Episode #8 – Professor John Iken from The University of MO tells us why he has made it his life’s work to reconnect people with each other and the earth.
On this episode of Agrihood Radio, John Ikerd tells us how he wants to improve the process of industrial agriculture, so he’s been educating people based on his years of research and study.
John went from a farm in southwest Missouri to the University of Missouri and eventually ended up with his doctorate degree in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri.
He then went out and worked in the University of Missouri extension system and promoted his ideas of industrial agriculture. This was a time when the country was setting out to make agriculture more efficient and make good food affordable for everyone.
John believed in that philosophy for about the first half of his thirty-year academic career and then during the financial farm crisis of the 1980’s his views began to change for a variety of reasons. The farmer following the advice of so-called experts, ended up with a lot of debt at high interest rates and they were losing their farms.
This had a negative impact on family farms in rural communities. We also began seeing what that was doing to the land in terms pollution and erosion.
John had an eye opening experience when he came to the realization that not only were we sacrificing the land but we were sacrificing it with no good result. We weren’t feeding people that were hungry, John explains.
Today we have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure heart disease and various cancers that are associated with American diet. And all of those have increased as we’ve industrialized the agricultural system.
In this episode of Agrihood Radio, you’ll learn:
Enjoy today’s episode with John Iken
Brett: Hey John how are you today.
John: Very good thank you.
Brett: You were at the University of Missouri for several years.
John: I’ve retired from there I still have professor emeritus status from the University of Missouri but I retired there almost 20 years ago. So I’ve just continued to kind of do the work I was doing before and you know tried to remain active and continue to help people understand the issues that are related to economic sustainability and sustainable agriculture and things of this nature.
Brett: So back in the day, I did a little history about your upbringing, you were brought up in Missouri at a time where there was no running water, fact?
John: That’s right yeah when I was a kid we didn’t have electricity and of course we didn’t have running water with that we had a well where you draw it up with a with a bucket. Now I think it’s sometime later in my grade school years we got electricity and then we were able to get you know running water and we were able to put in, eventually a small grade A milking parlor. And kind of come into the 20th century after a while. But when I started off you know they were still farming with horses where I was, you know industrial agriculture at that time was the old steam engine that pulled the threshing machine. Everything else was done basically with horses.
Brett: You know and that’s why I wanted to invite you on this call today because my wife and I sat down and we watched the documentary you played a big part in that documentary Sustainable, which is available on Netflix right now. And I really strongly say this and believe this, a person cannot watch that documentary and leave the same as they sat down. Because the knowledge you provide, the enlightenment the enlightening facts you provide people while they’re watching that documentary raises their level of awareness and now they can make I believe better choices. And your line that got my eyes wide open is that literally the food we’re eating is making people sick.
John: Right and I think that’s an important part for people to understand what we did to the food system we did with good intent and I didn’t have time in the documentary to explain all this. But you know I went from the farm in southwest Missouri to the University of Missouri and eventually ended up with my doctorate degree in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. Then I went out and worked in University and extension systems and I promoted this idea of industrial agriculture you know specialized standardized consolidate and to larger farms you know farmers you know you’re gonna have to be prepared to get bigger and get out of agriculture. And the idea was is we were going to make agriculture more efficient and we were going to bring down the cost of food and we were going to make good food affordable to everyone.
Well you know I believed that for about the first half of my thirty-year academic career and then during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s where a variety of reasons I won’t go into here. But you know the farmer said then following the advice of we so-called experts ended up with a lot of debt at high interest rates and they were losing your farms. And I could see the negative impact of that on family farms and in rural communities that were withering and dying that depended upon those farm families. And then there’s only then I began to see you know what we were doing to the land in terms pollution and erosion and things of that nature. But anyway that the final part of was that turned me around was whenever I came to the realization that not only were we sacrificing all of that but we were sacrificing it with no good result. We weren’t feeding people that were hungry, it was back in the 1960s. And the part that you mentioned in the process of trying to make food cheap we took out much of the nutrient value of the food and we ended up with foods that are high in calories but lacking in essential nutrients and that’s what’s making people sick. We have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure heart disease and various cancers that are associated with American diet. And all of those have increased as we’ve industrialized the agricultural system but then industrialized the whole food system.
Brett: Okay and how many fingers can we be point at Monsanto with that roundup product in your opinion?
John: Well I think we need to look at corporations for what they are corporations you know family corporation is just like a family you can express your social and ethical values through how you operate that family corporation. But when you’re talking about a big corporation like Monsanto or a Cargill or DuPont or Bayer or any of those corporations they’re created as economic organizations and they have shareholders scattered all around the world all different ages all different values. The only thing they have in common is the desire to increase the value of their investment to increase the profits of that corporation that’s what drives it. And that’s what’s driving Monsanto and that’s what’s driving all the big agribusiness corporations today.
