Kamyar Enshayan, adjunct professor at University of Northern Iowa, likes to start his environment, technology and society class by writing on the chalkboard:
it can be done, it must be done."
"Should Iowa be covered
with corn and soybeans?"
"With the help of fiber
optics technology, universities can teach classes in remote areas
where there are no good teachers."
turn to his students, who sit vaguely resembling rows of corn
themselves. This is, after all, a required course. He'll start
talking, fast, with an Iranian accent that has been mellowed only
slightly by 17 years in the Midwest. Breaking into laughter and
jabbing at the air with his hands, he prods these products of rural
Iowa to become curious about their home state. And it has worked.
Enshayan's students have got the managers of two local Wal-Marts to
admit that the chain has intentionally priced several local shops
out of business. Others are working with the college cafeteria to
find ways to buy local food.
At 35, this Ph.D in
agricultural engineering has already retired from his first career
- as the public conscience of the agriculture college at his alma
mater and former employer, Ohio State University. He was a champion
of sustainable farming and a tireless critic of the
industrialization of agriculture, which has been accomplished
largely under the guiding hand of agriculture colleges at
land-grant universities like Ohio State.
academics agreed with what Enshayan said. But in the highly
political world of academia, they held their tongues. Enshayan
didn't. He started The Memo
It began innocuously enough. In 1989,
Enshayan wrote a letter to the editor of The Journal of Soil and
Water Conservation asserting that sustainable agriculture amounted
to more than reducing chemicals. It also meant "kicking the
petrofarming habit" by promoting fresh, locally grown food,
investing in the local community and avoiding the processing,
packaging and transportation of food. And it meant keeping rural
communities healthy. He attributed to industrialized agriculture a
multitude of ills, from groundwater pollution to soil erosion rates
that arguably exceeded those of the Dust Bowl
"No concept of a land ethic seems to prevail
among agriculturalists, universities, and the educational system,"
he wrote. "More than 200,000 farms went bankrupt in the 1980s. By
almost any measure, rural communities are declining. Are land-grant
institutions building and revitalizing communities?"
The letter, which elicited no reply on the
editorial page, provoked a stinging letter of response from the
dean emeritus of the Enshayan's own college.
find it incomprehensible that you would suggest that society could
"avoid processing, packaging and transportation," " Roy Kottman
wrote to Enshayan. "It is those elements of the U.S. food industry
which have provided us with the most diverse, safest, most
wholesome food supply in the world."
As for the
land-grant system and the loss of family farms, "In a free
enterprise system, there will always be those who succeed and those
who fail," Kottman wrote. "Our land-grant universities provide
assistance to all elements of the agricultural industry. We cannot
dictate what individuals will do with the information we provide or
with their own time, energy or talents. Clearly, some will use the
latest and best information available to them, and succeed. Others
ignore or misuse the information and fail."
Enshayan rebutted Kottman in a memo of his
The flurry turned into a blizzard, as
representatives of chemical companies (prodding the Ohio State
faculty to tone Enshayan down) and members of the sustainable
agriculture community (prodding them to listen to him) joined
"He was like a one-man revolution," recalls
Ben Stinner, an entomologist at Ohio State. "His big thing was to
get people to talk about the assumptions underneath agriculture. He
got them away from the technological aspects to underlying
philosophy. He really played the part of the revolutionary, asking
"Who are we serving? The corporations or grassroots groups?" He was
very blunt and challenging."
pile of correspondence The Memo War created is frequently moving
and often entertaining. Ohio farmer and writer Gene Logsdon wrote
to Ohio State agronomist Fred Miller, "It is not the university's
job to find ways for the greediest sons of bitches in the farming
community to make piles of yet more money, but to act as a
thoughtful and, yes, philosophical voice of reason and morality in
the conduct of farm affairs."
Dr. Twisted Visits a
Enshayan left Ohio State two years ago to
join his wife, biologist Laura Jackson, in Cedar Falls. He
distilled his experiences with Ohio State's agricultural academics
in a self-published book, Dr. Twisted Visits a Farm. Dr. Twisted is
an agricultural economist who writes off sustainable farmers as
"vegetarian ideologues' and "old-order communists." He points out
that "currently, our food is grown in a filthy, four-letter-word
medium, called soil, which is full of microorganisms." Later, a
panel of agricultural experts attributes the loss of small farms to
the fact that "when you have small things you tend to lose them.
It's hard to keep track of all these small farms."
"I wrote the book to make some of my farmer
friends laugh," says Enshayan. But nearly all of the book is taken
from actual experience, and it brought threats of a lawsuit from
one Ohio State agricultural economist. At one point in the book, a
panel of experts says that the exorbitant expense of entering
farming these days could be overcome if only the parents of this
nation were generous enough to give farms to their
"Really!" exults Enshayan, slapping the
table on either side of the bowl of potato soup he is eating. "I
was at the meeting where they said it!"
tempting to think that this is a man who really likes to fight.
