The Culture of Corn Farming: Two Paradigms

I’ve been posting recently as a corn farmer.  I recently gave a presentation on “An Iowa Corn Farmers view of the World Food Crisis.”  That was my assignment, and it opened up for me some new ways of talking about farm issues, especially given the bashing corn has been taking lately, in Michael Pollan’s book (The Onmivore’s Dilemma) and in the documentary King Corn.  In criticizing “Foodie” angles  on these and  other issues from within this narrow soapbox as a “corn farmer,” my underlying philosophy might be misunderstood.  For that reason, I’m now bringing out this old, but very relevant unpublished essay under this new title.  (A brief version was previously published as a letter to the editor.)  This is where I come from on some of the deeper philosophical and cultural matters related to being a "bleepin’ !#)&$}@(!&# Iowa Corn Farmer."



“We think about Iowa as having a mine of corn, and we’re going to put our manufacturing facilities at the mouth of the mine.”

Bob Parmelee, Cargill

“I went for the 50¢ per bushel premium for a while, but then they started lowering it down, to 40¢, to 30¢ . . . . I quit.”

Corn farmer, Linn County, Iowa

“Agriculture creates a balance between wild nature and man’s social needs.  It restores deliberately what  man subtracts from the earth; while the plowed field, the trim orchard, the serried vineyard, the vegetables, the grains, the flowers, are all examples of disciplined purpose, orderly growth, and beautiful form.  The process of mining, on the other hand, is destructive:  the immediate product of the mine is disorganized and inorganic; and what is once taken out of the quarry of the pithead cannot be replaced.  Add to this the fact that continued occupation in agriculture brings cumulative improvements to the landscape and a finer adaptation of it to human needs; while mines as a rule pass quickly from riches to exhaustion, from exhaustion to desertion, often within a few generations.  Mining thus presents the very image of human discontinuity, here today and gone tomorrow, now feverish with gain, now depleted and vacant.”

Lewis Mumford, City in History, 1961, p. 450-451

“Not merely machines, but mechanical order and regimentation spread through the entire environment. . . .  With the mechanization and prospective automation of farming, the aim is not to improve the life of the farmer but to augment the profits of the megatechnic corporations that supply the machinery and the power needed for large-scale monoculture, with the smallest possible use of human labor. . . .  A biotechnic* economy would reverse these irrational methods by restoring manpower for mixed farming, horticulture, and rural industries, reclaiming the countryside for human occupation and continuous cultivation.” 

Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power, 1970, (plate 16)


(And the 1996 “Freedom to Mine” Bill)

The Des Moines [Iowa] Register’s 6-part series (September 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, & 10, 1998,) “Mining Iowa’s Gold,” classically documented the mentality of mega-industrial science and technology at the edge of the new millennium.  What is most interesting to me is not the latest “gee whiz” technology of Cargill, Monsanto and ADM.  Stories like that are old.   What’s fascinating is how outdated ways of thinking can be made to look like important “news.”  

First, the focus is on a single crop, corn.  In his writings on the history of technology Lewis Mumford called this “monotechnics,” in contrast to “polytechnics,” the latter being the rich heritage underlying many of our most advanced developments.  

More broadly, “Mining Iowa’s Gold” suggests the old bias of selecting a single factor in history (ie. the stone age) or geography (ie. the corn state) to represent a given culture.  According to Lewis Mumford, this bias, so prevalent in our day, has arisen along with an overemphasis on tool making in the writing of human history.  Mumford traced this overemphasis in part to the fact that tools have been the most durable material surviving from the past, and also to our tendency to project the dominant mentality of the modern era back into previous historical periods.

From this singular beginning, this focus on monocropping, questions of ecology do not arise.  There is no mention in the Register series of the stupidity of investing millions into one crop to the exclusion of other components of an ecological crop rotation.  For example, in this paradigm, reduced as it’s premises are, much can be said about the use of corn in hog production, but nothing about changing the hogs diet to resource conserving forages and thereby reducing Iowa grain production by 15%, as ISU’s Mark Honeyman has suggested.  In so ignoring ecology and betting on resource depleting monocultures, technobioology has taken huge step backward from our most advanced scientific thinking.   

I have never seen similarly lucrative sounding articles written about organic farming, even though organic farmers are getting premiums for corn far beyond those offered by technobiology firms, as reported in the series.  Why not?  Perhaps because real farming, including sustainable agriculture and traditional family farming, is not a gold rush.  

The new technobiology, in choosing to fall back into industrialism rather than advance forward into a sustainable paradigm of science and research methodology, naturally clings to industrial technology’s historical roots in mining and warfare.  As Lewis Mumford showed 70 years ago, the culture of the mine grew in isolation from ecology and community.  The paradigm of industrial science, technology and finance drew on this brutal culture, as the conquest of nature brought huge profits to the lucky few who struck it rich.  Society picked up the tab for what was destroyed.

