This is a long newsletter about beans. But if you scroll to the end, I have some news about this newsletter and what’s coming next.
In the final debate before the election, in a hotly contested Iowa Senate race, between Democrat Theresa Greenfield and Republican incumbent Joni Ernst, Ernst showed that she didn’t know beans.
Soybeans. Iowa’s number one export and a huge part of the economy.
The debate was online. Ernst had recently been in-person at Senate judiciary hearings for Amy Coney Barrett in Washington DC, with other senators who had recently tested positive for COVID-10. Ernst had previously said she would not confirm a Supreme Court nomination in an election year, was in DC doing just that. As a result, the debate was a glitchy, frustrating and intensely boring. At one point, as the candidates struggled to resolve some issues that prevented them from hearing each other or the debate questions, the Greenfield team sent an email. “Hey all, as the candidates work through technical difficulties tonight, it’s worth remembering that in August, Senator Ernst agreed to do this debate in person. The only thing that’s changed since then is Senator Ernst’s position on voting for Supreme Court nominees in an election year.”
“In short,” the email concluded, “the only reason this debate is virtual is because Senator Ernst went to Washington to break her word to Iowans.”
After 20 minutes the glitches are mostly resolved and the candidates settle into talking about the issues. Ernst doesn’t believe systemic racism exists. Greenfield does. Both think protests are fine just don’t break windows.
And then, near the end, one of the moderators KWWL’s Ron Steele, says, “My question is a simple ag question. Theresa Greenfield what is the breakeven price for a bushel of corn this week?”
Greenfield laughs. “Well a bushel of corn is going for $3.68 today, $3.69. And breakeven really just depends on the amount of debt someone has. I suspect some farmers are breakin’ even at that price. However, if their yields are down 50 percent that’s certainly not gonna cover it for ‘em. I’ll tell ya, we’ve had low commodity prices for too long. They’ve been going out of business prices.”
The answer is swift and sure, delivered with Greenfield’s trace of her accent. As she talks, Ernst blinks and the smile on Ernst’s face flickers briefly like a dying light.
“Senator,” says Steele, “the breakeven price of soy for an Iowa farmer to produce?”
“Yes, certainly,” says Ernst, sounding not at all certain. “You know, I’d like to go back to uh a previous statement. Certainly with what with we’ve done on trade, we’ve seen significant strides forward. So the USMCA is a great example of that with our two largest trade partners, Mexico and Canada. Mexico is the number one purchaser of Iowa corn. We just saw with the China phase one trade deal where China actually made an all-time record corn purchase at the end of July. So, haphazard trade deals? No. I think we are on the path towards success in these areas. And I have had our farmers as I do the 99 county tour every year. I’ve been to all my rural communities every year since I’ve been in the United States Senate and I have had those farmers say for heaven’s sake I understand what the president is doing, what I don’t understand is why we didn’t have a president that stood up for us before this. So I am thankful that we are well on our way to correcting the situation within our trade space and that was done with a Republican senate and a Republican in the White House.”
Steel is on the screen now. He’s grinning. “Well thank you very much and I might have missed it, but I don’t think you answered my question. What’s the break-even price for soybeans in Iowa? You grew up on a farm, you should know this.”
Ernst, no longer smiling. “I think you had asked about corn and I — it depends…”
“I asked her corn,” says Steele. He’s the one smiling now.
Ernst talks over him. “It depends on what the inputs are but probably about $5.50.”
“Well, your a couple dollars off, I think here because it’s $10.05, so we’ll move onto something else.”
Ernst’s smile is an aggressive grimace now. “And I don’t think Ms Greenfield answered either,” Ernst says.
“She actually did with the price of corn,” says moderator Matt Breen. “We’d asked for the prices of soybeans from you, senator. Wanna take another crack at it?”
“Ha no thank you. You’d said the breakeven for corn is $10.50? I don’t think that’s correct.”
And as Breen, once again explains, Ernst says, “well maybe I’m not hearing.”
The moment reads like a text.
A beautiful Midwestern story. Step aside Ole Edvart Rolvaag we have a new farm tale in this region.
The only way it could have been more Midwestern is if Greenfield had stood up in the middle of Ernst’s floundering and offered everyone a cookie bar or some pie. Maybe coffee, no it’s no bother, I’m making some for myself too.
First off, if you want to know what the break-even price is, well Greenfield explained. It depends. Crops sell at a certain price per bushel and if farmers can break even at that depends on their debt. In sum, the break-even price is the price at which a farmer can cover the costs of farming that crop.
As you can tell, per Greenfield’s answer, it’s not great. This is where subsidies come in. Farmer’s can’t actually break even very often.
The question was a little bit of a trick. Both candidates have been accused of being “out of touch” with Iowans. You know, the real Iowans. Not the idiots like me with our lattes and our bangs on our foreheads or liberal ideas about making sure people don’t die in a pandemic. But like REAL IOWANS. WHO LIVE ON FARMS.
This is an exhaustive rhetorical sound loop we have to hear every election cycle. Political operatives trot it out to show who belongs and who doesn’t. Then the politicians put on button ups and jeans and boots and trudge through fields talking about, “When I grew up actually eating straw from the barn floor, this barn floor…actually this one. You want me to eat straw now? I’ll do it. I’ll do it now! Want me to put my face in this corn? Want me to roll around in it naked?! WANT ME TO BIRTH SOY AND RAISE IT AS MY SON?”
Or something like that.
Soy and corn are two of Iowa’s biggest exports. Soy is number one, pork number two, and then corn. We also export a lot of coronavirus with our positivity rate on the rise and no mask mandates in place. So, Ag is big business. But it’s also part of the culture. According to the USDA, the total number of farms in Iowa in 2018 was 86,000, down 100 farms compared with 2018. A 2015 Register poll, found that a quarter of Iowa adults “are actively farming or have done so at some point in their life.” Half of Iowans said they’d lived on a farm.