It's easy to wonder what other cause Enshayan could have ended up
agitating for if he hadn't walked into the agricultural fray. But
he says he doesn't miss the Memo War a bit. His days at OSU were
not only frustrating, but occasionally frightening. Not only did
his activism skewer any long-term possibility for tenure, but he
was a resident foreigner without a green card. He could have been
kicked out of the United States, where he'd spent most of his adult
Now, he's content living a quiet life in
Cedar Falls, teaching courses at a university he finds refreshingly
forward-looking, helping to expand the market for locally grown
vegetables and being the husband of a tenure-track academician.
But his drive to ask obvious questions is as
strong as ever. He wonders: In their quest for economic
development, why don't the neighboring cities of Cedar Falls and
Waterloo encourage local farms to grow vegetables for local
consumption, rather than trucking them in from California? In their
quest for educational excellence, why are Iowa's universities
spending millions of dollars on computer technology to project
classes into the hinterlands? Why not opt for the cheaper and more
effective option of hiring real teachers to teach there?
"What problem," he asks the educational
technophiles, "is this the solution to?"
Practical Farmers of
I met Enshayan on the weekend of the 10th
Annual Meeting of the Practical Farmers of Iowa. The group, Laura
says, is "a walking indictment of the land grant system."
The Practical Farmers is a quiet, non-combative
and profoundly revolutionary group, formed in 1985 by farmers
interested in lowering their use of chemicals and making their
operations more sustainable. Iowa State University ag researchers
weren't much help; they were immersed in doing research at the
university research station, most of it on chemical-intensive
agriculture. So the group decided to conduct studies of their own.
"We started finding farmers could do it
themselves," says Dick Thompson, a farmer from Ames who founded the
group with his wife, Sharon. "We didn't have to go and convince
someone to help us."
Now 28 farmers do on-farm
research, with the results available free to PFI's 450 members. The
group has received grants from several foundations, and has served
as a role model for a look-alike group, the Innovative Farmers of
Ohio. Iowa State University has come into the fold, too; its
researchers and extension agents are increasingly involved with
PFI's on-farm research.
"We can't leave the wars
to just the generals," write the Thompsons in a recent research
report. "Neither can we leave the farming to just the farmer or the
agricultural research to just the researchers. We need a check and
balance in all occupations."
When the meeting
breaks for lunch, I sit between an
accountant-turned-native-seeds-broker from southern Iowa and a soil
scientist from Sioux City who is here "for inspiration." I overhear
a man trying to sell someone on the idea of raising chestnuts and
hazelnuts as crops and as shelter strips for their fields. "Corn,
beans, corn, beans," he said. "I got to the point where I just
said, "Why?" "
After lunch, a university
scientist stands in the hotel lobby, drawing deeply on a cigarette
and looking out on the flawlessly sunny, unbelievably cold January
morning. His name is Mohammed Ghaffarzadeh. He is an agronomist who
specializes in controlling erosion. He got involved with the
Practical Farmers in 1985, when Thompson was looking for Iowa State
graduate students interested in working with his group.
Ghaffarzadah was intrigued: "I'm from Iran. I always wanted to work
with farmers. The need of support is so great in my culture. I lost
the opportunity to work with my own, so I replaced them with
He says that while
sustainable agriculture is gaining acceptance at the university,
"There's still people on the ISU faculty who look at you like, "You
must not be a good scientist." If you're not in the lab, if you're
not getting $300,000 grants, people have second thoughts. But you
get personal satisfaction that compensates for that. I could stay
at this meeting for three days, but at the American Society of
Agronomists meeting you get saturated in the first hour."
By the end of the day, Wendell Berry has
exhorted the farmers to detach themselves from the world economy.
Perhaps the country's most famous figure in sustainable
agriculture, Berry is a farmer and writer from Kentucky who has
been a longtime proponent of family farms as cultural and spiritual
strongholds of American life.
"I'm not saying a
frontal attack on the system," Berry drawls softly to the packed
hall. "But the quiet freedom of an alternative economy. I think
freedom literally depends on that. The world economy could starve
you to death, and they're going to if they get their way."
That said, Berry retires, beer in hand. With his
wife, Tanya, he watches the corn farmers square dancing with the
entomologists and the people who raise free-range chickens with the
extension agents. n
copies of Dr. Twisted Visits a Farm, send $8 to Kamyar Enshayan,
P.O. Box 981, Cedar Falls, IA
To contact Practical
Farmers of Iowa, write to: Rick Exner, Agronomy Extension, 2104
Agronomy Hall, ISU, Ames, IA 50011