This is To See Each Other, where we explore how people are reshaping small town America, and why writing it off as Trump country hurts us all. I'm George Goehl and today we visit Iowa. Iowa is more than presidential caucuses and cornfields. It's also where the fight for clean water and against corporate greed is engaging Iowans across generations.
When we think about rural America, one picture that pops in our mind is agriculture: the family farm, close knit communities, the pride of growing food for your family and the world. That way of life is hanging on by a thread and it remains a live fight. The fight itself has become so extreme and cuts so close to the bone that rural communities are now not just fighting for their dignity, but for the most basic human needs.
Water. Water flows between urban, suburban and rural. It flows across race and even across partisanship. It connects all of us. Most of us believe that government should ensure the safety of that water. Even diehard conservatives see water as a place where we need government to show up. When it doesn't, it's due to corporate greed. No matter the reason for the unsafe water, lead, toxic pesticides, fracking, or in the case of Iowa, hog manure, the actual underlying cause is greedy corporations and the politicians they've bought off. It's really that simple.
It's a crisis that's playing out across the country from Flint to Standing Rock and beyond. Iowa is one center of that crisis. In the late '80s and '90s, corporate pork producers slowly started taking over the state. In 1995, Iowa's then governor, Terry Branstad, signed a law that allowed for corporate ownership of hogs and swung open the flood gates for factory farming. Since then, Iowa has become one of the biggest suppliers of pork to the world. There are now nearly 10 times as many hogs in Iowa as there are people.
Have you ever been to a corporate hog operation? You can smell it from miles away. This isn't the smell of a barn or even of animals. It smells poisonous. You won't see workers tending to animals but completely automated feeding operations with hogs all but stacked on top of each other. They are not running in the field like the ones on the farm next to where I grew up in Indiana.
In most corporate hog operations, the pigs rarely leave the containment center, but their manure does. Iowa's 26 million hogs are producing as much waste as 45 million people. 750 of the state's waterways are polluted. Those waterways have streamed into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a toxic dead zone where no marine life can survive, threatening the gulf's seafood industry. Locally, the contamination is leaving Iowans at risk of bladder, ovarian, and thyroid cancer. It means newborns face an increased risk of spina bifida and cleft palate. Just to have safe drinking water, the city of Des Moines has had to install the largest nitrate removal system in the world. Despite all of this, the government still hasn't done anything to protect the waterways.
In fact, it's done the opposite. In 2017 Iowa state legislature actually forced a $1.2 million reduction to its Department of Natural Resources. Nationally, in 2018, the Trump administration cut the EPA's water monitoring budget by a third, eviscerating water quality enforcement.
Throughout all of this, People's Action affiliate, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, has been fighting to protect Iowa's waterways and everyday Iowans. Even since before pork production ramped up in the '90s, they have been striking at the root of the problem; the state putting corporate agriculture's interests ahead of people and the planet.
I never really thought about water or if it was clean or not.
Nobody trusts our town water. People give their pets bottled water because they just don't feel that it's safe.
I never heard of any water pollution or anything like that. Never heard of wells being polluted by hog crap or anything like that. None of it.
Oh, wow. Our water is not at all clean. The Raccoon River is one of the most polluted rivers in the whole state. That's where I've always gotten my drinking water from.
People just don't realize what's going on with their water.
Everybody needs clean water to survive.
It becomes, I guess, a public health issue. Water, which we drink every day in even moderate amounts, is killing us over time.
Those were some of the folks from Iowa CCI. You'll hear more from them later. When I was cutting my teeth as an organizer in southern Indiana, a couple of us got invited to a National People's Action gathering of organizers from across the country. It was the first time I'd been around that many organizers. There's a lot I remember from that meeting, but most memorable where these folks from Iowa. They seemed to always be jumping around or standing on chairs when they told stories. They were talking about a pitch battle between family farmers and corporate agriculture. It felt epic.
Those organizers were from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, or Iowa CCI. One of the organizers was Hugh Espey, now the director of the group. When you think of Hugh, picture Robert Duvall, a bit thinner, wearing a baseball cap and an Iowa CCI tee shirt. Duvall's playing a community organizer saddled up to the bar telling stories, true stories, about taking the fight to the doorstep of those who started it.