Even if you are not on a farm, the agrarian mindset runs deep. And what is that mindset? I’m glad you asked. Maybe this is annoying, but I am going to quote from my book, God Land here.
While fewer than 7 percent of rural workers are directly employed in agriculture, the farming mentality directly influences how people in Middle America think and act. In their book Leading Through Change: Shepherding the Town and Country Church in a New Era, Ron Klassen, Barney Wells, and Martin Giese note that even in areas defined as cities, a rural mentality can still exist. This “agrarian worldview,” as they call it, is pervasive throughout Middle America, and it’s defined by a belief in the self, apart from systems and government. And it’s a worldview that redefines success, not as advancement but as survival.
The narrative then is one of making do. Where a good year is not one marked by achievement, but simply by staying alive—making moral advances rather than financial ones. Finding solace rather than drive. It’s a discourse of loss and a fatalistic language of survival.
In her book To Serve God and Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton writes, “The small farm myth lay at the core of national understanding, enshrined by Thomas Jefferson, the plantation owner who became the republic’s third president. Rural Americans had never really dwelt in an Eden of subsistence farming, but small-scale commercial agriculture, in which both production and profits were based in the family, retained an aura praiseworthy Jeffersonian independence. This tradition ennobled all it touched, allowing country merchants and small workshops to present themselves as just a variation on this pattern of American virtue.”
In sum, the power of the Midwest is that it is the sanctifying myth of America. And if you know Ag, you know the heart of America. And this is essential to maintaining authenticity with an audience of Iowans, so used to the quadrennial fawning. And being ignored the rest of the time. (By the way it’s supposed to snow tonight and my neighbor still has a giant hole in her roof from the Derecho over two months ago.)
So the game of who can corn hump the most is annoying, but it’s not meaningless.
Ernst got to the Senate with a cheeky video about castrating hogs on a farm. It’s a clever wink that plays to gendered stereotypes of powerful women, and also promises to cut the pork in Washington. Ernst's other breakout moment that got her to Washington (well that and a lot of Koch money), was a line about wearing bread bags over her boots in the winter.
It was widely mocked. And misunderstood. The bags actually go over your socks before you put the boots on to protect your feet from the snow melt that leaks inside cheap boots. But that’s a little beside the point. But it’s also the point. It’s a language of insiderism of belonging and understanding a people who have such a chip on their shoulder they never feel understood, even when they are.
Currently, Greenfield’s videos show a lot of green fields. Ernst’s too. Watching political ads on YouTube it’s just farms. farms. farms. farms. farrrrrmmmmmmmssss.
Both candidates are throwing “outsider” attacks at each other. Both candidates grew up on farms. But Ernst’s attacks on Greenfield’s outsiderism is because she was a businesswoman who lives in Des Moines. THE BIG CITY. Greenfield’s attacks on Ernst are that Washington changed her and now she’s just another politician.
It’s a race that is polling withing the margin of error. Which is significant. Ernst is an incumbent and Iowa’s love a rerun. We’d vote for the reanimated corpse of Chuck Grassley if we could. And honestly, I’m not sure we didn’t do that when he was re-elected. Former governor Terry Branstad keeps coming back like a bad remake of a movie you didn’t like to begin with, but keep watching because there is nothing else to do. Getting rid of an incumbent, is hard.
The debates thus far have been about as anodyne as you can get. The talking points that both candidates rarely move past and moderators rarely push on. Trust me. If you moderate a talk and push a candidate for an answer, no one likes you.
But back to that moment. That beautiful moment. With it’s richly coded language. The soft Midwestern vowels. The grin of the moderator as he says, “you grew up on a farm, you should know this.” Which is the Midwestern equivalent of a bitch slap.
Greenfield’s silence as she let’s the moment just happen. Ernst’s petulant, she didn’t answer it either, delivered with a smile so big, you’d think she was offering you hot dish. A smile so big it’s a stand in for rage.
It’s a Midwestern Melodrama. It’s boring. It’s endlessly fascinating. And I think we will find out if it means anything in November.
Oh hi. Are you still here? You survived all those words about beans? Good. Listen up, dinguses. As you know, I was fired from my job as an opinion columnist, just days after the Iowa GOP ran an attack at on me calling me “amateurish & crass” (sorry, I’m actually professional and crass!) and refused to meet with the editorial board because I was on it. I guess people don’t like it when you point out you did a campaign event with an actual Nazi. My suggestion would be not to meet with the Nazi’s, but orchestrating a backlash mob is another tactic.
I am fine. Everyone has been so nice. Neighbors I don’t even know have walked over wine. Strangers have mailed me bourbon. My agent has yelled at me to finish my third book proposal.
So, what’s next for me is I am finishing a third book proposal. Taking some time to sleep (turns out I’m very tired after working two full-time jobs at a paper, launching a book, getting my town blown to smithereens). I am going to fix the gutters on my still-storm damaged house and send my baby niece her present finally (and maybe get to meet her!) I’ll be freelancing and I will be making this newsletter a little more professional.
So, starting now. The newsletter will be least twice a week (maybe more). Paying subscribers will see them all. Non-paying subscribers, I love you too, but you will see one a week. The newsletters will will read like Q/As, op-eds, old fashion blog posts, and original long form work. And I am going to launch a little podcast with my daughter and start a “Dingus of the Week” feature.
I also thought a cocktail a week recipe might be fun, but idk. Leave your suggestions in the comments.
I’ll be working with an editor and an artist to get things looking nicer around here. And I’ll link to my other work, so you never miss a thing.
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This newsletter will be funny, personal, political, and always raise some hell.
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