It’s the pursuit of the economic bottom line. So Monsanto simply done whatever they needed to do or thought they needed to do to increase their profitability you know they came out with them and the other chemical companies came out with the agricultural pesticides to begin with and then they come out with genetically modified organism saying well you know the pesticides aren’t working or they’re not going to be acceptable they’re dangerous so we replace them with genetically modified organisms. And then they come out with Roundup which they say okay we can genetically modify crops so that it won’t die from Roundup and everything else will. And so you know as a result of that then farmers across the United States and around the world adopted this technology primarily because it was so simple relative to other technologies that were available to control weeds. So we ended up then you know with Roundup applied all over the country and all around the world and only, what twenty thirty years later then we find that it’s classified as a probable carcinogen. But I think the motivation for Monsanto was always just to make money and we shouldn’t expect them to do anything else.
Brett: At the expense sometimes of human beings my livelihood or life so that being said, as you may or may not know my wife and I are looking for an Agrihood to raise our son in. And that’s the whole premise of our project, Agrihoodliving.com. And that is to raise awareness, that if people want to look into alternatives that they feel are healthier lifestyle options, I think the Agrihood lifestyle is a great start. Because we have seen quite a few properties around the country and what it is, it has the clean pesticide free food even sometimes organic food that neighbors in the community have access to. So if they don’t want to be part of the whole chemical society industry, industrial agricultural world this might be a good option. So what do you say to that and what do you know at this point your career that people might want to consider encourage them to look more for organic or fresh raised food without the pesticides?
John: Right well I think that’s where more and more people are coming you know the organic growth in organic foods was growing at 20% per year during the 1990s and up until the recession of 2008 it was growing rate of about 20% per year meaning it was doubling every three or four years. And this was a reflection of people increasingly are understanding that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the industrial food system and they’re looking for alternative. So they looked organic but when organic becomes so popular you know it became profitable then the mainstream markets the big processors began to buy up to organic farms or take control of the larger organic farms to produce their products there. And then you know the wholesale distributors and various other people got involved in specifying the standards for organics or maintaining the standards for organics. And make a long story short we ended up where over half of the organic Ag’s are produced in large kind of confinement operations and over half of the milk comes out of big factory farms that are dairy farms that are producing the milk. And now we’ve got approval of hydroponic production of vegetables which means they’re produced without any soil and so you see now that people are losing confidence in what I call the industrial organic and that’s where they’re looking for alternatives like you’re talking about. There the Agrihood is one approach to what I call kind of the local food movement it’s people trying to ensure the integrity of their food. The ecological social integrity as well as the health and the nutrient value by getting your food from people you know and an Agrihood, what you’re doing is you’re living around the farm or you’re trying to get as much as your food as your possible produce so you know specifically how it’s produced and you as that neighborhood have control over how it’s produced so you can specify that. But I think it’s a part of this much bigger movement which is a whole variety of ways that people are trying to reconnect with their particular farmer or a group of farmers within a local community or in a local area.
And it’s a means of trying to avoid the problems that we discussed other the healthy issues environmental issues and so on that associated with the industrial food system. And they’re trying to find an alternative to that by creating local food systems. The whole movement comes under the umbrella of consumer sovereignty which is strong in the international area and the idea of consumers started sovereignty starts out with everybody has a has a right to enough culturally appropriate healthy food that’s produced in sustainable ways to meet their basic needs and they have a right to determine their own food system. So I think the Agrihood is a very logical response and you know I think it’ll fit with people that are looking also trying to reconnect with other people within communities as well as reconnect with the land basically through their farmer.
Brett: Spot-on 100% correct you know and this is coming from somebody who was part of the industrial agriculture world for so many years and then you kind of changed your views. And then also you had a report where you, you made a case for multifunctional farms of the future right?
John: Right and I think that is the farms of the future because you know my professional opinion, I get accused once in awhile for giving my personal opinion. My professional opinion based on you know 30 years of academic experience and 20 years since of speaking and listening to people all over the country and around the world to a certain extent and so you know that’s where that’s where it comes from you know the multi-functional farming to me is the farming of the future. Because what we’re doing today is simply not sustainable and what I mean by multifunctional it’s a farm that that not isn’t just about the economic bottom line it isn’t about making a living it’s a socially responsible ecologically responsible kind of way of farming and the function of the farm is not simply to produce food, but it’s to maintain the productivity of the integrity of the natural ecosystem that on which its long-run productivity depends. It’s maintaining the health of the soil and regenerating productivity and it’s also farming is about you know connecting with the food with the person that’s eating it. It’s producing good wholesome healthful food that will support you know healthy societies and humanity over the long run. If you go back and look at the foundations of organic farming for example it starts back in the early 1900’s.