Here's Hugh on the fight in Iowa and how the fight for water and against greed has brought together everyday Iowans, from urban to rural and from the state capitol of Des Moines to the tiny town of Adair, population 781.
From the mid '90s, maybe you start out with a couple hundred of these factory farms. Now we've got over 10,000. Just in terms of the number of hogs, at that time in the mid '90s we had 12 million pigs across the state. Now we have over 26 million. The state of Iowa has 3.1 million people that produce waste every day. Those pigs produce the waste of about 70 million people and it's spread on farm ground and it ends up in our creeks, rivers, and streams. That's how it's exploded. Pig wise and pig shit wise. It's exploded.
Yeah. Can you say a little more about what it means to families in a county, and especially close by, when one of these factory farms comes in?
It divides people against people, for one thing. Because if somebody says, "Well, I can do it. So I'm going to put up a building." It's just like, "Yeah, but what are you doing to the rest of the community?" Basically what it is, it's like, "No, it's about me. It's not about the community. It's about me. Why am I doing it? Because I can do it." First and foremost, it pits people against people. Secondly, for the neighbors that are living around it, there's going to be the stench. It's not a smell. It's not like an old barnyard smell with straw and bedding, with horses and all that kind of stuff. That's not bad at all. This is a stench. The fumes and what you're smelling is the hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, or what you're taking in. Those are harmful to your health. You don't have to be in the building to suffer health effects from the fumes, the hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, the air pollution that comes off of factory farms. There's that.
Then the stench, and it's like you become either a prisoner in your own home, or you're driven out of your home because of different times during the year, if I'm spreading manure, it's like, "Oh, my God. Can't have a picnic. Can't put clothes out on the line. You got to shut your windows. You can't do this. You can't do that," because it's a fume that just ... It's hard to explain. It's like if you're stuck in a dirty old gas station ... Sorry, I'm not trying to bust on gas stations. But if you're in a dirty old gas station in a dirty old bathroom and you're locked in there and there's fucking piss and shit in there, and that you can't get out. That's what it's like. You're trapped. You're trapped in there.
It's that plus then there's the constant truck traffic. Trucks are bringing feed. You got to bring feed to it because hogs eat a lot so you got to bring ... You just don't grind it there. No. The company that owns it is bringing in all these big semis so there's constant traffic up and down the gravel roads, and the safety issues. Then your roads get torn up. Then the county uses public dollars to fix roads that the corporation's tearing up. I said, "Well, that's not right. We should send them a bill. They should pay for that if they're ..." There's damage to roads. There's the constant truck traffic. There's the noise. Then there's the manure. I'm not even getting to the manure getting into your water and polluting things.
Why aren't more elected standing up to these factory farms?
Because they're chicken shits. They're chicken shits. Because they're afraid. We say that some of our biggest opponents on this are not the Republicans, they're the establishment Dems that are chicken shits, that are afraid to stand up to the Farm Bureau and the economic power of the Farm Bureau and the commodity group, the corn growers and the soybean growers and the pork producers and the beef boys, the beef boys, all that. They have a lot of power. They've been used to having a lot of power and calling the shots, especially in rural areas.
How do you fight that?
What we're trying to tell people is that it doesn't have to be this way. We can reimagine our future. But as we do that, we're going to have to fight. I'm sorry. We're not going to all come together around a campfire and hold hands and sing songs and feel good about each other. You can do that, but that's not going to get any kind of structural change that ultimately we have to take on and take down corporate power. Corporations have used that be nice Iowa, nice crap, all that ... By the way, I'm from the Midwest. I'm not from New York and I'm not from Los Angeles. I hate that Iowa nice stuff because it's used against us. It makes you feel good, but it doesn't solve anything and allows corporate power to continue marching on doing what they want to do and just tearing our communities apart.
What's it mean when a family farmer or somebody in a rural community finds Iowa CCI and moves from being completely alone in this fight to being a part of a team?
