Report — From the February 2016 issue

The Trouble with Iowa

Corn, corruption, and the presidential caucuses

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Chris Petersen is a farmer who raises a few hundred legacy-breed hogs in old-school conditions near Clear Lake. The day I visited him, however, he wanted to show me his chickens, a flock of hens that were pecking and wandering, uncaged and un-CAFO’d. Everybody with uncaged chickens wanted to show them to me, because Iowa’s chickens had recently made national headlines. The state has the largest population of caged laying hens in the country, and about half of them died last summer from an epidemic of bird flu. There were discussions in the press about whether it was more humane to exterminate infected flocks by turning off the ventilator fans and letting the animals suffocate or by covering the birds with fire-extinguisher foam to snuff them out by the hundred thousands. The total cost to Iowa for the epidemic would finally be estimated at $1.2 billion.

The traditional farmers I met wanted to show me that none of their chickens had died of bird flu. Avoiding the epidemic, they said, was simply a matter of not raising the birds in caged conditions. All of this went unmentioned in the presidential campaign, except by Carly Fiorina, who suggested that the way to deal with the problem was to find a faster way to deliver federal payments to chicken farmers who had lost birds. Fiorina also called the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit an example of government “overreach.”

Petersen is a political animal as much as he is a hog farmer, and he has been deeply engaged with presidential politics for decades. He’s on a first-name basis with Barack Obama and both Clintons, and stumped for Al Gore and John Edwards. And yet as we talked at his dining-room table, in the modest frame house that he’s lived in most of his adult life, within walking distance of the farm his Danish-immigrant grandfather bought with the money he made digging ditches for drainage tiles, he did not speak much about the campaign. Hillary Clinton would be just a few miles south that week, but Petersen showed no excitement, perhaps because the Clintons’ political fortunes were greatly aided in the early days by Tyson money; the two Arkansas dynasties arose in parallel. Bill Clinton was Tyson’s biggest political supporter, and he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Don Tyson, the company’s former CEO. Hillary Clinton sat on the board of Walmart, the retail pipe for chickenization.

But Petersen’s disengagement likely had far more to do with something William Stowe told me: “Tom Vilsack has been a terrible disappointment.”

When Obama appointed Vilsack as agriculture secretary soon after taking office, it was a way of making good on his campaign promise to reform industrial agriculture. As governor of Iowa, Vilsack had been a supporter of reform, and as agriculture secretary he used antitrust regulation to challenge the Tyson-engineered tournament system. Tyson responded by joining with Smithfield and other meat producers to mount a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign, complete with astroturf opposition and congressional arm-twisting. Big Ag outplayed Vilsack at nearly every turn, and he quickly backpedaled on the new rules. Finally, Congress killed the reform effort late in 2011. Two years later, with the fundamentals of its business plan intact, Smithfield sold itself to the Shuanghui Group, a Chinese company. What Smithfield sold to the Chinese was less its pork production than its control of Iowa’s politics and its landscape. The irony of some of the world’s last remaining Communists taking over from Iowa’s swine capitalists is outdone only by Donald Trump, who spends whatever time he isn’t using to bash immigrants bashing the Chinese. He offers no hint, of course, about how he might best the Shuanghui Group, which, through finely honed contracts, now controls the landscape of all that beautiful corn in the Midwest.

When Rubio, Walker, and Fiorina joined Trump in railing against China, they got personal, directing their fire at China’s president, Xi Jinping. Not long afterward, Terry Branstad, Iowa’s Republican governor, who serves primarily as a shill for Big Ag and is in all other matters philosophically aligned with the Republican field, issued a statement that took exception to the seditious talk. Schooling the candidates about the realities of who owns Iowa, he said that Xi “calls us old friends, not just me but a lot of people in the state of Iowa. That’s an important trading partner, so we want to keep that relationship.”

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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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