The Conscience of Place: Highway 75, Iowa

Rural Iowa today looks as orderly as any landscape in America. But in the deep Depression year of 1932, when agriculture -- like politics -- was still local, it was the site of a famous farmers' strike called the 'Sioux City Milk War.'

Whenever I go back to Iowa, I remember how self-explanatory the landscape looks. Broad fields of corn and soybeans, a nearly level horizon, gravel roads that meet at right angles every mile -- what could be simpler? But that first reaction soon gives way, and then I remember something it has taken me years to learn. Driving across rural Iowa is like driving through the warehouse and light manufacturing district of a great city. The streets are laid out geometrically and the blocks filled with enormous buildings, some of brick and some of fabricated steel. They look uniform because what goes on inside is invisible from the street. What you remember when you leave is the simplicity of the buildings, the monotonous way that they fill the eye, not the complexity of the businesses within them.

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The same is true for farmland. From the roadside, it's impossible to see the obligations that pile up, like a hard winter's snows, on every acre of cultivated rural land. Some of those obligations are ethical and some are legal, the result of increasingly intricate licensing agreements with seed companies and contracts with giant meatpacking corporations. Some obligation is raw debt, used to leverage the purchase of machinery or more farmland. Rents are due on some tracts, $110-$120 an acre now in northwest Iowa, which doesn't sound like a lot until you realize how much it costs to put a crop in, all of which -- rent, seed, fertilizer, herbicides, fuel, taxes, labor -- is gambled against the vagaries of weather and market prices. Nearly every farmer is enmeshed in a bewildering tangle of production credits, loan deficiency payments, and emergency federal appropriations. The history of American farming in the 20th century is, above all, the history of rural debt.

Still, no one in Iowa expects to see 21st century farmers carrying rifles and shotguns, standing across a blacktop highway, blockading traffic, protesting their economic plight. Iowans pride themselves on politeness to begin with, and today's farmer understands all too well how completely his profit is tied to the upticks and downticks of the commodity markets, to price variations that depend on almost unquantifiable nuances of global weather and political and economic behavior. To put it another way, today's farmer understands that local protest is futile because he no longer has any local markets.

It wasn't always so.

A few miles north of Sioux City -- a town of about 80,000, fourth largest in Iowa -- Highway 75 reverts from four-lane asphalt to the kind of highway it might have been 69 years ago, a two-lane blacktop country road. It parallels railroad tracks and the Floyd River, named in 1804 after Sergeant Charles Floyd, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who died south of present-day Sioux City of what Clark called a "bilious colic." West of Highway 75, a line of hills follows the road. The road-cuts there expose a deep overlay of sandy soil, very different from the black topsoil elsewhere in Iowa. But eastward, across the river bottomland, you can see the countryside flattening and opening up in a way that allows average farm size to increase county by county until you reach the middle of Iowa and its wilderness of corn and factory-farmed hogs.

Somewhere on Highway 75, and on the other highways that radiate outward from Sioux City, local farmers gathered in early August 1932, in the midst of the Depression, leaving their fields and livestock temporarily untended. They gathered, and then they shut the roads down and kept them shut down, on and off, for nearly a month. Their plan was to withhold farm products until prices rose above the farmers' cost of production. Contemporary accounts mention timbers studded with 30-penny nails laid across the routes into Sioux City. Mazes of hay bales and telephone poles stopped traffic so that the farmers standing on the gravel apron or the blacktop, some carrying rifles and shotguns, could approach vehicles for a talk with the drivers. If you had business in Sioux City, you were allowed to pass, but if you had farm business -- and especially if you were carrying milk to town -- you were turned back up the road you had just come down. It was turn around or have the milk cans lifted from your truck and poured into the ditch. On the 14th of August, a Saturday, some 1,500 farmers manned the blockade all around Sioux City. You can almost imagine the scene -- the fraying heat of the day, the heat of the Iowa night, the glow of lanterns in the darkness, and the unaccustomed sight of men and women you'd recognize a mile away now looking almost unrecognizable with determination. All it took to realize how bad things had really gotten on the farms, if you didn't know it already, was to see your neighbors standing in arms in broad day across a public highway.

Many farmers stayed home, of course, disturbed by the prospect of uncivil disobedience and the ideas that lay behind it. But even those farmers would have heard the kind of words that had been broadcast over KFNF, in Shenandoah, Iowa, the month before. They were spoken by Milo Reno, a 64-year-old ordained minister, an Iowa native, a fiddler and ladies' man given to bright red neckties and ten-gallon hats. Reno worked for the Farmers' Union, and he had been instrumental in establishing the Farmers' Holiday Association, an organization whose purpose makes more sense if you think of holiday as a synonym for strike. To Reno, the Association -- and the holiday it promoted -- was "the last stand of American agriculture in defense of their rights and their homes." In the deepening Depression, Reno said, America found itself in "the most amazing and confounding situation in the history of the world -- people starving in a land with an abundance of food; naked, because of a surplus of clothing; people bankrupt in the richest nation in the world."