One thing being squandered is the enormous wealth of family farming’s genetic heritage.  We’ve seen how they’ve drastically reduced the genetic diversity of corn, to take a single example, putting the foundation for our food system at enormous risk, as witnessed by the rapid spreading of the Southern corn leaf blight some years back, as Jack Doyle showed in Altered Harvest.  These dangerous, narrowly reduced and speculative scientific “advancements” can be contrasted to the immense diversity and durability of the traditional family farm system of domesticated biodiversity.  “Where’s the beef?” you ask?   Look, for example, in the colorful promotional materials of Seed Savers, and the Institute for Agricultural Biodiversity in Decorah Iowa.  The vast, gorgeous, tough genetic diversity of traditional family farming that is illustrated there also well symbolizes the advanced, post mega-industrial way of life of twenty-first century sustainable agriculture.  We can recall as well that, originally, the family farm system of agriculture developed thousands of varieties of rice, in China, and thousands of varieties of wheat in India.  Livestock too was widely diverse.

Technobiology’s gold rush must be further understood as a product of what Mumford identified as “megatechnics,” the technology of powerful corporate “megamachines.”  Historically megatechnics is rooted in the culture of the ancient power civilizations, the “swords” against which biblical “plowshares” prophesied.  The dark side of that culture is perhaps even better symbolized by the Biblical description of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  

In our own day, megatechnics came to the forefront as the awesome collective scientific development that produced the atom bomb during World War II.  Today’s corporate agribusiness is even bigger than the original Manhattan Project, and more far reaching.  It is imperative that we evaluate the potential benefits and risks of technobioology in light of the known history and culture of megatechnics.  Here perhaps we’ll find another clue to why, though technobioology could hypothetically be focused directly on improving rural ecology, economy and community, just the opposite is happening, and may be inevitable within that myth of culture.  

According to Mumford, megatechnics moves forward with incredible power and produces certain amazing benefits, including, of course, huge speculative profits for its investors.  Historically we’ve seen the seven greatest, “The Seven Wonders of the World.”  Today, again and again, we see the powerful mega wonders of technobiology.  On the other hand, it can achieve these goals only through a severe reductionism, limiting itself to relatively simple quantitative goals and not taking time for more than shallow considerations of the complex qualitative requirements of natural ecosystems and healthy human cultures.  

We should note that Mumford, world renowned interpreter of megatechnics and its impact on city development, strongly recommended against a $50 billion federal urban renewal program during the 1960’s, on the grounds that “it would invite even greater megamachines to invade the building industry,” destroying all hope of “humanly satisfactory” results.  In other words, he felt certain that, while such a system could produce an effective atom bomb, it could not begin to design an effective neighborhood.  

Haven’t we seen just this kind of failure in agriculture as the megatechnics of corporate agribusiness has assaulted ecology, economy, morality (via inhumane treatment of animals), community, health and nutrition, first with chicken factories and now with hog factories?  The cheaper the corn, it seems, the more dynamic the agribusiness megamachine.

Some of our ancestors came to Iowa to escape wage slavery in the barbaric, mine-like coketowns of the early industrial era.  Now, as our farm economy is struggling isn’t it clear that farmers are really the ones who are being mined by agribusiness.  We see this as more and more of farming consists of buying expensive input products and as more and more of the food dollar goes likewise to output processors.  Economist Stew Smith found that this squeeze, projected to 2020, showed a complete elimination of farming’s share of the gold.  

We’ve seen throughout Iowa’s history that the commercial ag press has pushed this “product centered” agriculture to the advantage of their advertisers, if not their farm readers.  On the other hand, Iowa’s organic farmers have not been fooled by this mother lode of fools gold.  They’ve quietly prospered in spite of these and other informational obstacles.  They’ve quietly gained by resisting the very powerful technologies developed specifically to ever more efficiently mine the pocketbooks of farmers.  In fact, it seems, the very successes boasted by industrialism (ie. food irradiation, no-till’s “plow in a jug,” hog factory pork,) seem to multiply the value of the organic market, even as they subtract the value of conventional agricultural products.  

By understanding the roots of industrialism and megatechnics in our cultural history, we can see that organic farmers, building true wealth, are wise to “resist change” when it is grounded in the fears, promises and speculations of mining culture, as manifested by Iowa agribusiness.  Perhaps, as Mumford taught, organic farmers don’t trust the gnomes of Norse mythology, products of the mine and now disguised in modern lab coats.  Perhaps too they remember all too well what happened to Midas.

We should thoroughly examine the quieter, more advanced models of sustainable agriculture and “slow food” as alternatives to the brutality of mining and megatechnology, perhaps starting with a new series in the Register on “Minding Iowa’s Quiet Quality of Development,” our post-mega-industrial farmers.  

