and the one Shauna participated in allow corporate sponsors to tell the story of our state.
I'm not denying that factory farming is a big part of Iowa.  Fly over this state and you'll see a patchwork of corn and soybeans that are used to make all kinds of non-food products, packaged and shipped around the world.  Drive our highways and you will see (and smell) rendering plants and contained animal feeding operations like the one Shauna was paid to tell you are perfectly fine.  This is the picture of Iowa that emerges if you listen only to those who speak loudly with deep pockets.
But there's a side of Iowa that's missing from this story:
  • Mrs. Pavelka, my lamb farmer, who treats her animals with such care that you can stop by her farm any time and pet your future meal, no white disease protection suit needed.
  • The inspirational Danelle Stamps of Stamps Family Farm, whom I consider my friend as well as my pig farmer.  Through the internet, I've watched her raise the Birkshire pig that I purchased and will soon eat.  
  • Susan Jultz, my vegetable farmer from ZJ Farms in Solon.  ZJ provides high quality produce through the model of community supported agriculture.  (You can see some of my posts about the shares we got here)
  • Scott Koepke from my cooperative grocery store, where he sources locally grown produce for a fair price, teaches backyard gardening, and advocates at the local and state levels for small young farmers who are just starting out.  His work has made a huge difference in how people in my city eat.
  • Restaurants like Devotay, Motley Cow, and Lincoln Cafe, who have made an art of the farm-to-table concept and live it every day, and the people who make a point of eating at these restaurants and asking the chefs about where the food comes from.
  • Local non-profit organizations who are feeding our hungry directly from the fields of small farmers, like Johnson County Local Foods Alliance and Local Foods Connection

These people are my local heroes, and they make me proud to live here.
My point is this: For every tweet and blog post that big agriculture buys to sell you their version of food, there is an important person or organization that goes unnoticed.  I don't want to allow corporations to control the world's perception of Iowa, and perhaps the best recourse I have is to write about it here.  We have the power to inform ourselves, educate others, and reject advertising as information.
Finally, I'd like to share this video with you.  It's from Francis Thicke, who is running for secretary of Agriculture in Iowa.  To elect him would send a clear message that Iowans want to make food policy a priority.  (You can read about Michael Pollan's opinion that this is 'the most important election of the year' here)


Milehimama said...

Thanks for the quote and link!

I do admit that when I think of Iowa, I don't think of local, sustainable agriculture. I've only been through it a few times, and I mainly remember- corn fields.

Did the IACornTour bloggers visit a CAFO? I'd be shocked if they did. I lived near enough one in Greeley, CO to know that access is limited (but you can smell them 10 miles away).

Milehimama said...

Me again. See where my food stereotypes lead? I never thought about what PIG CAFOs look like.
I think this is telling - a quote from Shauna:
"You’ll see that I don’t have any photographs inside the barns, or of the pigs themselves. There’s a reason for that.

Rubbing his brow in frustration, Craig Christianson asked us not to take photographs."
"Yes, there were hundreds and hundreds of them, and they were kept in stalls. But I don’t know how one would run a large-scale business, and check on the feeding and health of that many pigs, without this system."

Teresa said...

I agree that Iowa isn't just about corn fields. I'm lucky to have several farmers' markets and U-Pick farms within driving distance. But I don't know why folks have to paint Iowa farmers with negative labels like "big ag." Corn farmers are family farmers, too; they just farm more acres.

Diana@Spain in Iowa said...

Alicia, This is brilliant! Thank you so much for posting such a thought provoking post especially when it comes to our state. I had no idea about this whole twitter thing that went on and am planning on writing a post myself. Thanks Alicia!!

Miss Effie @MissEffiesdiary said...

Fantastic article!!! Keep it up... we need more bloggers writing about the great sustainable food found in Iowa.

Fields of corn and soybeans are important. And Teresa is right .... corn farmers aren't necessarily big ag. But we seriously need diversification in this state.

And you hit two of my favorite restaurants ... love Devotay and the Lincoln Cafe. Check out Mill Creek Cafe in Clarence for lunch some time.

Libby said...

OMG. I live in Virginia, and I'm appalled.......will be sharing this with the people who read my blog, "edible cville" - keep fighting the good fight!

Kathy said...

Libby - thanks for linking this for C'villians. Thank goodness for folks who can see through the money trail and advertising.

Alicia said...

Milehimama, Shauna's post was pretty outrageous, but it needs to be taken in the context of the blog she writes for the Pork Board (as it clearly states at the top). I think a lot of people thought about it in terms of her very successful Gluten Free Girl franchise. And aside from being prohibited from taking photos, red flag after red flag appears in that post. The humans were required to wear hazard suits when visiting the pigs (presumably because their immune systems are so suppressed!) and the mother pigs are separated from their children 'for their own safety'. All kinds of things that make that operation less than ideal.

Teresa, I meant no disrespect to family farmers. In fact, I think that's what's most frustrating about this whole commodity corn business. It puts farmers at the mercy of the government and huge seed/pesticide corporations. Many of these big farms are owned by people out of state, who rent the land to farmers. I don't think that's a fair practice either.

Diana, I love your idea of a sustainability tour, and I cannot WAIT to read your post!

Cathy, your little farm is completely inspirational! I just might have to come visit some time, and I will most certainly check out the Mill Creek Cafe! If you're ever in Iowa City, contact me and we'll go out!

Libby, thank you SO much for passing this on. and thanks Kathy for reading.

Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment!

Colleen/FoodieTots said...

Love this post! Proof that the best way to counter Big Ag's money is to celebrate and spread the word about sustainable farmers.

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