A small Iowa farmer's perspective on COVID-19

A Correction to this article was published on 15 January 2021

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Every morning I wake up like thousands of others wondering if what I am experiencing is just a bad dream. As I move into the day I am acutely aware that it is not a bad dream and that I as a farmer and an activist have a responsibility to make this devastating situation better.

I am grateful every day that I am a small organic vegetable farmer; that I have a purpose in life and that I have the resources to grow healthy nutritious food. Through the initial days of the pandemic I listened everyday to the news and read the headlines and articles to make sense of the crisis. I joined in multiple conference calls and video discussions trying to understand what is going on and how I can use my farmer status as a remedy.

As the pandemic continues to unfold it has become apparent to me how vulnerable our food system is. I am in Iowa—a place I often refer to as the belly of the beast, when it comes to describing industrial agri-business. My farm is surrounded by fields of dirt that is mined to produce bushels and bushels of corn and soybeans to feed the livestock and ethanol industry. The natural resource that has been provided us over centuries of formation has been turned into a factory to produce corn that has little nutritional value.

Many Iowans are proud that the state is number one in hogs, eggs, corn and soy production but very few people stop to ask at what cost. The cost is now catching up with us. The hotspots for COVID-19 are the industrial factories that process the pork for millions to eat. The factory workers are people of color and a high percentage are immigrants from many nations. The workers have been deemed essential and report for work every day in plants that, according to news stories and first hand reports, have done very little to provide a safe environment in which to work. The cases of COVID-19 have increased where the factories are located. The state of Iowa and the plant owners have threatened the lives of the very people they rely on to keep the plants profitable. The message is clear the people are essential but replaceable.

The vulnerability of the industrial scale of agri-business has become very apparent. An industry that relies on low wages, harsh working conditions and long hours has been dreadfully exposed. Hogs continue to grow and mature leaving the caretakers of the hogs with animals that are too large to fit the streamlined system. A system set up for efficiently churning out a product that in a pandemic has failed both the grower and the worker.

There is an upside to the exposure of the vulnerability of the industrial system. Many people are turning to local farmers that produce fruits and vegetables and animals on a small or medium size scale. CSAs are full to overflowing with people buying shares. This presents an opportunity to us as small farmers. We can continue to educate on the importance of local/regional food production and raise awareness of the devastation of an industrial agri-business has on our environment and our communities. We must undo federal policy that has given us cheap food and capture the true value of agriculture to the environment and to the people.

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  • 15 January 2021

    The article A small Iowa farmer's perspective on COVID-19, written by Denise O’Brien, was originally published electronically on the publisher’s internet portal (currently SpringerLink) on 14 May 2020 with open access. With the author(s)’ decision to step back from Open Choice, the copyright of the article changed December/2020 to © Springer Nature B.V. 2020 and the article is forthwith distributed under the terms of copyright.

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Correspondence to Denise O’Brien.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection: Agriculture, Food & Covid-19.

The article A small Iowa farmer’s perspective on COVID-19, written by Denise O’Brien, was originally published electronically on the publisher’s internet portal (currently SpringerLink) on 14 May 2020 with open access. With the author(s)’ decision to step back from Open Choice, the copy-right of the article changed December/2020 to © Springer Nature B.V. 2020 and the article is forthwith distributed under the terms of copyright.

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O’Brien, D. A small Iowa farmer's perspective on COVID-19. Agric Hum Values 37, 631–632 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-020-10084-y

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