Remarks as prepared for delivery to the National Farmers Union annual convention

March 5, 2018, Kansas City, Mo.


 “An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations so new or intricate, or involving such deferred reactions, that the path of social expediency is not discernible to the average individual,” native Iowan Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac 70 years ago. “Animal instincts are modes of guidance for the individual in meeting such situations. Ethics are possibly a kind of community instinct in-the-making.”


Instincts are in the making all over Rural America. People know something is not right when half of Iowa’s children are born into Medicaid, when our rivers are choked with poison, and when farmers are going broke planting corn and soybeans on every available inch of land — even into the river and lake banks. Two thirds of Iowa’s 99 counties have lost population every year since 1920.


We should be the richest state in the USA. But we are fast becoming poor.


Iowans know, instinctively, that something is amiss.


But their politics, government and universities are owned by the agri-chemical cabal headed by the Koch Brothers and supplemented by Monsanto, Dow DuPont and the oil companies that shape our chemical silver bullets that eventually lose their luster.


And now, it appears they have taken over the judicial process as well.


The Storm Lake Times, the county-seat newspaper in Northwest Iowa of which I am editor, won the Pulitzer Prize last April for a series of editorials probing surface water pollution and government secrecy.


The Des Moines Water Works sued our county and two others in Northwest Iowa over drainage systems that are delivering ever-stronger concentrations of nitrate to the Raccoon River, which slakes the thirst of 500,000 central Iowans. Because of stray nitrogen from fields leaching to drainage tiles, Des Moines has had to install the largest nitrate-removal system in the world. The water works also has had to warn customers repeatedly over the past two years about alarming levels of cyanotoxins from phosphorous loads in the rivers that, if consumed, can cause severe neurological disorders. The three smartest and best thousand-acre chemical farmers I know suffer from Parkinson’s Disease, MS and Lou Gehrig’s disease. We buried one of them at age 69 last summer.


Since it was a lawsuit over pollution, the counties’ insurer would not cover their defense costs. We asked the county supervisors who will pay their lawyer bills, which were sure to be huge.


“Our friends will take care of us,” they said.


But they would not tell us who their friends were.


So we joined with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council to find out. We demanded to know who the defense donors were. The Agribusiness Association of Iowa, we learned, had lured Monsanto, the Koch Brothers and the fertilizer industry to cover all the costs no matter how large. The counties entered into a secret, illegal agreement to take the money gathered up by AAI, assisted by the Farm Bureau, and that meant that the agri-chemical companies were calling the shots for the taxpayers of Buena Vista County, Iowa.


When we explained, backed up by case law, that the donations were public records, the supervisors realized they were liable for refusing to reveal the donors. But AAI refused to say who they were. So the counties divorced themselves from the illegal fund, after having raked in $1.4 million in donations to cover blue-chip lawyers from Des Moines and Washington, DC.


We got the dirty money out of the federal court system, but the judge still threw out the case. The counties won, and there will be no limits on ag pollution of the Raccoon River.


We came to realize that the voters of Buena Vista County did not control the supervisors, the agri-chemical industry did.


We also realized that the increased drainage needs are caused by more moisture in Iowa since 1980. Climate change is the proximate cause of the death of the Gulf of Mexico from our corn-ground fertilizer from Iowa and Illinois. It’s not just me saying it — it is Dr. Gene Takle, a Noel laureate from Iowa State University who predicted this 22 years ago.


The people of Iowa have it figured out. Two-thirds of Iowans in The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll said they agreed with the water works position — and that includes 60% of rural residents. They know what is in the water. The conversation is changing.


30 years ago the Practical Farmers of Iowa were thought of as freaks. This year, 1,000 people showed up at the Practical Farmers annual meeting. They hold field days across the state on sustainable and profitable agriculture that are drawing overflow crowds. Cover crops designed to cut nitrogen loss off season, have gone from 100,000 acres to 600,000 over the past three years in Iowa.


The crowd here is half the age of a typical Farm Bureau convention. I met a young man from Wisconsin who markets pasture lambs directly to consumers, an 18-year-old woman who tends 100 grass-fed cows and a calf herd on 300 acres in Wisconsin, and a young man in his 40s raising beef in South Dakota. These people, your people, are the future of agriculture and rural communities.


“When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not,” Leopold said in 1938.


It’s taken us awhile, but we are finally getting his message and it is resonating throughout Iowa — not fast enough, perhaps, but soon enough to save us from ourselves.


It all starts with the Iowa Farmers Union and the National Farmers Union. I am proud to stand with you today and humbled to receive your honor.


Also, I hope you buy my book coming out Oct. 2 from Penguin Random House. Its title: Storm Lake; A chronicle of change, resilience and hope.


Hope is what I hear today.




Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa. He received the Milton Hakel Award for Agricultural Journalism from the National Farmers Union. He won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing that covered the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit and the transparency of its funding. Email:

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