Family Farm Advocate George Naylor Discusses Past, Present & Future of Ag Economics, Politics
Naylor is the great contrarian at the heart of the industrial farm system — that immense edifice of massive corn and soybean production, mega-farms of vast and increasing size, powerful corporate actors and federal money. As a past president of the National Family Farm Coalition, a board member of the Center for Food Safety, and a persuasive writer of essays and op-ed pieces, he reminds the elephant of mainstream agriculture that it’s heading for a cliff, his voice always articulate, his candor unsparing. Most Americans had never heard of him until he appeared as one of the great explainers in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the conventional farmer who outlined the self-destructive nature of Big Ag in a pivotal chapter. He played a key role in forcing Monsanto to abandon its plans for GMO wheat, and he is one of the few voices in the entire spectrum who insist that a guarantee of fair prices for all farmers offers the only hope for rural America. He’s one of the few critics in the land who seems to know that “parity” is still part of the English language. “Without Clarity On Parity, All You Get Is Charity,” he titled his chapter in a book called Food Movements Unite!, stating an important truth in doggerel worthy of Muhammad Ali. Naylor believes everybody should pay organic prices for their groceries and vary their diets accordingly. “Here in Iowa,” he wrote, “where the landscape is plastered with millions of acres of genetically modified corn and soybeans along with their poisonous herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers polluting our lakes and rivers, our institutions deny that Silent Spring has arrived, let alone that anything needs to change. In fact, politicians and educators of every stripe bow to the god of Norman Borlaug, mesmerized by the World Food Prize mantra that we must feed the world using whatever new technology the chemical giants offer to deal with new problems turning up every day.”
Interviewed by Chris Walters
The History of Farm Policy
ACRES U.S.A. What is your family’s history in Iowa?
GEORGE NAYLOR. My grandparents on my dad’s side were coal miners in England, and they came to this country around the 1890s. They mined coal here in Green County until a mine caved in on my grandfather’s farm. He decided to pursue being a farmer. He came to this farm here in 1919, and they were experiencing prosperity because of World War I. Then the crash came in 1920 — farm prices collapsed, and they basically lived in poverty. It’s important to realize that while the rest of the country experienced the Roaring Twenties, the farm economy was in a deep depression. My dad was born in 1906, and he would recount some of the neighbors losing their farms and becoming emotional about the loss. What the New Deal did meant everything to him, because it meant holding onto his farm and the neighbors not losing their farms.
ACRES U.S.A. What was the essence of Roosevelt’s farm policy?
NAYLOR. One of the first pieces of legislation was the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and it created a non-recourse loan and put a floor under prices. I think that was one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century. It also created the ever-normal granary. That was how the non-recourse loan worked. In any given year, the farmer could take out the non-recourse loan on grain that was stored, and if they weren’t able to repay the loan with interest, they could forfeit that grain to the government, and that grain would be held in reserve in case there was a shortage of grain or a severe weather event. Farmers didn’t have to worry about taking anything less than a certain price, and food consumers didn’t have to worry about some terrible calamity that resulted in a famine.
ACRES U.S.A. How did it change after World War II?