They were talking about organic farming as being a commitment to permanent farming. Sort of an ethical commitment to the future of humanity so that’s what multifunctional is about. It’s taking care of nature preserving restoring, regenerate natural resources. It’s being responsible to society, being a responsible member of a community and feeling a sense of obligation to take care of the soil and to produce healthy food for healthy people for all generations. So that’s what multifunctional is, it’s not just about a business it’s a ethical and moral way of life.
Brett: So now the next question becomes then organic, local and other high quality foods more times or not as you know carry higher price tags than conventional food. So how do we how can we make good food affordable for accessible to people with limited incomes?
John: I think that’s an important part of it in the process I talked about it reducing you know making food more affordable reducing. The cost of production we did in fact reduce the cost of farm level production on food but unfortunately what happened in the process is the food processors and manufacturers use this as cheap raw material. And then they went into the what’s called value adding but it’s cost adding as well, the packaging, processing, transportation, advertising and so all of those factors now have added cost to the total food that we’re consuming at retail to the point where consumers never really realized the benefit of the lower farm value. So but that leaves us at a point where there’s opportunity today only about 15% of what we spend on average for food in the grocery stores and restaurants actually goes to the farmer for what they pay for the food 85% of it is for processing, advertising, transportation packaging things of that nature.
By in large it’s all those things that make food more convenient, gets it to the place you want it puts it in a convenient form. They do pre preparation and things of that nature. Now if you have lower income then you have to give up something you can’t have as much of everything. But I would argue you don’t have to give up good food because if you can get raw or minimally processed food let’s say and if you end up paying twice as much for that food that’s twice as much as that 15% that’s paid today for raw food on average, then you’re up to like 30%. But if you can cut that 85% that’s spent on average for convenience for transportation, advertising so on by getting it local getting it from your own farmer. If you can cut that in half then you saved more than enough on the packaging and processing and this sort of thing by preparing your own food from scratch more than enough to offset the twice as much that you paid for the raw food to begin with. And in fact in an example I’ll give you the end up paying about 70 to 75 percent as much for food even though you’re paying twice as much for the raw food presumably that’s produced by organic sustainable nutritious means.
Now that means that you have to have low income people will have to you know learn to select and I think we need to focus on helping lower-income people learn to select good healthful food to understand that the food they’re eating is making them sick. And know how to prepare it and then there’s also the challenge of finding time to prepare the food but I think in a lot of cases where low-income people are working two or three jobs just to try to get by. They’d be better off working less for pay and spending more time preparing their own food. Because a lot of low-income people may spend you know 20, 30 or 40 percent of their income for food as opposed to the average at less than 10. So they’re spending a lot of money for food today. If they can cut out that processing, transportation, advertising and then they can afford really good food but they need to take the time to prepare it for themselves and I think it’s a good way to raise a family. I grew up learning how to cook with my mother at the old cook stove and it served me very well through my life. It was a way for her to raise kids and it was a way for us to learn a useful skill.
Brett: How’bout that and that was a time there was no running water electricity.
John: Right and we cooked in a wood stove I don’t know how she ever did that you know get the temperature just right for baking, cooking on top and things of that nature.
Brett: So the question becomes John, aren’t we gonna have to depend on the large scale or industrial factory farmers to feed the world?
John: Yeah that’s a common belief, a common myth that’s promoted around the world, contrary to popular belief. Industrial agriculture doesn’t feed the world. In fact the United Nations reports various reports that have been done over time indicate that somewhere between 70, 80 percent of the people in the world today are fed not by large industrial farms of the global food system. They’re fed by small family farms that most of us would call subsistence farms. And also the research that’s done in other areas of the world particularly in Africa and South America in places like this indicate that we could double or triple the yields on those small farms without using industrial agricultural practices. Without making them significantly larger and there’s a whole global movement called Agro-ecology. And it kind of brings together the principles of ecology working with nature with the soil with the water systems and things of that nature and bringing it into agriculture. And organic and sustainable and biodynamic and permaculture and nature farming and holistic resource management kind of all fall in this particular kind of category. And so these are the kind of farming systems that are being you know implemented by small farmers around the world and they’re able to double or triple their yields when they do this. And so if they’re producing 70, 80% of the food for people today, if they double their yields that’s 140, 150% of what’s being produced today we wouldn’t even need industrial agriculture. And then those folks are beginning to understand you know that the Green Revolution didn’t feed the hungry people, it increased production for export, but just like in this country you know, we’re not feeding the hungry people in this country by the industrial agriculture.
