Iowa is a good old state — quite literally.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 527,000 of us old folks, age 65 or older, live in the state: 17.5 percent of Iowa’s population of 3.1 million. That is only one percent higher than the nationwide average of 16.5 percent, based on a population of about 320 million.
But it is a sobering number, especially because the people in Iowa’s cities are younger than people in rural counties. About 1.3 million of the state’s people live in cities ranging in size from Ottumwa’s 25,000 residents to the Des Moines metro area’s 680,000. The portion of those cities’ residents who are age 65 and older is about 12-13 percent – which suggests that rural populations are significantly more elderly.
Of Iowa’s counties, 78 are considered rural, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and the percentage of people age 65 or older who live in those counties exceeds 20 percent – about 370,000. And most of us old folks do not like the way things are going.
Highest on the list of grievances are the hogs. There are 24.8 million hogs in Iowa’s rural counties. That is 67 hogs for each of us old coots, and almost none of those hogs are owned by us. The hogs have greater economic and political power than we do, and that is why we are flummoxed and distraught.
We are forced to live with industrial agriculture: CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), huge meat processing plants, environmental calamities, diminished opportunities to make a living, and shrinking rural populations as our children depart for better jobs in bigger cities. Our quality of life, the values and occupations and pastimes of our former lives, have mostly withered and disappeared with what we are told is “economic progress.”
This is not the rural Iowa of our youth. The rural Iowa where towns were vibrant, with many more locally owned businesses, more small farms, more young people, more local high schools.
The result has been a sort of implosion of the ethics and standards that once characterized rural Iowans. Many of us have retreated from civic-mindedness and public engagement, burrowing into bunkers of self-interest. We are no longer “Iowa Nice,” and with good reason. Economic, social, and political tsunamis from beyond our shores have overwhelmed our communities. Difficult to be nice when one’s quality of life is plummeting.
We can find no solutions or answers to the adversities that beset us. Probably there are no solutions or answers in this era of privately held fortunes and community impoverishment. We grope for causes, focusing the blame on a dozen factors: immigration, education, technology, diversity, taxes, welfare, the deep state.
As a consequence, Iowa’s small towns are now a stark portrait of poverty, and residents of rural counties are bewildered as to how this all came about. Desperate and clueless, six of 10 voters cast their ballot for President Orange and his promise to Make American White Again – because somehow this is all the fault of the Mexicans and the Blacks.
I do not see a better future for the rural parts of the state, especially since the Republican dominated legislature has enacted voter suppression legislation, reduced environmental regulations, cut budgets for the Department of Natural Resources and other environmental agencies, transferred funding for public education to private education, loosened firearm restrictions, and generally given a green light to any water, air and soil pollution abuses that corporate agriculture commits.
My wife and I have lived 35 years in northeast Iowa, but industrial agriculture is driving us out. CAFOs combined with GMO corn have made the state’s surface waters the most polluted in the nation. The soil is lifeless, just a medium to hold row crops in place, because anhydrous ammonia fertilizers and herbicides/pesticides have eliminated all life right down to microbial level. Iowa’s air quality is putrid; due to CAFOs, the state reeks of hog manure.
Some isolated islets of land in the state may resemble a Tolkienesque Shire, but most of Iowa has become Mordor. All of the Midwest corn belt has become a poisoned environment – stretching across parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota – but Iowa is the worst.
We rage against the machine. But there is no stopping the machine. What can a bunch of old Iowans do, after all? Our lives and our communities are collapsing, and we don’t like it. We detest it.
Sadly, we have to get out of this state while getting out is still possible.