NAYLOR. In 1941 legislation was passed to raise the loan rates to 90 percent of parity. It was a war measure. Those were supposed to expire a few years after the end of the war, but farmers and their representatives in Congress had the ability to keep those rates in place until 1953, when the Hope-Aiken bill was passed. Hope was a congressman from Kansas and Aiken was a senator from Vermont. That was the beginning of the end, because they turned the logic of the farm program totally upside down. The new logic was that the farmers were overproducing because they were getting too high a price, and therefore we had to lower prices supports. It didn’t have the effect of lowering production at all, especially because you had new supplies of nitrogen fertilizer coming on the market, so production was always going to be a problem. Even though the legislation wasn’t passed until 1953, the Brannan Plan under the Truman administration was a bureaucratic nightmare based on sending payments to farmers for everything from soup to nuts. Every conceivable commodity farmers could produce would require some sort of government payment. That didn’t pass, and a leader of the Farmers Union back then said the Truman administration didn’t support it anyway; it was a red herring. The other thing to keep in mind is that this was during the Cold War, and the secretary of agriculture when the Hope-Aiken bill passed was Ezra Taft Benson. He even wrote a book called Freedom to Farm. In his books he claimed that anything the federal government did to regulate the economy, whether it was farm programs or social security, was socialistic and the road to communism. So farmers lost their voice for parity in the Farmers Union because of that. The other interesting thing is that Benson’s son became a leader of the John Birch Society, who claimed our government was infiltrated with communists, including the President of the United States. One of the founders of the John Birch Society was the father of the Koch brothers. We have a long history of using propaganda to stifle what is necessary for a free and democratic economy.
ACRES U.S.A. How did the changes in those decades affect the Naylor farm?
NAYLOR. I was born in ’48, so I was aware that farm prices were low, and they weren’t getting any better. The Kennedy Administration came in and there was no improvement. Their rhetoric was just that, rhetoric. Consequently, the National Farmers Organization got started. I remember neighbors who were in the NFO coming to talk with my dad, and of course my dad supported that. But he also chose to quit farming at that time. We moved to California, and he became an electronics technician in the space program.
ACRES U.S.A. How did you make your way back to Iowa?
NAYLOR. I had aunts and uncles on my mom’s side of the family who rented the farm while we were out in California. I went to college there, and when Earth Day came I became much more environmentally aware. My aunt had given me a subscription to Organic Gardening while I was in college, and I got really interested in farming, raising things. After giving teaching a try, which I learned I wasn’t cut out for, I wondered if I could come back to the family farm and raise organic oats for the burgeoning organic granola market. But my uncle wasn’t really ready to quit farming. A few years later when he was, the organic granola companies had been quashed by the big cereal companies putting out their “natural” granola, which tasted like crap. Then I just fell into the corn and soybean rotation that Earl Butz was preaching, planting fencerow to fencerow. But of course the price of corn went from over $3 a bushel when I began farming down to $1.50 at my second harvest. Obviously things weren’t going to work the way I had planned at that point. The American Agriculture Movement came along, and I think what happened was that wheat prices collapsed before corn prices, so it more or less came out of the wheat areas in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. I got involved in the American Agriculture Movement, and I supported parity legislation and I went out to Washington, D.C. I borrowed a tractor from a farmer outside of Washington, D.C. and drove around the mall with all the other farmers for a while.
ACRES U.S.A. What was the goal of the American Agriculture Movement and the fallout from it? How did it tie in to the crisis that followed in the ’80s?
NAYLOR. Obviously one of the goals was to pass legislation aimed for parity, and I think we called for a moratorium on farm foreclosures. The American Agriculture Movement was very successful in elevating these issues among farmers of all kinds. Also a lot of people in cities gained a certain understanding and sympathy for farmers. But as the decade turned into the ’80s, I can’t tell you why or how it all happened, but it seemed like the AAM lost some of its steam. Then the farm crisis came on the scene, a full-blown crisis, and a lot of small groups started up all around the country to deal with their local problems. Some new coalitions developed including the North American Farm Alliance, which then included quite a few AAM veterans. A lot of these groups from all around the country coalesced to support legislation in Washington, D.C. known as the Family Farm Act, which was intended to create a parity program. And I might add that we were all very clear all through this period that when we talked about parity we were talking about parity prices, we were not talking about parity income.
ACRES U.S.A. What is the distinction?
NAYLOR. The distinction is that with parity prices, the actual prices in the marketplace would have a floor at 90 percent of parity which then led over the year, at least historically, when we did have 90 percent of parity, long range, that over the year average price’s parity. That made it so that there was never the temptation of farmers to try to feed their grain to livestock to make up for the low grain prices. If you have a program that doesn’t support the price, even if it sends government checks to farmers, you still have low grain prices, which lead to low livestock prices. Charles Walters pointed this out in Unforgiven quite well.