The production goes somewhere else and they’re also beginning to understand that the health issues that we’ve talked about here of obesity and diabetes and heart disease and things of this nature. Wherever they take the industrial agriculture and industrial food system then you see a rise in those particular health issues as well. So they don’t want industrial agriculture they just need a little help kind of like American farmers got in the early nineteen hundred’s with the early work of the extension service and experiment stations. They just need a little help and understanding Agro-ecology on how to implement that on their own farms. And if we focused on that rather than trying to export our surpluses into countries that instead need to develop their own farmers then the whole world would be far better off.
Brett: That’s well said John and the young people today, you know we kind of saw a trend where you know as opportunities become greater they were leaving the family farms and as you quoted..for greener pastures, how do we get the young people back on the farm?
John: Well I think there’s a lot of young people today that want to go back to farming, there’s a lot of people young people that are interested in farming today. I think the important part in talking to them and talking to other people is when we talk about sustainable agriculture, Agro-ecology, holistic resource management, organic farming and this sort of thing. We’re not talking about going back to the drudgery of the farming as it was whenever I was growing up. When I was growing up farming was hard physical labor you get out and pick up hay bells by hand and threw them up on the wagon and put them in the barn by hand and things of that nature. We’re not talking about going back to those times there’s all sorts of technologies today that are available on small-scale farms. They’re well developed particularly in Europe and other places that have a lot more small farmers that take a lot of the drudgery out. When you see that in the United States you see it more.
I think one prime example is the low cost solar-powered highly mobile electric fences that farmers use on farms where you have grazing operations and going to holistic resource management for example or management intensive grazing or planned grazing or systems like that. They develop these small paddocks where they moved the cattle by mob grazing. Large numbers of cattle from place to place where they get fresh grass all the time and then they give the grass opportunity to regenerate. They can double yields or more on pastures simply by using this simple low-cost technology a portable electric fences and there’s also kind of pull behind and walk behind small-scale equipment that take out much of the drudgery on vegetable production and things of this nature. So there’s still some still some work involved but it’s not the drudgery in agriculture that was there before. And when we’re talking about you know the future recreating the food system in the future we’re talking about you know changing the technology development and research from just simply focusing on industrial technologies which was the case of public research institutions during my professional career We were focused on creating technologies that fit that industrial model that I described. It was well intended but it was all focused toward trying to fit in with the specialized standardized large-scale farming operations. If we change the technology development to develop more and more technologies that are scale appropriate that fit on farms these smaller farms then I think those, kind of operations will become even less of the labor will be left there and it will be more productive. But the most important thing I think is in the values of young people that want to farm.
We have an increasing number of young people that say I don’t want to get locked into even a high-paying job in an urban area where I’m going to spend my life doing what somebody else tells me to do. And I won’t have a choice as to whether to continue to work there or quit because I’ll have a big house payment and a big car payment and I’ll be kind of locked into this system where I have to earn more and more just a fit in the environment.
We have people that say I don’t want to live that way and they’re saying I want to be somewhere where I can be my own boss I want to be outside in the open air. I want to raise my children on the place where I’m working so they’re growing up and they’re growing up with me and they see you know accurately as I say as an economist that, that making money is just a means of doing something else. And if they can make enough money to farm and that’s really what they want to do with their life then that’s their goal. If they’ve got enough money to farm then you know they’ve got enough money to live the life that they want to live. And I tell young people I say don’t even think about farming as an occupation unless you think that your calling. Unless you think that’s what you were really meant to do with your life and if it is, I think there’s opportunities today that you can find opportunities to make enough money to live the life that you want to live if you’re truly called to farm.
Brett: You know what you’re saying is everything we’ve been hearing about these Agrihoods and that’s what the new buyer the younger generation is saying. Fortunately there’s big multi-million dollar development companies listening and accommodating that buyer today. The biggest buyer in America, the largest group of buyers is Millennials and they make up a good portion of the AgrIhoods we’ve been looking at not only as residents John but also most of the farmers that we’ve seen along our Agrihood tours, are these people that you just explained. They want, I mean that’s exactly what this Agrihood movement is about. Now of course you’re going to have multi-generational demographics. But the majority that we have seen, they started out, they started their research, they started building these Agrihoods based towards the new buyer which is the Millennials and then they found out wait a minute there’s more than Millennials who are attracted to this lifestyle there’s a lot of people are attracted, even baby boomers, retirees, everybody. So it’s a great movement, a great concept.