They've reached the promised land. Well, I think people find community and a sense of family by being part of an organization like this that has a similar analysis about a particular issue. Then we learn other things about other issues. We meet other people around the state that may not look like us and they may not talk like us and they may not speak the same language. It's like, "Well, hell. They have issues, too, that were connected." I think it's finding solidarity. Solidarity is important. We've got to stick together and we've got to stick up each other. I stick up for you and you stick up for me and let's fight for somebody we don't know and let's fight for people we do know and let's fight for other people. Maybe rather than finding your community in your neighborhood, in a rural community, you're finding your community and you're defining neighborhood differently.
Another reason I'm taken by Iowa CCI, other than its commitment to the fight, is its members. Because visually, if you came into a meeting, you could think you were at a Trump rally. But CCI members are the ultimate stereotype busters. A group with a lot of older, rural white folks, deeply devoted to racial and economic justice.
Larry Ginter is one of those members. He's a retired, third generation family farmer who lives in the town of Rhodes, Iowa and has been a member of Iowa CCI since the early two thousands. One of my favorite memories of Larry was when National People's Action took over the offices of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigrant organization based in D.C. He was part of a Latinx black and white leadership team. It meant a lot to people to have an older white farmer with his Wranglers, western shirt, and cowboy boots, stand up with tears in his eyes for the rights of immigrants, documented or not. When we visited Iowa, he shared with us his story about what it's been like to have a way of life and the health of his community get pulled apart and how he and others are working to reimagine rural Iowa.
When I was a kid growing up and when I was farming full time, the neighbors would come in. We'd shell corn together. We'd pick corn on the ear. We were working side by side, getting the corn shelled and putting it in our own bins or whatever. You're getting down in the soil, you're walking the beans, walking the corn, pulling out weeds, the manual labor of being out there, plowing up the ground. You see the birds flying in and getting the grubs out of the ground when you're plowing up the stuff. Smelling the rich soil. There's nothing like little pigs running out there behind their mother, laying in the grass or laying in the straw or whatever it is. Okay? It's just fun to watch it. Okay? Once you get the dirt under your fingers, under your fingernails, and once you see the stuff growing and you see the new crops coming out of the soil, there's nothing like it.
Let me give you a history about what life was like growing up in the '40s under the Roosevelt New Deal program, because it is absolutely mind boggling what it was like back then and what has happened now. We were a fairly diversified family farm. We had cows and we had dairy cows, milk cows. We had chickens and we had hogs. We rotated our pastures. We had rotation pasture. We had two apple trees. We had a cherry tree. We had big gardens. We had grapes and we had strawberries. Mom and dad butchered and they canned the beef and canned the pork. We'd have fresh milk. We'd have all these kinds of things that I just don't have anymore now. But anyway, it was a wonderful time. Family farmers were prospering under the New Deal program.
The small towns were prospering. I remember as a young kid going into Rhodes on Saturday night. The streets in the summertime, it was packed. Bumper to bumper cars. They were lined up on both sides of the street. Band concert night. We got our groceries there and we'd done most of our shopping there in Rhodes. We had a bank. We had two gas stations. We had a post office, a small telephone company. We had a hotel, restaurants, feed stores, a lumber yard, four churches, school, the whole shebang. Every town was like that. It was just prospering.
The money flowing from family farms are flowing into small towns and, of course, further than that, even. But anyway, it's more or less a bedroom town now. We've got a post office. We got a bar. We got a repair shop. But everything else is gone. We've only got one church left. We have no school left. That's all that's left of Rhodes. We got a fire station there. We got a wealthy farmer. They had a building program last year. People donated and we got a new fire station, which is really a wonderful thing. It's still the hard working folks there. Like I said, it's a bedroom town, but it's a remnant of what it was before.
Let me talk to you about how I raised hogs. Okay? I turned my sows out morning and night. Got them up in the morning, turned them out, they came back in and laid down. I had straw in there for the pigs and for the sow. Okay? Confinement, it's all concrete. They're in those buildings. They have what is called gestation stalls. That's where the sows go to have ... It's three months, three weeks, three days before they can have a pig. They're in confinement until they have their pigs. Then they go and put them in a farrowing house. Okay? They're in there for maybe two or three weeks. Then they go back to the gestation stall. Okay?