ACRES U.S.A. What did the ’80s farm crisis feel like there in Iowa for you, your family, friends and neighbors? What do you think it did in terms of reconfiguring the whole economy of the Great Plains?
NAYLOR. I had only been farming a few years when the AAM called for farmers to strike and not plant some of their crops. As a zealous farmer, that made perfect sense, but then my dad couldn’t see how I could do that, and it turned out not very many farmers could see how they could do that, which really shows the difficulty of farmers organizing for collective bargaining. That’s why we then focused on legislation. There were people who, just like the AAM, basically had predicted what was going to happen. They knew that the high prices that were in effect in the ’70s were going to collapse. There was going to be a farm crisis; farmers had taken on debt, and they took on more debt as prices went lower. So sure enough, a lot of farmers started losing their farms and at that point the Farm Bureau and our governor, Terry Branstad, would say, “Oh, there’s no farm crisis. Farmers that are going broke are just bad managers.” And that’s pretty much a direct quote.
ACRES U.S.A. For people who weren’t alive at that time or just don’t know, why would he say something like that? What was his real agenda? What did that actually mean?
NAYLOR. Well, the Farm Bureau and Terry Branstad and politicians like him are dedicated to a completely free market without any government involvement at all. To suggest that the government did need to be involved was totally contrary to their idea, so they would postpone any response by the government to deal with the crisis that was developing. And really, I would say that the only time they ever recognized there was a farm crisis was when it became a banking crisis, and the whole thing snowballed. There became so much used machinery on the market, and so much land on the market, that the value of those assets started plummeting, which meant that the farmers would actually owe more than their collateral. And banks were obligated to call in the loans, which made things worse. And then the balance sheet of the banks started looking bad, so banks were threatened, and so obviously something had to be done — but it wasn’t until a bunch of farmers had already lost their farms and taken on more debt.
ACRES U.S.A. Resulting in so much stress that some of them took their own lives?
ACRES U.S.A. You must have seen more than your share of human misery, like people drinking too much and so on?
NAYLOR. That’s for sure. It took a terrible emotional toll, and as you say, there were suicides. And a lot of domestic discord and divorces. There was even a banker who was shot in Hills, Iowa, back then. A farmer just walked into the office and shot him.
ACRES U.S.A. What did Branstad and his allies in the state legislature and on Capitol Hill do to address the problem?
NAYLOR. A piece of legislation was passed; a federal law that helped everybody reorganize debt. I was not too involved in that part of it. While that legislation could have just been simply something to save the banks, because of the grassroots involvement on the part of farmers, it ended up saving a lot more small farms and got people on their feet to recover.
Farm AID & NFFC
ACRES U.S.A. What significance did the Farm Aid effort have for the cause?
NAYLOR. It was a big thrill to have the first Farm Aid concert in Champagne, Illinois. We thought the revolution was starting and we’d have money to conduct the revolution. What Farm Aid was able to do, of course, was to popularize the understanding that family farmers needed everybody’s support. And the fundraising that Farm Aid did was able to support a lot of those small groups that I mentioned earlier with grants to keep their doors open, to actually let them hire some staff and function as organizations.
ACRES U.S.A. Were you involved in founding the National Family Farm Coalition?
NAYLOR. Yes. A lot of the groups that were involved in the North American Farm Alliance felt like there had to be a coalition that was a little broader and more mainstream or encompassing. So the next step was to create the National Family Farm Coalition, which initially was just called the Save the Family Farm Coalition. And it was really the groups in that that were able to focus pressure on people in Congress then to come up with parity legislation. The Family Farm Act also became known as the Harkin-Gebhardt Bill.
ACRES U.S.A. What was the goal of that bill?
