David Murphy was saddled with $80,000 in college debt, finally working to pay it off with a federal government consulting job in Washington, when his father called him back to Iowa two years ago.
Big agribusiness was building an oversized hog confinement facility — infamous across Iowa and the Midwest — for about 4,800 animals, threatening his sister's farm less than a half-mile away. His father wanted him to stop it. Murphy had recently earned a master's degree in creative writing from Columbia University and was skilled at writing letters and organizing people.
He figured he'd return to Iowa, take his best shot at killing the hog farm, and be back in Washington in a month or two.
"I walked away from that because, you know, I believe in it," he says. "The legislators have turned their backs on us."
Two years later, Murphy remains in Iowa, and still works with Washington, albeit through Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots movement launched in December. The organization is circulating a petition urging President Barack Obama's administration to choose federal officials committed to green agricultural initiatives while supporting family farmers, not big agribusiness.
The petition, which included more than 77,000 signatures as of late January, has made the rounds in Obama's agriculture department transition team, Murphy says. Team officials declined last week to discuss the petition and Food Democracy Now! and chose to reiterate Obama's campaign positions on agriculture and sustainability, which touch on many of the organization's initiatives, including family farm support and the regulation of animal confinement facilities and big agribusiness.
The organization had been lobbying to place a friendly face at the head of the agriculture department, but it refocused on recommending undersecretaries after Obama announced last month former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will take the post. Some environmentalists opposed Vilsack's selection, citing his connection to corporate farming and genetically modified crops, but Murphy and his organization have been cautiously supportive.
"He's proved to be a very talented and capable administrator and politician," Murphy says. "Tom may be able to enact more progressive change."
Food Democracy also wants to help reshape the national food system by pushing for more regulation on big agribusiness, including a $250,000 cap on federal subsidies for corporate farms. It also wants to crack down on animal containment facilities — also known as confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs — that harm air quality and lead to poor water health. Murphy says he'd like to see Obama give more power to local governments so they can control where and how often CAFOs are built. Near his home in Clear Lake, he says he's seen people wrap their windows in cellophane to fight the stench of nearby animal farms. Some people can't open windows or use their air conditioning and wake up gagging in the middle of the night from hydrogen sulfide and ammonia in gas emanating from manure, he says. "These are some really serious situations," he says. "This is something that really has a catastrophic potential to infect the food chain."
Paul Willis, 64, of Thornton, Iowa, is one Murphy's Food Democracy partners. His family farm, which has existed for generations, is part of Niman Ranch, a network of hog farmers dedicated to smaller farming and traditional pig raising.
"It's a system that allows the animals to behave naturally: in other words, be a pig," Willis says.
Willis says he'd love to see some of the 5,000-plus animal confinement facilities pay for the air and water pollution to which they inevitably contribute. Containment facilities also don't rotate crops or animals, he says, draining richness and nutrients from the soil that ensure its sustainability. Willis' farm raises oats, hay, corn, soybeans and pigs.
"One of the basic principles is having nature be the teacher. Natural systems are diverse," he says. "Different plants growing. If you're rotating crops, rotating animals, it's a healthier system."
The elimination of smaller, family farms has also kept younger people from becoming farmers, Willis says. Farmers constitute less than 1 percent of the country — well below those with more advanced food systems such as Italy or Poland, where between 10 and 20 percent work as farmers, he says.
"I think it takes more people to care for the land properly and produce quality, healthy food and maintain the land," Willis says.
The hog farm near Murphy's sister's home was eventually killed, though only because it was close to Okoboji, a popular vacation town for moneyed Iowans, Murphy says. Instead of moving back to Washington, he found himself lured by the state's rural politics. He spoke about sustainability and agribusiness to packed rooms of hundreds of farmers. He found work as a lobbyist, a campaign coordinator and managed a congressional primary race.
Now, he says, he's in Iowa to stay.
"I was asked by many people to stay here and help," he says. "It's not going to come easy; there's going to be resistance at every level. There are very powerful special interests, and they're not going to take change lightly."
To learn more about Food Democracy Now!, visit its website at www.fooddemocracynow.org. You can also sign the organization's petition.