This would be a refreshing change from the series on technobiology’s drive to mine our state, focusing as it did primarily on the viewpoints of those most poised for speculative gains.  Such a series might also shed light on the currently raging farm bill debate.  It might tell the story of the farm policy obstacles organic farmers have faced, showing how they have persevered in spite of them, how they’ve remained “competitive” in spite of billions of dollars of research trying to prop up the old paradigm of industrial ag.  The technobioology series made no mention of this debate, as if the “Freedom to Farm” Bill (really “Freedom to Mine”) had nothing to do with the rush for gold by the likes of Cargill and ADM.  Anyone who knows anything about farm politics knows better!

Iowa’s Leopold Center has shown some support for this slower, calmer, more broadly qualitative approach to science and technology, with its systems research and other post-industrial methodologies.  Likewise Iowa’s strength as “a place to grow” has traditionally involved waiting, being patient and careful, and doing things better the first time than, say, a California, whose motto, “Eureka, I’ve found it” hearkens back to their gold rush days.  On the basis of Iowa’s advanced strengths, rather than the old narrow ones being brought in from mining and megatechnics, we could truly prosper in the new millennium.

*On Mumford’s word “biotechnic,” see my note on Technics and Civilization, below.


Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America:  Culture and Agriculture, (New York: Avon, 1977.  See especially his excellent chapters on “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture,” and “Living in the Future:  The Modern Agricultural Ideal.”

James Crombie, “Mumford on How Mining and War Corrupted Our Values:  On the Social Origins of Some Unsustainable Technologies and Accounting Practices,”, Society for Philosophy & Technology, Volume 2, Number 2,  University of Sainte-Anne, (http://borg.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v2_n2html/crombie.html, no longer available?).

Jack Doyle, Altered Harvest:  Agriculture, Genetics and the Fate of the World’s Food Supply, (New York:  Viking, 1985)

Mark Honeyman, “Sustainable Swine Production in the U.S. Corn Belt,” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, (Vol. 6, No. 2, 1991), pp. 63-70.

Mark Honeyman, “Whole Hog Management,” The New Farm, (September/Oct. 1990). p. 25, or http://www.awionline.org/www.awionline.org/farm/honeyman.html

Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,”  Technology and Culture, (Vol. 5, Winter 1964), http://www.ninthmuse.org/teaching/526/Mumford,%20Authoritarian%20and%20Democratic%20Technics.pdf

________, The City in History:  It’s Origins, It’s Transformations, Its Prospects, (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1961).  

________, The Condition of Man, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1944).  See section on Rousseau regarding ecology and agriculture, which gives support for Wendell Berry, above.

________, The Culture of Cities, (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938).

________, “Drama of the Machines,” Scribner’s Magazine, (LXXXVIII, Aug. 1930).

________, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1967).

________, The Myth of the Machine:  The Pentagon of Power, (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1970).

________, Technics and Civilization, (New York:  Harcourt, Brace & World, 1934, 1962).  Here Mumford coined the positive term “biotechnic,” along with “eotechnic,” paleotechnic,” “neotechnic” and “megatechnic.”  (They originate in words of Patrick Geddes about city development.)  Mumford did not emphasize these words in his later writing.  Given todays use of the term “biotechnology,” Mumford’s word is no longer workable.  Instead of “biotechnic,” the word “ecotechnic”  might work.  In this essay I’ve used the term “technobiology” rather than “biotechnology,” to try to take back some of the semantic “life” claimed by “bio”tech interests, though that may not work either.  

________, The Transformations of Man, (Gloucester, Mass.:  Peter Smith, 1956).  A short premonition of The Myth of the Machine as related to this essay.  See chapters on “archaic” (agricultural) and “civilized” megatrends of history.

________, The Urban Prospect, (New York:  Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968).

Stewart Smith, “’Farming’ – It’s Declining in the U.S,” Choices, First Quarter 1992.

________, “Sustainable agriculture and public policy,”  Maine Policy Review (1993). Volume 2, Number 1,  


Michael Zuckerman, “Faith Hope and Not Much Charity,”  in Lewis Mumford:  Public Intellectual, Thomas P. Hughes and Agatha C. Hughes, eds., New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990.  By far my favorite essay by anyone about Mumford, especially regarding these issues.  Awesome.

Brad Wilson, "The Farmie Foodie Coalition:  A Winner for Agribusiness," Zspace, 10/15/09, http://www.zcomm.org/blog/view/3793
________, "Foodies vs. Farmies:  A Look at Farm Politics," Zspace, 1/2/09, http://www.zcomm.org/blog/view/2330

________, $100toZ4 The1SacredWord, (on corn farm and food crisis messaging,) http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/bradwilson

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