Progressives Need to Stop Siding with Conservatives on Water Quality

The recent bickering on social media between Republican Rep. Chad Ingels, IIHR research engineer Chris Jones and others,(Gazette, Erin Jordan, 7/9/21, sheds little light on how we can fix Iowa’s water quality problems, and surely taints those at the University of Iowa who are supporting the efforts with science.

Jones attempt to turn it into a race issue, called “race baiting” by Ingels, appeals to some urban progressives, as seen in it’s placement on Civil Eats. Jones’ argument, that Ottumwa’s water quality problems represent racism merely because it’s population is 14% Latino and 5% black, should have been enough for rejection by Civil Eats.(Chris Jones,

Jone’s piece should be understood in the context of the larger, 21st century urban progressive approach of blaming or bashing farmers. This in turn stems from a variety of anti-farmer myths, ( especially farm subsidy myths, ( according to which it’s assumed that farmers have been rewarded into the various environmental problems on farms. Logically, that’s like saying that Food Stamps and other welfare caused, (rewarded,) the many social problems of the urban poor. That leaves out the larger urban economic issues, like poverty, redlining, and a low minimum wage. 

So too for farmers. The environmental problems on farms have risen as minimum farm price floors were lowered and eliminated, as farmers were penalized.( Net farm income, (which included added subsidies,) went low and stayed low.( 60% of farms were lost, and most surviving farms lost all value added livestock and poultry, ( as CAFOs were subsidized by farmers, by cheap prices. Most farms then lost the sustainable livestock crops, grass, hay and nurse crops like oats.(See previous link. I’ll soon have more slide shows on this, featuring 26 states.)

Politically, what Jones, and urban progressives generally, fail to understand is that their position is the same as that of Republicans like Ingels on a number of key issues. Against the kinds of evidence I’ve described in the previous paragraph, both think we’ve been rewarding farmers. Both think that farmers and agribusiness are on the same side of the issues, the Republican side. Neither side blames agribusiness for what they’ve done to farmers. Neither side supports restoration of fair farm price floor programs.

For example, Ingels argues that farming “practices … evolved over time to help farmers stay in business and supply food to the nation.” No, they didn’t evolve to help farmers and the food system. They evolved out of the lowering of farm prices, out of policies designed to force farmers to subsidize agribusiness, including CAFOs, to give farm products to these businesses at below the farmers’ full costs of production, which has been happening most of the time for 8 major crops since 1981, and for dairy since 1993. ( And secondly, with the loss of livestock to giant CAFO corporations, and the loss of the diversity of livestock crops, they evolved to enable the input sellers to sell more products, as low input crops were lost and high input crops replaced them. Thirdly, they evolved out of the increasing necessity of farmers to get off farm jobs, leaving them with less labor and more intense capitalization. (See data on the large increase in the off farm income of surviving farmers here.

Historically this was a Republican led problem, support for agribusiness at the expense of farmers. ( Back more than two decades, the key economic solution was the Harkin-Gephardt farm bill proposal, to restore adequate price floor programs. It was supported by most Iowa farmers, and by black farmers and the Congressional Black Caucus. A 1987 FAPRI study of the proposal found that it would favor a significant change toward grassfed livestock systems and away from CAFOs. (

Only in the 21st century have Democrats and urban progressives joined Republicans in opposing economic justice, (and greater sustainability,) for farmers. A key here was when former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin abandoned his farm bill proposal, upon becoming Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. (

Solving Iowa agriculture’s large environmental problems requires help from water quality scientists like those at the University of Iowa, but it also requires academic understanding of the economic problems that undergird the problems. Short of that we end up with misinformed progressive farmer bashing that sides with conservative anti-farmer interests in key ways against the environment.