Report — From the February 2016 issue

The Trouble with Iowa

Corn, corruption, and the presidential caucuses

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There is another way to process corn and soy for human consumption: feed it to animals. As a nineteenth-century observer wrote, “The hog eats the corn, and Europe eats the hog. Corn thus becomes incarnate; for what is a hog but fifteen or twenty bushels of corn on four legs?” Research shows that one of the biggest sources of linoleic acid in the American diet is chicken.

Iowans have one way of saying this: they lament that their state has been “chickenized.” You could more specifically say it has been “Tysonized.” Tyson Foods prefers to describe the process as vertical integration. A few decades ago, the company began to acquire every step of the process — from producing and delivering feed and hatchlings to slaughter, processing, and distribution — while also expanding horizontally. At the same time, the company almost literally redesigned the biological unit called a chicken, genetically selecting for animals that would gobble high-energy corn and soy to fatten rapidly while crammed in windowless, climate-controlled factories. The goal was a uniform flow of chickens to retailers, especially Walmart and fast-food restaurants. (Annual per capita consumption of chicken in the United States has more than doubled since 1969.)

The process depended on a networked system of growers and farmers, who became contractors. The network was organized as a tournament. Tyson delivered hatchlings, formulated and supplied the feed and antibiotics, and took away the birds when they were ready for slaughter. The company owned every step of the process except the chicken confinements. Growers in a given region were lumped in a pool and paid on the basis of a competitive scheme that ranked them according to the pounds of chicken produced per pound of feed. Everything was tightly monitored by a flow of data that measured corn and soy in, McNuggets out. A productivity gain of a few percentage points meant the difference between bankruptcy and a paycheck for many growers — several people I met in Iowa called them “serfs.” It is an interesting extension of an ancient process. As Charles Darwin wrote, domestication is nothing more than hypercharged natural selection. Tyson’s competition for survival reformulated chickens, but it also domesticated farmers.

Pork processors, the swine capitalists, saw chicken production begin to crowd them out of markets, and so they adopted Tyson’s model. They started in North Carolina, but almost immediately Smithfield Foods brought the change to Iowa. Tyson also got into the pig business. Now Tyson and Smithfield, along with three other corporations — JBS, Cargill, and Hormel Foods — account for almost three quarters of the nation’s pork.

In Iowa, the system combines with politics in a curious little diorama displayed on the outskirts of nearly every farm town. Alongside the usual national fast-food outlets, the state harbors a homegrown chain called Pizza Ranch, which has more than 180 restaurants in the Midwest. The chain offers several forms of industrial pork and chicken embedded in a matrix of cheap carbohydrates, but also satisfies a different need: Pizza Ranch “believes in the power of prayer. If you have a specific issue that you would like us to pray for, please send it in using the form below.”

Though Democrats used to visit Pizza Ranch in earlier years, the chain is a mandatory stop for Republican presidential hopefuls. The Republican contest in Iowa is really a struggle for the evangelical vote, which has slowly accumulated in Cruz’s corner. In December, he drew the coveted endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, the state’s most politically active evangelical, which along with Steve King’s endorsement helped move Cruz past Trump in local polls. By the time of the caucuses, Cruz — and most of the other candidates — will have made multiple Pizza Ranch visits. Mike Huckabee told the Des Moines Register that he won the 2008 caucuses in large part through such visits: “We created the Pizza Ranch strategy. A lot of people have copied it since then, but I think we created it.”

This election cycle, klatches at the chain take place almost daily: a candidate in a suit (or jeans, depending on the desired optics of the day) scarfs a slice while ringed by ruddy men in ball caps, most of them obese, many of them corn growers, chicken growers, or hog growers under contract to a handful of corporations. There they speak about the problems that affect their lives, such as the coming imposition of sharia law. They also talk about the need for the federal government to “get out of the way” of free enterprise, especially their particular brand of federally subsidized free enterprise.

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’s “Bakken Business” appeared in the March 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

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