Aristocrats, or entrepreneurs?

I never knew I was an aristocrat. Yet that’s how I was being described, along with anyone else whose family has a Century Farm or has farmed land in Iowa for multiple generations.

It happened during a recent Story County Board of Supervisors meeting in February. I wasn’t there, but a friend forwarded me a link to the video of the contentious meeting, where supervisors voted 2-1 to request that the governor and state legislature impose a moratorium on new or expanding confined animal feeding operations.

During the public comment period, a gentleman named John Monroe from Nevada had this to say:

“I hear a lot of arguments in support of CAFOs that stress that farmers who are doing it [building modern livestock families] are from ‘good families.’ That’s fine. But last time I checked, we live in a democracy, not an aristocracy. Assuming someone is just going to be good, just because of the length of their pedigree in a particular place, and the wealth of their family from that length of pedigree, is an aristocratic logic. It’s not a democratic logic.

In America, we care about who YOU are as an individual, not about who your parents are, or what your last name is. In a lot of ways, this ignoring the interests of the majority for the interests of a minority whose ability to build these things [modern livestock barns] comes from the length of time they have in this place–that’s a problem.”

Like Mr. Monroe, I, too, am interested in Iowa’s economic and environmental well-being. I appreciate his concern for the future of rural Iowa, since I’m focused on creating a vibrant future for rural Iowa. But lumping farmers into the “aristocracy” shows a stunning lack of understanding.

I could speak from my own experience, since my family has lived and farmed in Calhoun County since 1889. But I bring a broader perspective, one drawn from more than 20 years of covering the stories of hundreds of Iowa farm families.

Every week I sit in farmers’ kitchens, living rooms and offices, listening to their stories. I hear their hopes and fears as I ride along with them in their tractors, trucks and combines. I see the realities of modern agriculture up close as I tour their barns and meet their families.

Here’s what I know:

• Farmers are rooted in their communities. In an increasingly mobile society, many Americans are on the move. Some of this comes from the nature of the workplace today. The average American holds his or her current job for an average of 4.6 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Whether people are changing jobs, upsizing their homes or just looking to try on a new neighborhood or dream city, Americans move an average of 11.7 times in their lifetime, according to Steinway Moving & Storage. Life is much different for farmers. They are tied to the land, which means they are tied to the local area. This helps explain why farmers tend to be some of the most engaged citizens when it comes to supporting local businesses, voting in local elections, serving on local school boards and volunteering in the community. This is their home for the long haul, and they want to see the local community succeed.

• Farmers are entrepreneurs. “I create. I take risks. I live my passion. I am an entrepreneur.” This was on a sign I saw recently, and it could also have said, “I am a farmer.” Welcome to a world rich in risk and short on stability, with no steady paychecks, health insurance or 401(k)s for the self-employed. In fact, there are no guarantees of much of anything beyond hard work and the chance to pursue your dreams to make a better life. There are also no promises that families will be able to pass on their farm to the next generation. Sometimes even disasters become a minor victory. During one of the worst years of the 1980s Farm Crisis, my dad managed to make only $600 the whole year — but by God, it was profit, not loss, and it kept us going one more year. That’s the reality of an entrepreneur.

• Farmers are not the aristocracy. The word “aristocrat” comes from two Greek words, including aristos, which means “best,” and krate“n, which means “to rule.” In an aristocracy, those who are considered somehow superior to other people have the ruling authority. Now let’s consider farmers. They have to follow the laws just like everyone else. They aren’t granted special ruling authority by virtue of their birth or their family’s tenure in a geographic area, nor do the ones I know expect this. What they do expect, however, is for those in authority to embrace the principles on which America was founded, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As we celebrate National Ag Day and Ag Week 2019, I encourage you to reconnect with farmers around you. Stay curious. Rediscover ag’s vital role in maintaining a strong economy. Value farmers’ role in providing safe, abundant, affordable supplies of the essentials of life. But know this — if you’re looking for the aristocracy, you won’t find it in farm country.

Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby (a.k.a) Yetter-girl grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home.

Contact her at yettergirl@yahoo.com and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.

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