Monday, March 22, 2021

Using 2017 data (1), USDA has identified 86,104 people as the “primary producer” (e.g., farmer) on Iowa farms. Of these folks, 378 (0.4%) identified as of Hispanic origin, 45 (<0.1%) as Native American, 64 (<0.1%) as Asian, 40 (<0.1%) as African American, 6 (<0.1%) as Pacific Islander, and 85,827 (99.7%) as white. Of these white folks, 80% are male and the average age is almost as old as I am: 58.9 years. Incredibly, only 15,430 (18%) of these farmers are under the age of 45. I bet you can’t name another profession where 75% of their members are AARP-eligible. I can’t, unless there are some buggy whip makers or blacksmiths still around. Long and short, Iowa farming is whiter and older and manlier than the Caddyshack country club.

Newspaper clipping about a couple's 50th anniversary

Without attempting continuity (at least for now), let’s look at the city of Ottumwa. This is the childhood home of my grandfather, Roscoe Wagner, and the place his dad (John) landed after he gave up on farming. John Wagner’s grandfather, William Wagner, left Germany in 1846 to settle and farm in the southeastern part of the new state of Iowa. Ottumwa has about 24,400 people, down from its peak of 33,900 in 1960, the year my great grandfather died. It’s now the 20th largest city in Iowa, and one of the state’s more diverse communities, with about 20% of the population identifying as Hispanic or non-white, similar to Des Moines and Sioux City, but far more diverse than Cedar Rapids and slightly more than Davenport. The median age in Ottumwa is 33 and 65% of the population is under the age of 45. Ottumwa is also one of the poorest cities in Iowa. Depending on the data source, it ranks in the mid-700s out of about 900 Iowa communities in median household income, which is remarkable considering its relatively large size (for Iowa). The city lies in Wapello County, which ranked 94th out of 99 Iowa counties in median household income in 2019.

What links paragraphs 1 and 2 is water, specifically the Des Moines River. From its source in southwest Minnesota, Iowa’s largest inland stream travels through north central and southeast Iowa (and Ottumwa) to its confluence with the Mississippi at Keokuk. The river and its tributaries drain more than 14,000 square miles and some of the most-coveted farmland on earth, which lies especially in the areas upstream of Des Moines.  This ground is underlain with an intricate cobweb of drainage pipes (tiles) that all but extirpated an entire wetland ecosystem while leaking enough fertilizer and manure nitrogen to kill an estuary 1500 miles away. As Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids paper has said, The Dead Zone Starts Here. That nitrogen reaches the stream network as nitrate, which is a regulated drinking water contaminant and the Gordian knot of Iowa agriculture.

Map of Iowa showing location of Ottumwa
Des Moines River Watershed with star showing location of Ottumwa.


Without a license to pollute the public’s waters with this contaminant, the corn/soybean/CAFO system can’t exist in its current configuration. I can confidently say that most people in the general public don’t realize this, but astute people in agriculture certainly do. That’s why the industry tenaciously fought the failed Des Moines Water Works lawsuit of a few years ago that sought redress for the contamination of the drinking water consumed by 20% of Iowa’s population. Something you don’t hear a lot about is that contamination makes its way down to Ottumwa, which like Des Moines, also uses the Des Moines River as a drinking water source. In the last 5 years, Des Moines River nitrate has exceeded 10 mg/L (the drinking water standard) just downstream from Ottumwa at Keosauqua on at least 76 days and exceeded 8 mg/L (a level where your shorts get in a bunch if you’re water treatment plant operator) on another 106 days.

You could easily say the nitrate threat is greater in Ottumwa than it is in Des Moines because Ottumwa lacks the diversity of water sources and treatment plants that Des Moines has. Ottumwa’s aging (I’ve been in it twice) drinking water treatment plant does not have nitrate removal capacity like Des Moines and the utility relies on water from a former quarry to dilute the Des Moines River nitrate as it is pumped into the treatment plant. And that’s always a crap shoot because these quarries can be cauldrons for nuisance and harmful algae that are a threat in and of themselves.

While you can argue “fairness” all day long, the truth is the Des Moines area has the resources to cope with this problem. You can’t very confidently say the same thing about Ottumwa. And to circle back to my first paragraph, Iowa’s landed gentry, mainly white, many wealthy, some especially wealthy, are polluting the water of a community where many are poor and many are people of color. And in a bit of an irony, many of the Ottumwa folks earn their living by slaughtering the hogs that help pollute the water and are produced by the landed gentry. The JBS hog processing facility in Ottumwa processes a staggering 7 million hogs per year and 1 million pounds of pork per day.

Do the workers care that their drinking water is affected? Or that there is increasing evidence that nitrate in drinking water is a carcinogen? I don’t know. Iowa’s politicians certainly don’t seem to care. Try to find one, just one, from either party that has talked about Ottumwa’s drinking water. These politicians do, however, like to spend time trying to put money into the pockets of the landed gentry. We’re told just this month that they need “resources and regulatory relief” to reduce nutrient runoff. Did I miss something? Are regulations causing this problem? Or, is regulatory relief the “Ransom” that I wrote about two years ago? Hmm. A person could reasonably ask just what about agricultural water quality do we seriously regulate. I don’t know of anything. But if they do come up with something, Ottumwans, hear this: your water is being held hostage.

I’m writing this one today against the backdrop of a political climate that is suggesting that we in the public sector not talk about certain subjects. Of course, one of these is racism and another is environmental justice, and I guess the thinking is that if we don’t talk about them, they won’t exist. Ironically, the same people pushing this are the same ones saying Orwell this, Orwell that, and it’s pretty clear none of them have read many of George’s books. I kind of wonder if most of them don’t think that Animal Farm was published by ISU Extension. But I digress.

Older white house with a porch
Wagner house on N. Ward St. in Ottumwa.

It’s also clear that environmental justice does not exist in Iowa and I sure don’t want to be the guy blamed for its emergence.  What does exist in spades is environmental injustice, and since nobody has explicitly said that topic is taboo, well, essay. Ottumwa is an example. I don’t see any elected person out there in either political party that gives a rat’s behind about it. Of course, the industry rationalizes this injustice by telling us that we should turn a blind eye to the pollution that their practitioners, all (white) paragons of virtue of course, need to generate because they are feeding the world. You can’t make an omelet, after all, without breaking a few eggs. And some of those eggs, maybe more than the average hen is going to lay, are going to be brown. Ottumwans: suck it up, and be thankful you have those hogs to butcher.