John: Yeah I think the conferences that I have opportunity to speak out on sustainable agriculture, organic and things of this nature the most rewarding part about them is the diversity of the people that are there young people young families but also older people or retired people, people in between there’s just a diversity of people that are beginning to wake up to the fact that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our agriculture with our food system. And they’re kind of sharing ideas with each other and hopefully learning to work together and develop you know caring positive relationships I think that will be the key to success is that we develop more caring positive relationships with the earth and with each other. And that’s going to require a diversity of people learning how to get along together and appreciate each other and to respect each other’s views on things. And because nobody knows really how to do the things that we’re talking about here, this is a major shift in the food system and a major shift within society and so we’re all just going to kind of feel our way through it together. Some of us older, we’re not gonna make it all the way through, but we’re going to enjoy the ride while we’re still here.
Brett: I tell you what, you just left us with though John is priceless the knowledge you just shared in this few minutes we had time to spend together it’s something that you know whenever your time is to pass along. You you just left somebody else greater because of the wisdom you just shared. So I hope you recognize what you’re doing is a great cause. How can people get a hold of you how can they find you, you have a website?
John: Yeah I have a website and it’s just JohnIkerd.com J-o-h-n-I-k-e-r-d.com and if you go to that website then you can find the contact information for me it also has a link to my University of Missouri website that I still have up there. Where I post a lot of the presentation papers I make. And then I also have a Facebook page there and that’s just you go on and look for John Ikerd J-o-h-n I-k-e-r-d and you’ll find my Facebook page there so you know i’m always glad to respond to you know whatever I can and I tried you know post whatever information I think might be of use to people and I appreciate you, you know kind of passing along the idea that I’m maybe helpful to somebody at some place because that’s my goal is to really do whatever I can to contribute just a little bit to the greater good which I think is what all of us are about.
Brett: Extremely obvious in your personality in your time you shared what the generosities. So how you spending your days now that you’re retired?
John: Since I’ve been retired in the last several years I have an opportunity for about 20 to 25 speaking engagements a year that would require like an overnight stay or something that’s all I keep track of. I do quite a few things here locally that as well that I’d have opportunities to go to different meetings for example in this last week on Monday night I was speaking with a group in Iowa City called the 100 grantees for a livable future where they are involved in public issues. And I was talking on the implications of large-scale confinement animal feeding operations and then right after that I went to a suburb of Detroit and it was in with a biosolids conference where you had people there that are in the state of Michigan that are involved in taking biological waste out of municipalities. And trying to find ways to so that they can get that back on agricultural land you know in a way that’s safe removed the toxins and things of this nature. And whether it’s through composting or various other means trying to return that biological waste to the you know to the production system much like they were talking about doing back in the early 1900’s when a fella by the name of Harom King went to Japan. And it was it was China yeah China, India and Korea he wanted to wrote a book called farmers of 40 centuries and one of the observations he had was in all of those places were farmers had farmed for 40 century without wearing out the land. That they would pile up the human waste they call it night soil and streets and compost it and they get it back to the land where the food was produced.
So you know I never know from time to time, two or three of those a month you know keeps me busy I prepared presentation papers and then the things I do. I’m a member of the board of directors of the Jefferson County farmers and neighbors which is a local organization that’s committed to protecting our community from the threats of industrial agriculture particularly CAFO’s moving around in around us here in Iowa.
Brett: You’re definitely keeping busy and I’ve coming from me somebody who does these interviews quite often III sense I see a little podcasting in your future John have you thought about that?
John: I’d rather respond to what other people you know other people contact me as long as they keep me busy doing that I’d rather be respond to the felt need to someone else rather than trying to create a particular thing for myself.
Brett: Well you always have an opportunity here to share your wisdom with us because we greatly appreciate it especially in the process of our family trying to locate the perfect
Agri-community for our family. Knowing what we know having you reconfirm what we know in the people who haven’t heard about Agri-communities or Agrihoods hearing it come from a professional like yourself, it’s just all making sense. So please understand we appreciate your knowledge, your time, your generosity and we’d love to have you back on in the near future and talk more about it.
John: Okay very good I appreciate the opportunity to you know, talk with share my ideas for whatever they’re worth with anybody, I always appreciate the opportunity to share more broadly. So I appreciate the opportunity to be on your program, your podcast.
Brett: They’re worth their weight in gold, thank you again John we’ll be in touch. Okay thank you bye, bye.
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