My operation, after those sows had their pigs after two or three weeks, I would take them out of there and pair up, maybe, or have three or four sows in the one pen and with their pigs. I have a little area so the pigs could get away from and eat in there. Then they could go outside on the grass. Okay? That's the difference. One is next to nature, doing what they got to do in the alfalfa field or grass or timber ground or whatever. They're out there rooting and playing in the .... They've haven't had their life force destroyed.
Growing up, and when I took over the farm in '65 and all the way up until the '80s and early '90s, I never heard of any water pollution or anything like that. Never heard of wells being polluted by hog crap or anything like that. None of it. But when they let the big boys in, it wasn't more than a couple years, we started hearing trouble of a manure spill here, poisoned wells, whatever. But the whole system is just out of control. We're flooded with manure. Now they're saying the directive's coming down, you can't fine them, you can't stop a permit, blah, blah, blah. We're flooded. We got 707 polluted waterways. It doesn't seem to dawn on our fearless leaders like the Farm Bureau and the commodity groups and governors and state legislators. They don't seem to understand the link between these dangerous pathogens and human health.
Right now, the family farmer has no market. There's still cow calf operations, don't get me wrong, but there's no hogs, there's no chickens, and there's no dairy. It's being destroyed. When you lose a farm, it's like losing a part of the family. You feel like you've let everybody down. Okay? That's what's going on now. Dairy farmers are losing their farms and some end with suicides. I think they said there was 400 or 500 suicides across the country from 2012 to 2019 or something like that. There are suicides that's probably happening, but they don't know. They can't prove it. But it's like you're losing that family member. You're being disconnected from the soil. Something that's been ingrained in you for years, your hard work, everything.
On my situation, I was able to transfer and rent it to a good guy. Then I worked part time with another neighbor. But being part of an organization, being part of the laboring people, the immigrant family situation, all the stuff that progressives get involved in has helped me out so much. If I worked for CCI, I would be lost. I have that connection. Okay? There are a hell of a lot of people that don't have that connection and I feel sorry for them. There's a lot of farmers out there that do not have that connection. I'm 80 years old, but I've got nothing to goddamn lose now. It's very important. We all need to take that attitude. We've got nothing to lose, but ourselves, our soul, and this precious earth, and our communities. We got to fight together, stand up for one another, and take them on. That's all there is to it.
Larry always swells my heart and gives me hope. Now, to go up against corporate ag and win the fight for clean water, you're going to need to build a big coalition. It's got to be urban and rural, multi-racial, and intergenerational. Fortunately, the next generation is in the fight. LaKeisha Perkins and Emma Schmit are two young organizers working alongside Larry and Hugh with Iowa CCI. LaKeisha is in Des Moines where she grew up and Emma lives deep in rural Iowa, where nobody can touch anything but bottled water. Both understand that water is life. Here's Emma.
I grew up in Rockwell City, Iowa. It's actually in between two large slaughterhouses. We've got Tyson and Sara Lee in Storm Lake, and then Prestage in Wright County and I'm right in the middle there. As a kid, I really didn't know anything about agriculture. Even though it's a small town and we're an agriculture county, nobody really talked about it. I was probably 20 before I realized that the long white buildings that you saw all over the place were factory farms. I didn't realize they were filled with thousands of animals until I actually started looking into it because it's not an obvious thing. They don't just say, "Hey, we got 5,000 hogs in here right now." They try and conceal it as much as possible.
I'm Lakeisha Perkins. I was born and raised in Des Moines. We've lived in or near this area since forever. I didn't really know anything about agriculture, but always grew up thinking, "I want to be a veterinarian." Iowa State has a huge ag college. I actually started off as an animal science major, but I ended up switching to agriculture and society, which looks at agriculture using a sociological perspective to see how agriculture has changed over time and how that has affected different groups of communities. I learned a lot about how a lot of farmers have been pushed out due to this get big or get out mentality.
I've watched my town just deteriorate. It's the face of struggling, rural America. We have lost our businesses. Our schools have consolidated multiple times. We lost our grocery store this year so we have to drive 50 miles just to get food. A lot of that is because the farm system that we have is not what it used to be. Everything is one farmer raising 5,000 hogs instead of 10 farmers raising 500 hogs.