NAYLOR. The goal was to move within two or three years to 90 percent of parity price supports by way of loan rates, to establish mechanisms for supply management, and of course to create a reserve and prohibit the importation of cheap agricultural commodities. Also to encourage international commodity agreements, so that farmers around the world were afforded some reasonable floor under their prices instead of just having the world’s farmers dumping their grain onto a world market, resulting in very low prices for everybody.
ACRES U.S.A. And what happened to that bill?
NAYLOR. It narrowly failed in Congress.
ACRES U.S.A. Who were the enemies of parity legislation, and what were their motives?
NAYLOR. That’s a funny thing. The enemies of parity are the people who have a free market ideology — the Farm Bureau and the commodity organizations whose policies mirror exactly the policies of Cargill and ADM and the big packing companies whose interest is in having cheap commodities. So you have the Farm Bureau and the commodity organizations, like the National Corn Growers Association and the National Pork Producers Association, that are really Trojan horses. They pretend to be farm organizations, but in fact take funding from the big corporations whose interest is to buy cheap commodities. Then there’s also the interest of, really, the military industrial complex, in terms of its ability to use cheap commodities around the world to gain influence over governments in other countries through getting them to be dependent on imports, which then gives leverage to our state department to get those countries to be much more friendly to big corporations’ investments in those countries.
ACRES U.S.A. The free market always seems to mean a free market for extremely big players, which suggests the term is a horrible misnomer.
NAYLOR. Yes, and so it is. Their idea of free market just means that you’re not going to have the government involved at all. Obviously the big players are the ones that benefit.
ACRES U.S.A. Is parity a concept that people in the halls of power even recognize anymore?
NAYLOR. I would say no.
ACRES U.S.A. How did the ’80s crisis lead to Freedom to Farm — technically the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 a.k.a. the 1996 Omnibus Farm Bill — the legacy of which we’re living with now?
NAYLOR. The truth of the matter is that despite their free market ideology, an agricultural economy without any government involvement would naturally collapse because of lowering and lowering the prices while at the same time creating just unbelievable amounts of environmental degradation and soil erosion. The 1985 Farm Bill actually created the Conservation Reserve Program, and it provided for government payments to farmers. The government payments kept a lot of grain farmers in business, bigger grain farmers. I mean, the way some farmers have succeeded in surviving is by economy of scale. While the government payments never made it possible for small farmers to stay in business, it did make it possible for big farmers to get bigger and use the economy as a scale to take over land that the small farmers no longer farmed. And then, you got the Freedom to Farm Act, which was essentially the result of a lot of rhetoric from the Farm Bureau saying that what farmers wanted was to get the government out of agriculture. It was supposed to lead us to a time when there would be no government involvement in agriculture. Well, after a few years of Freedom to Farm, prices had collapsed so badly that once again, another crisis was becoming apparent. Congress actually doubled the payments that farmers were getting at the time. Billions of dollars were spent in government payments to farmers. But the actual market price of grain soon collapsed because there was no provision in the bill to actually affect market prices. It was all a system of government payments to grain farmers.
ACRES U.S.A. What about the lack of serious caps on payments, resulting in those who were fairly wealthy getting payments in the six figures?
NAYLOR. That’s really a red herring. The real damage to the family farm structure was the loss of livestock production on farms. There was a point back then in the ’80s and early ’90s that an economist with Farm Journal, John Martin, wrote a column where he said, “If you’re raising livestock, don’t bother to produce the feed, just buy it on the market because it’s so cheap.” That obviously then led to vertical integration, where the livestock were being owned by the packing companies, where they could buy all the cheap feed on the market and produce livestock cheaper than a farmer who had a sound crop rotation.
ACRES U.S.A. How did Freedom to Farm spur this massive reliance on two crops, corn and soybeans?
