In late 2007, Mary Swander, Iowa’s poet laureate and a professor at Iowa State University, assigned her students a verbatim play about the challenges farmers face.
“I wanted them to learn the complexity of the farming issue, how political, how contentious it is,” she recalls.
Fanning out across the state, the students, many of whom had never set foot on a farm, conducted lengthy interviews with farmers big and small, and immersed themselves, literally, in the agrarian world of livestock, slaughter, and commodity crops, all while gingerly dancing around manure patties.
A student at the time, Rebekeah Bovenmeyer remembers donning a protective white suit so she could see the workings of a hog farmer’s farrowing house. “I never knew such a world existed only 10 miles from our campus,” she says.
Some of the farmers were still feeling the impact of the 1980s, a time when hundreds of family farms were lost to skyrocketing interest rates and corporatization. And many deplored the mantra of former-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz: “Get big or get out!”
Back in the classroom, they pulled key elements from the interviews and, as playwrights, began to stitch together the dialogue. Over the winter, Swander, 61, pared it further so the exact words of the vineyard owner and the hog farmer rang true.
The final result was Farmscape: The Changing Rural Landscape, a grassroots play that takes on everything from corporate consolidation to GMOs, climate change, and the rise and fall of the family farm.
A small grant from agricultural “thought leader” Fred Kirschenmann’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University brought Farmscape to the stage. In the five years since it was written, the play has been performed all over the Midwest, at conferences, in community venues, and at large theaters. Once they even staged it in local beauty parlors.
The play is also being published this month as a book from Ice Cube Press, along with commentary on the changing rural environment by a list of prominent thinkers: Kirschenmann, Anna Lappé, Gene Logsdon, and Leigh Adcock.
Farmscape opens with an auction, the auctioneer standing to the side, calling out the names of farm equipment — Massey Ferguson 35 loaded tractor … John Deere sickle mower… Red and white Ford pickup — being sold off as small farms are shutting down. Bidders, who are the actors about to tell their stories, come on the stage one by one, and the auctioneer’s voice can be heard in moments dispersed throughout the play. It’s a stark symbol of the consolidation of farming in the Midwest, and it shapes the entire play.
At the premiere of Farmscape, the students became the actors. Student Jason Arbogast took a plaid shirt of his father’s, cut out the sleeves, and donned a seed cap. He then read the lines of the men he had interviewed.
“When I stood in front of the mirror, my wife, who is a city person, looked at me and said, ‘You look like Eddie Vedder,’” Arbogast recalls. “I told her no, I look liked Jason Arbogast would have looked like if his family had made the decision to farm.”
On stage, a white sheet often serves as the backdrop. On it flashes images captured during the farm crisis of the 1980s by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Dave Peterson. Local musicians often play during interludes and at intermission.
After the play is over, Swander encourages discussion and even courteous disagreement between small and organic farmers and their conventional counterparts. One night, a man in the audience even rose from his seat afterwards to say that the auction scene had been about his family’s farm, before he burst into tears. (Money from the sale enabled him to go to college. Now in banking and finance, he works to aid farmers.)
“Agriculture is very polarized right now,” says Swander. “Sustainable, organic people and conventional people — there’s lots of conflict and the two camps have a hard time speaking to each other,” she added. “I’ve witnessed an organic farmer and a Monsanto executive talking together in the same room.”
In many ways, Farmscape echos James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the 1941 classic about tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl during the New Deal. Take this snippet of dialogue from an organic farmer:
Joe: Americans expect food to be cheap but that doesn’t make sense as a producer. We don’t serve poor people because poor people can’t afford our food. It’s not quite a downside but it’s frustrating and disappointing to me that there’s not a way for more people to have access to locally grown food.
In the four years since Farmscape‘s debut, much has changed for farming, the student playwrights, and Swander. Initially sympathetic to Nate, the agribusiness executive he’d interviewed for the play, Arbogast has come to abhor companies like Monsanto.
“At first I thought his heart was in the right place. In hindsight, after learning more about Monsanto, I don’t think [the company] is in it for anything but the money,” Arbogast says. “I’ve seen enough of their practices and Nate is not someone I personally want to be associated with.”
With an additional grant from the Leopold Center, Swander launched AgArts, an organization that supports the intersection of art and agriculture, be it through chefs, photography, crafts, or other artistic means. The writer/teacher looks forward to engaging with the issues the play raises on an even deeper level in the future. And she’s optimistic about the next generation of farmers, many of whom want to grow food without growing large industrial monocultures.
She explains, “I don’t think the large farms will ever be wiped out. Instead, the new, young farmers will work alongside them, changing the landscape of the community and city.”