Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue on the West's land grant universities.
Kamyar Enshayan, adjunct professor at University of Northern Iowa, likes to start his environment, technology and society class by writing on the chalkboard:
"If 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."
Then he'll 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.
Many 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 War.
The Memo War
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 era.
"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.
"I 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 own.
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 in.
"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."
The four-inch-thick 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 Farm
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 children.
"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!"
It's 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 life.
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 Iowa
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 American farmers."
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.
To order copies of Dr. Twisted Visits a Farm, send $8 to Kamyar Enshayan, P.O. Box 981, Cedar Falls, IA 50613.
The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:
- The Memo War: 1989-1993
To contact Practical Farmers of Iowa, write to: Rick Exner, Agronomy Extension, 2104 Agronomy Hall, ISU, Ames, IA 50011 (515/294-1923).