NAYLOR. It furthered the reliance on government payments to prevent the collapse of the agricultural economy. But it had no intention of improving farm prices or putting a floor under them, so when Freedom to Farm was passed, they essentially got rid of the non-recourse loan and changed it to what was called marketing loans. So instead of a farmer forfeiting grain to the reserve, which would mean that if anybody was going to buy grain they’d have to pay the loan rate at least, otherwise the farmer would forfeit it. Instead it said the farmer would have to pay the loan back at less than the original rate. Which meant there was no floor whatsoever. If the price of corn went down to $1.50 a bushel — which was the price of corn the second year I farmed — even then there was no reason it had to stop there. When the Freedom to Farm Act passed, which was clearly aimed at increasing production and not increasing grain prices, that was a green light to huge integrated livestock production. And the price of hogs in 1998 dropped to $8 a hundredweight. That, and of course cheap cattle prices, was really the coup de grace for diversified farms.
ACRES U.S.A. That means it promoted CAFOs?
NAYLOR. Right. They tried to use economies of scale because that’s what they were encouraged to do by land grant universities. They’d say, “Well, you’ve only got 50 sows, you need 300. You’ve got 50 cows, you need 200.” There were a lot of farmers who did that. They went deeply in debt to build the facilities to raise three or four or five times as many livestock as they used to. Then the price totally collapsed, and a lot of those people lost their farms or at least for sure had to get out of the livestock business.
ACRES U.S.A. Over the course of your career you’ve seen several of these rollercoaster rides, in other words deregulation followed by price collapse followed by smaller operations folding their tents?
NAYLOR. That’s correct. One of the propaganda tools they’ve used over the years, and are still using overseas in the developing countries, is to say, “The problem with you is you’re too small. You can’t expect to make a living if you only farm 320 acres,” or “You can’t expect to make a living if you only have 50 sows or 100 milk cows, you’ve got to get bigger.” That always led to people going into debt and getting lower prices anyway. If you were to survive, you had to get even bigger, you had to achieve even greater economies of scale. They are using that very same message overseas with farmers who are used to farming 10 acres or 100 acres. When I’ve visited other countries, I warned the farmers that there is no end to that logic. No matter how big you get, they will always say you’re too small, you have to get bigger, and there’s nothing we can do about prices. If prices are low, that’s just too bad; the only way you’re going to survive is by getting bigger.
ACRES U.S.A. Meanwhile, everybody has to deal with the effect on the local economies and the culture, right? What happened to your town of Churdan, Iowa?
NAYLOR. The churches closed, the schools consolidated. It’s a district of towns, but in recent years it’s been a graduating class of less than 10 kids. Up until just recently, there was only one grocery store — that was in the county seat. All the other towns had withered so badly they couldn’t keep their grocery stores. Elderly people more or less depend on other people to go shopping for them.
ACRES U.S.A. Moving back to our timeline, in 1993 Bill Clinton took office and immediately came under severe pressure from vested interests represented by advisors such as Robert Rubin to reverse his stand on NAFTA, which he moved Heaven and Earth to get approved. How did it help create the system that still afflicts us?
NAYLOR. NAFTA more or less internationalized the kind of farm policy that had been established in this country, which meant that countries weren’t able to regulate the price levels in their countries. It meant, for example, that Mexico would have to open its border to cheap corn from the United States, and cheap meat. Then the WTO came right on its heels, which it made it even more international. The logic of international free trade was propounded with even more gusto, so consequently they would use the rules of WTO to say there was nothing we could do in this country to regain our control of agricultural prices or how we could use the land. The term “subsidy” came into the picture because of these free trade agreements. The way they defined subsidy was totally outrageous. That’s where you heard the figure over the years that over $300 billion in subsidies go to farmers in the United States and the European Union. That was 100 percent bull, and that’s because of the way they defined subsidies.
ACRES U.S.A. What was the essential flaw in that definition?