In the 1920s, some 6,400 farm families lived near Sioux City in Woodbury County, Iowa, and to the north in Plymouth County. The roads were full of farm trucks carrying cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, eggs, milk, and butter into Sioux City's dairies, stockyards, meatpacking plants, and railyards. The farm economy was stable, if not as high as it had been in the aftermath of World War I. But between 1920 and 1932 everything changed. Nationwide farm income stood at $15.4 billion in 1920; by 1932 it had fallen to $6.7 billion. Between April 1931 and December 1932, farm income dropped by more than half. In 1927, a farmer could sell a pound of butter in Sioux City for 40 cents. In 1932, the price was 19 cents. For a quart of milk, a housewife paid 8 cents. For the same quart, the farmer was paid 2 cents by the dairy. The very worst prices came in the summer of 1932, when hog prices were about a quarter of what they'd been three years earlier.

This was a true agricultural emergency, made worse by bank failures, farm foreclosures, and an inadequate, misguided set of federal farm policies. In bad times, farm foreclosures look like a nullification of the values that underlie the very act of farming, the urge to work and improve a piece of ground. As the Depression deepened, farmers across the Midwest began to gather at farms being sold off to break up the proceedings. Sometimes they edged much closer to violence, like the near lynching of a judge at a 1933 foreclosure hearing in Le Mars, 23 miles north of Sioux City. In 1931, some Iowa farmers began to resist state veterinarians who were testing cattle for tuberculosis, a test that sometimes led to herd condemnations, for which owners were only partly compensated. Farmers could feel the economic pressure skinning them alive, and it exposed a vein of agrarian radicalism that almost never surfaces in better times. The only thing that could have driven them to the blockade was being worn to the bone.

In the mix of farmers manning the roads around Sioux City, you might have found as many explanations of their economic dilemma as there were individuals. The overwhelming motive was probably as simple as a felt need to do something, anything, to alleviate the sense of helplessness. Milo Reno's solutions to the farm crisis were entirely monetary. He believed it could be solved only by an expansion of currency. But then the strike was never really in Reno's control, even when he ordered 200 sandwiches from a Sioux City cafZ for 100 men who were manning the blockade. The hard core of the strikers, led by dairy farmers, went back to their farms on August 20, when the J.R. Roberts Dairy in Sioux City nearly doubled the price it paid farmers for milk. The strike petered out a few weeks later, and when a glut of farm products suddenly returned to the market, it merely depressed prices further.

Henry A. Wallace, the Iowa agricultural pioneer and future vice president, called the strike "a simpleminded gesture," and yet he compared it to the Boston Tea Party, another simpleminded gesture. The analogy rapidly breaks down. Unlike the farmers who were blockading the roads outside Sioux City, striking against the market turmoil of a nation in the midst of severe economic depression, the colonists who flung crates of tea into Boston harbor had a real and immediate enemy in their sights. In a sense, Reno was right when he claimed that the Farmers' Holiday Association -- and the strike associated with it -- was "the last stand of American agriculture." It occurred at one of the last moments when a conventional Iowa farmer could imagine that his welfare was determined, even in part, by decisions being made locally, by buyers at a Sioux City dairy or stockyard.

In the 70 years since the Sioux City Milk War, times for farmers have been good and bad, good and bad. But whenever there's a sharp drop in farm income, fewer farmers feel it because every year there are fewer farmers -- and fewer Americans who understand what it means when farmers suffer. Land values shot up in the 1970s, causing a wave of agricultural borrowing, and then collapsed in the 1980s, taking still more farmers down with them. In 1996 farmers were talking about corn hitting $5 a bushel. As I write, it's at $1.65, about what it brought in September 1917 and in August 1946 and in June 1952, the month and year I was born. The land of the farmers who go bankrupt or sell out is consolidated with neighboring farms or bought by absentee owners. Instead of 6,400 farm families in Woodbury and Plymouth counties, there are now fewer than 2,800. The farms they work are much larger and far more productive per acre than they were in 1932. They are global enterprises whether the farmers like it or not -- as with every other global enterprise, for better or worse.

A modern corn-and-soybean Iowa farmer could infer from the Sioux City Milk War that it's better just to tend one's garden, except that most corn-and-soybean Iowa farmers no longer have gardens. Nor do they raise chickens. The egg stations that used to be found in every small town are long gone, as are the creameries. There are more pigs than ever, but they're raised mostly in huge confinement barns, and the pigs themselves are owned by the companies that will eventually slaughter, butcher, and distribute them. The Sioux City stockyard is dwarfed now by the one in Sioux Falls, South Dakota -- 85 miles north -- and is just a few miles from the headquarters of ibp, a meatpacking corporation that has systematically bought independent packinghouses all across the United States -- and that was bought itself this winter by Tyson Foods, another meatpacking behemoth. In 1932 the powers that be appeared small enough to make that August strike seem merely quixotic. Today it would just be suicide.