It made me angry that, in animal science and in corporate ag, they pitched that this idea that we're feeding the world and we're just doing what we need to do and that there is no other way that's going to work while also ignoring the fact that there's still a ton of people who are incredibly food insecure in Iowa, in the nation, in the world and that farmers are suffering from this. Consumers are suffering from this. There's farm workers who are treated like crap. Corporate ag abuses immigrant workers and then basically sits by when ICE shows up and watches them all get taken away. That was infuriating to me.
Nobody trusts our town water. People will give their pets bottled water because they just don't feel that it's safe. Normally our city water does operate within guidelines. We did have a period, oh, two years ago where we were all drinking water for a month that was not safe. Then we got a letter that told us, "Hey, just so you know, this happened." It's like, "Oh, great. Wish you would have told me that before." This year, we found out that our water system needs to be upgraded and so they've jacked up our property taxes to pay for that. Rumor is they're going to double our water bills as well, just to be able to afford to give us safe, clean drinking water.
I never really thought about water or if it was clean or not. Started learning about it and was like, "Oh, wow. Our water is not at all clean." The Raccoon River is one of the most polluted rivers in the whole state and that's where I've always gotten my drinking water from. I never knew any of this. Never thought to look into it. Now my family has been drinking this forever.
Like I learned from the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, water is life. We all need it. We, as a species, cannot survive without it. Factory farms and agriculture are number one polluter of water in Iowa. As a result, Iowa is the number two polluter of the Mississippi River, which obviously runs down to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and contributes to that. It's not just Iowa that we're worrying about here. It's everywhere.
This is our future that we are fighting for. Young people have so many newer, fresher ideas. We just can't be afraid to speak up and take action and fight back against the people who are threatening our future because that's what's happening. What it's going to take is for us all to find the confidence to stand up and fight against them and speak against them and take any consequences that it comes with that because there's going to be consequences, but it's going to be worth it because in the long run, like I said, this is our future we're fighting for. We have to do whatever it takes.
The one more thing that I want to add is, especially for young people of color like me, particularly women, we are always struggling and fighting 10 times harder in this world to get to the places that we want to be. A lot of times our voices are left out of conversations or we're talked around or people are making solutions for us. This is our time. In this moment, we have to push back against that. Racism is not going away. It hasn't gone away. In many ways, because of our current political establishment, things are getting scarier, much scarier. For people of color all over, young people of color like me, we just need to be loud and let our righteous anger out because it is righteous. We have a right to be upset and we should let that out.
I love that these young organizers, inspired by others across the country, are building together with older folks to make the world safer for all of us. The kids are going to be all right.
Having these conversations in Iowa has me thinking about our hierarchy of values and what we're passing on to the next generations. Clean drinking water is a basic need. Yet some companies making more money takes priority over people in rural communities having water to drink. That is our hierarchy of values. Like we saw with Larry and Emma and Keisha, the vibrancy of rural communities, the loss of a way of American life, and our health have all been eroded by corporate greed.
That erosion is another form of inequality. The people who are poisoning the well and those who have to drink from it. The people who have access to water and those who don't. The people who can afford to be healthy and those who can't. When it comes to water, this inequity can make even the most hopeful of us deeply cynical.
But cynicism wouldn't want us to celebrate our victories, like the fact that Iowa CCI has won moratoriums against factory farms in dozens of counties across the state, like the fact that I was CCI is helping us see each other across generations and communities to retain our sense of connection to each other, to the land we live on, and even the water we drink. Water, which connects Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico, connects Flint to Standing Rock, and even to New Jersey, where we'll visit next. If you're looking to get into the fight and dive deeper into the history of the push for clean water in Iowa head the peoplesaction.org/podcast to learn more. Thanks so much for listening.
To See Each Other is produced by People's Action and The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo and our production manager is Shelby Sandlin. To See Each Other is sound designed by Pedro Rafael Rosado. Original music by The Tang Brothers.
The groundbreaking organizing work featured in To See Each Other is reaching millions of voters and reshaping politics in communities across the country–and we need you to join us.