NAYLOR. They would make the assumption that there was some logical world price, and make an estimate of what the world price should be. On the one hand, if you sent farmers checks like they did in the United States, that was called a subsidy. On the other hand, if you actually supported prices above the world price, that was also considered a subsidy. There was no way you could address the problem of low prices without it being called a subsidy.
ACRES U.S.A. Which is a bad word, a potent political wedge term?
NAYLOR. Right. They would always point to the rules of the WTO to say whatever you’re talking about, whether it’s a supply management or a price support, that’s just not allowed. Of course they wanted Europe to follow the system of direct payments to farmers as opposed to maintaining price supports. Because actually the European system, though it wasn’t perfect, did put a floor under the farmers’ prices, and their farming communities reflected more prosperity and a better balance. But when they began to rely on government payments, the same thing happened there — you ended up with livestock being raised in bigger and bigger facilities. As for countries that had quite a small farm population, like Greece, they lowered their barriers to imports which knocked out many small olive producers, who supplied olive oil makers.
ACRES U.S.A. Western Europe is still not as monolithic in terms of enormous farms as the American Midwest, of course. Some of those governments still support prices somewhat to keep farming communities alive, don’t they?
NAYLOR. That’s right.
ACRES U.S.A. What strikes you when you think about the years right before and since the turn of the century?
NAYLOR. Through the years I’ve been surprised to find out some of my neighbors were in financial difficulty I would never have imagined. When the price of hogs went to heck in the late ’90s I definitely had neighbors who were in dire straits and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in one year. Surviving farmers basically survive by increasing their economies of scale. I haven’t done that nearly as much as everybody else, because I just happened to inherit a half-section of land here that is a pretty sound financial base if you happen to practice a modest lifestyle. That makes me different. I farm 470 acres, and a lot of my neighbors farm from 1,500 to 2,500 acres. A lot of them now also have built CAFOs and feed hogs that don’t belong to them anymore. Then there are others now who are selling off 6 acres of land to Cargill, Iowa Select, or Prestage Farms out of North Carolina just to get the manure as fertilizer. The incredible thing is, we are locked in a policy that has us raising as much as we can of just two crops, corn and soybeans. It’s fencerow to fencerow. There are no other crops that can match the production of biofuel and feedstock as corn and soybeans. If you pick another crop like oats or whatever and calculate how much protein, carbohydrates and oil you’re getting from an acre of land, it’s going to be way less. You’re not going to make the same kind of money. Consequently, the more successful we are at raising corn and soybeans, which is what every farmer tries to do, the more CAFOs we’ll have destroying our quality of life out here.
ACRES U.S.A. What other factors are at play here?
NAYLOR. We’ve had this boom in prices which resembles the ’70s, and farmers haven’t made their investments in new machinery. But it also has increased the cash rents, and you now have farmers competing against each other to rent that land. Well, there’s going to be a loser. There are examples throughout Iowa and Illinois where some people have moved up to what I guess you’d call a corporate stage, where they are farming 10,000, 20,000 or even 300,000 acres. It’s basically done with hired labor and sometimes labor from the Southern Hemisphere because their seasons are the opposite of ours. So you can bring up people who are skilled at driving tractors and combines from South Africa, for instance, to work up here. I heard people interviewed who work for these combining operations that move from south to north, and one fleet of combines had operators from South Africa. Some immigrants are way more appealing than others — that’s the system.
ACRES U.S.A. The way the House of Representatives refused to move on the bipartisan immigration reform bill the Senate sent over suggests that for some people the current system works just dandy. Severe dysfunction must serve some interests quite well.
NAFTA & WTO
NAYLOR. There again, that’s a function of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. This phenomenon is a worldwide phenomenon. You’ve got Europe inundated with illegal immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa. I visited a strawberry farm in Spain. There were acres and acres of strawberries in little hoop houses so that the strawberries would mature earlier, and all the work on this farm was being done by women from Romania. The farmers there got these women through a government program that monitored how they were treated and monitored their wages, but they said they had to compete with a lot of strawberry farms that didn’t pay any attention to that, and brought in people who were paid much less and treated much worse. It’s a worldwide problem thanks to the WTO making it very difficult for other countries to balance their economies and making it so their rural people feel like there is a reason to stay on their farms.
