Americans live in a post-agricultural age. Today, fewer than two of every 100 U.S. citizens owe their living primarily to the land. A century ago, two of every five did.

Yet even though very few of us contribute to food production, we all still eat — and food comes from somewhere. But where?

In a sense, the answer is: Iowa, buckle of the farm belt, heart of the heartland.

Illustration: Keri Rosebraugh

Do you know where your food comes from?
Illustration: Keri Rosebraugh

Accounting for less than 2 percent of the U.S. landmass, Iowa churns out a fifth of U.S. corn and a sixth of our soy — the nation’s most prodigious crops, the main inputs for our industrial food system, and increasingly important sources of auto fuel. Nearly one in three U.S. hogs breathe their first and last breaths in Iowa — and so, for good measure, do a twentieth of our beef cattle.

But just as hardly anyone farms anymore, few Americans from outside the Midwest follow the trail of their sustenance back to its source. As a tourist attraction for typical U.S. travelers, Iowa ranks somewhere between the Sahara and the Ukraine. Like a cook toiling unseen in a restaurant kitchen, Iowa feeds the nation out of sight and mostly out of mind.

But what can it mean to concentrate so much of a large nation’s food production in one small place — for the people who live there, and the landscape? That’s what this series is setting out to explore.

Land Without People

Drive through the Iowa countryside during the growing season, and the earth seems swathed in two distinct shades of green: light (corn) and dark (soy). In this state, “land” means farmland. Nearly 90 percent of the state is cultivated; the original tall-grass prairie landscape has vanished, as has fully half of the lush 18 inches of topsoil found by the settlers in the 1840s. And strikingly, two-thirds of the state’s total landmass — representing some 23 million acres — is devoted to corn and soy. In 2007, Iowa’s corn cropland alone could swallow nearly three New Jerseys.

But it wasn’t always like that. In its evolution, Iowa represents a microcosm of the industrial agriculture that has, over the past century, changed both our landscapes and our diets. Few states have experienced the revolutions in agriculture as intensely.

Iowa, like the rest of the nation, has seen an exodus from farming. Between 1975 and 2006, 40 percent of the state’s farmers exited the business. Among surviving farms, average size ballooned by a third, settling at about 350 acres.

One of industrial agriculture’s undeniable triumphs has been to make depopulated land productive — more productive than ever. Juiced up by cheap energy, mechanization, synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and innovations in seed genetics, the nation’s expanding farms churn out more food calories per capita today than they did in 1900, even though U.S. population has quadrupled since then.

Yet if technology has freed — in many cases evicted — millions from the land over the decades, it has not liberated a proportional amount of land from agriculture. We may not need many farmers to feed us, but we still need plenty of fertile earth. In fact, between 1950 and 2001, the amount of land devoted to the country’s eight major crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, grain sorghum, barley, oats, cotton, and rice) stayed remarkably constant at about 250 million acres, even as more than half of all farms failed. Farmers fled the land en masse, but their land generally did not flee agriculture: It got sucked into ever-larger operations.

And as time passed, the land began to specialize. Until the explosion in synthetic fertilizer that began after World War II, farms generally had to create their own fertilizer by carefully recycling livestock manure and crop wastes into the soil. That meant mixed farming — a balance between livestock and a variety of crops. The fertilizer boom changed all that. Freed from the rigor of the on-farm nitrogen cycle, most surviving farms submitted to the culture of monoculture. Now entire regions specialize in certain crops: grain and livestock in the Midwest, fruit and vegetables in the Southwest and Southeast, and so on. Production has intensified, weighing heavily on farm landscapes and the people who still live on them. And while modern production and shipping methods mean nature’s bounty now makes its way easily into our grocery stores and homes, it brings with it a crop of concerns.

A Side Order of Sustainability

In a sense, Iowa can be seen as a vast machine whose inputs are artificial fertilizer, pesticide, hybridized and genetically modified seeds, and one of the world’s richest stores of topsoil, and whose outputs are corn, soy, pork, beef, and ethanol. But those are only the official products, the kind hailed by the likes of the Iowa Farm Bureau. Other outputs include nutrient runoff from fields, manure spills and air pollution from CAFOS, and degradation of topsoil by chemical use. In this series, Grist will look closely at these issues and how they directly affect Iowa residents, as well as people in states downstream along the Mississippi River.

But Iowa isn’t only about mountains of corn and soy and the meat and fuel factories meant to consume them. The state has a long history of using its enviable soil to produce a wide variety of delicious food — not just inputs for industry. A striking study [PDF] by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State tracks the number of crops widely planted on Iowa’s farms. As recently as 1920, 34 items made the list, including plenty of fruits and vegetables: apples, potatoes, cherries, plums, grapes, strawberries, pears, peaches, raspberries, watermelons, apricots, and tomatoes.

By 1964, all of those readily edible items had fallen off the list. Today, only corn, soy, hay, and oats — all mainly intended for feed, not food — remain as widely planted field crops.

But all over the state, a groundswell of small-scale farmers are bucking that trend, many of them resurrecting the on-farm nitrogen cycle by growing food crops alongside pastured livestock. They’re growing not for an anonymous national or global market, but for their neighbors. And we will document that hopeful trend, too.

What happens in Iowa matters for the future of U.S. food production. Few serious observers believe the current mode of agriculture, with its reliance on cheap energy and an endless ability to abuse landscapes and waterways, can last forever. If our most industrialized farm state can relearn the ability to use its agricultural resources wisely, there may be hope for truly sustainable food production throughout the United States.