Front note: The Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, is an ok movie, but far inferior to the former.
Literally seconds before typing this sentence, I discovered that one of this essay’s subjects is a celebrity, and not just some random millennial in a puffy coat. That person is Drake, who, according to his Wikipedia page, is “Aubrey Drake Graham, a Canadian rapper, singer and actor. Gaining recognition by starring in the teen drama series Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001–08), Drake pursued a career in music releasing his debut mixtape Room for Improvement in 2006; he subsequently released the mixtapes Comeback Season (2007) and So Far Gone (2009) before signing with Young Money Entertainment.”
Try putting that in CV format.
There’s a viral internet meme featuring two photos of Drake in the requisite puffy coat, and the meme is often being used to demonstrate contradictions or hypocrisy, which you may have noticed are a feature, and not a bug, of present-day America. I want to use that meme before it gets worn out, which happens so quickly these days! In fact, I want to wear it out before you’re done reading this essay. So here goes.
Let’s begin our meming (is that a word?) with commercial nitrogen fertilizer. I just checked Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship sales data for the 2021 crop year, and farmers purchased enough of the stuff to cover all our corn acres with 143 pounds of nitrogen, pretty close to the Iowa State recommendation using their N rate calculator and the March 2021 prices for corn (1) and nitrogen (2). In the context of water quality, however, things aren’t so tidy. We have 25 million hogs, 80 million chickens, 4 million turkeys and a couple million cattle that are excreting a shitton (in the science community, a shitton is oh, about a half a billion pounds, give or take) of nitrogen every year. We also have 10 million acres of soybeans that, with the help of bacteria, are fixing (adding nitrogen to the soil from the atmosphere) about 40 pounds of N per acre. Long and short, a whole lot more N meets the field (x) than meets the combine at harvest time (y), and in this instance, x-y=z, where z is pollution. Ag retailers love “x”, farmers love “y”, public drinks “z”.
Of course in Iowa, talking publicly about that equation (x-y=z) can you get in trouble, unless you’re willing to follow various rules of discourse established by the x-ers and y-ers. And that means never touching the third rail of Iowa Agriculture, regulation of nitrogen inputs. Crazy man that I am, I do that sometimes, but today I’m going to let this Drake fellow do it for me. In this and the scenarios that follow, Drake is the Iowa Agriculture Establishment.
Ooo that was fun, let’s do some more.
Thanks, Drake 1 and 2.
I was inspired to write this one not only by the Drake meme, but also by the reception to a speech I delivered at the SOILs conference at the other Drake, Drake University, a couple of weeks ago. It was generally well received, but I was told by multiple people in recent days that a coupla fellers in the audience didn’t like it so much. In fact, these farmers were so steamed that afterwards they were threatening to use their power as members of the Iowa legislature to defund my work.
Maybe not surprisingly, I find this interesting, and I like to talk and write about it. It seems that it’s not so much that the subject matter I present is wrong, but rather that I have the temerity to present it at all. People don’t like the way it makes them feel.
It seems to me that at least some and maybe most in agriculture have now embraced the identity politics that characterizes the present day. Gone is the farmer that Paul Harvey’s god made on the 8th day—the rugged, hardscrabble individualist, scratching a living out of what the earth and the atmosphere will allow. That’s been replaced by a marginalized (in their eyes) group of whiny and aggrieved snowflakes unable to tolerate hearing 30- and 40- and 80-year-old quotes about farm conservation, and having their own words read back to them. It’s not enough for them that the bureaucracy is obsequious; university scientists evidently are also expected to kneel at the Alter of Maize and be mindful of the sensitivities these folks have when it comes to the environmental degradation of our state. And, after all, authoritarians need obedience above all else.
The industry claims it wants unity with us, the public, when it comes to fixing our water quality problems. The tripe “we all want clean water” is a perfect example. This manifests itself in calls for partnerships—urban-rural, public-private, and so forth. This is all well and good, except, why does the unity always seem to come at the expense of the public, and not agriculture? Can the public expect agriculture to end bad practices such as over-application of nutrients and fall tillage, as a benefit of these partnerships? The answer is always no. Will the public be asked to foot the bill for ending the pollution they themselves did not generate? The answer is always yes. It’s no wonder agriculture loves partnerships, when their definition of unity is synonymous with obedience.
It's important to recognize that the present system does not rest on a foundation of rightness. It was not built, nor is it maintained, to serve needs related to human nutrition or the greater good. Its objective is commerce. It persists not because of its rightness, but because of political power. While Iowa Agriculture may not be monolithic, the political power that it wields is. The fact that you're forced to swallow their pollution, both literally and figuratively, is all the evidence you need for that.
I have to tell you folks, the number of comments I get about my supposed good fortune when it comes to retaining my job is tiresome, and an embarrassment. Not an embarrassment to me, mind you, but rather an embarrassment to a system that purports to want unity on the one hand, but can't even tolerate someone stating the obvious on the other.
Acknowledgement: Lawrence Hall for bringing Drake meme to my attention, via Dave Cwiertny.