ACRES U.S.A. You had a small part in a movie shot in Iowa called At Any Price, which not many people saw. It portrayed industrial farming as the source of an ongoing social, moral and ethical tragedy. What did you think when you saw it?
NAYLOR. I was surprised that a lot of my farming neighbors who I thought might be offended by it actually said, “Wow, it’s scary how truthful that story was.” They’ve seen it, the drive to get more land. It’s really a sad deal when the only way to survive is through economies of scale, and that becomes the measure of your status as a farmer. It’s a dog-eat-dog existence. I think the one thing that movie got wrong was how that farmer played by Dennis Quaid basically got off scot-free from the Monsanto-type corporation’s long arm. If you go to the website of the Center for Food Safety, they have a study on how many farmers were sued, as well as testimony from a few farmers who were able to prove they hadn’t saved seeds, and the lengths Monsanto went to nail them.
ACRES U.S.A. Speaking of Monsanto, you worked on persuading them to back away from plans to introduce genetically modified wheat. What happened there?
NAYLOR. The National Family Farm Coalition was instrumental in that by holding meetings in wheat-growing areas, and bringing over millers from Europe who made pasta and bread from American wheat. They said, “Our consumers are not going to tolerate it, and if you bring on genetically modified wheat there is no way you’ll keep it segregated out of your wheat supply, so we’ll just quit buying wheat from the United States, period. Farmers listened to that. Most wheat farmers became pretty unified in seeing that wasn’t really a necessary technology. I think that was probably the argument that won the day.
ACRES U.S.A. Although Iowa was spared the kind of severe drought we’ve seen in other parts of the Great Plains and especially California, water stresses have resulted in a new emphasis on cover cropping.
NAYLOR. Yes, even the government is promoting it. You can see why. The soil out here is getting compacted like crazy. They realize now that when you raise just two annual crops on the land, there is nothing to hold the nutrients in the soil over winter and during the spring, so from the time when the plants die one year until the next crop gets roots down in the soil, there’s nothing to hold the nitrogen there at all. When the roots die, they release whatever nitrogen was in the plant, and a lot of it goes down the drain. Another thing is the way CAFOs spread manure. We have regulations now that limit how much they can put on a piece of land, but whether those limits are realistic and whether anybody is actually following their manure management plan, nobody really knows. It’s liquid manure that’s been anaerobically digested, not aerobically digested. I wouldn’t be surprised if they find out there are elements in there that are detrimental to the crop down the road. In fact — whether it’s GMOs or hog manure I don’t know — we’ve got problems with new diseases in soybeans like sudden death syndrome.
ACRES U.S.A. Where do you think the politics of fair pricing for farmers are right now? Are they stuck?
NAYLOR. I think the politics of almost any important issue are stuck. Big corporations and the Koch brothers are in the driver’s seat right now. It’s going to take thinking of a system that is completely different to implement parity and to achieve a lot of change in terrible situations in this country. I think the time is right now to get the word out about the fact that one of the biggest environmental problems we have in this country is our agriculture. How it’s run, how it’s polluting the drinking water of Des Moines, Iowa, how it’s creating the dead zone down in the Gulf of Mexico, how there are pesticides in the air, and how much of the food we eat doesn’t have the nutrients it should. I think right now is the time to explain to people what has to change.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you think part of the answer lies in people peeling away whenever they can and wherever they can; a sort of gradual divorce?
NAYLOR. I think people need to think in terms of revolutionary change. I’m not talking about a violent revolution, but they have to know that the equations of the economy have to be changed in a completely different manner. And that the people who are in charge now are going to fight it tooth and nail. Unless it changes, rural America will become a sacrifice zone. Period.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.