Senator Grassley on Farming: Any Society is Only Nine Meals Away From a Revolution

When people ask about my latest book project and I tell them about Iowa’s Ag History, I get two reactions: either a blank stare, or “Oh cool!” When I reached out to Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, a farmer, to share a few comments for the book, I received more than an enthusiastic response.

I got an incredible interview from a senator who was willing to offer a significant portion of his time to share his insights into the importance of history, agriculture and rural Iowa’s role in the modern global economy. Read on to see why Sen. Grassley says, “I like to remind policymakers that any society is only nine meals away from a revolution.”

When did your family start farming in Iowa? 

I am the second generation farmer in my family, following in the footsteps of my father Louis Grassley. His dad emigrated from Germany and died when my dad was just seven years old. At around age 18, my dad started working as a hired hand for the Heitland family on a farm in Hardin County. A few years later, he rented some land near New Hartford in Butler County. In 1927, he and my mother Ruth purchased their own parcel of land.

After graduating from high school, I worked in factories, attended college and farmed with my dad. In 1958, while running for the Iowa legislature and working towards my doctorate at the University of Iowa, I started farming my own piece of the family farm. When my dad passed away in 1960, I rented his 80 acres and about five years later, purchased 120 acres on my own.

When I started out, I grew a bit of everything like most farmers at the time. I grew corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa and raised sheep, cattle and hogs. My son Robin Grassley, a third-generation farmer, and I continue farming 750 acres together. He rents and owns other farmland along with my grandson Pat Grassley, who is a fourth-generation family farmer.

Barbara and I raised our five children together on our farm near New Hartford, and we enjoy passing on our agrarian heritage and celebrate family gatherings here with our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


In politics as in farming, a solid understanding of the past is vital to understand current issues. From your unique viewpoint as a senator and a farmer, what’s your take about why it’s important to be well-versed in history–and what are the perils of not knowing history?

As a lifelong farmer who also has worked for six decades representing Iowans in state and federal government, I wear my rural roots as a badge of honor and believe it’s important for farmers to have a seat at the policy-making tables. Farmers take the long view of things, and maybe that’s why they don’t forget important lessons from history.

Only two percent of the American population shoulders the responsibility for growing enough food to feed the U.S. population. Our agrarian-based heritage has experienced rapid transformation in the last generation. Fewer Americans, even in Iowa, have a direct link to living or working on a farm. And most likely due to the affordable abundance of food, not enough people appreciate that food security is directly tied to national security. Food security extends beyond national sovereignty. American agriculture – and the farmers, workers and businesses along the supply chain – anchors the U.S. economy and increasingly strengthens U.S. energy independence, as well.

From a historical perspective, there are two rules of thumb I use to explain how important food security is to maintain peace and prosperity in society. As Emperor of France in the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly said “to be effective, an army relies on good and plentiful food.” In other words, an army marches on its stomach. Food security ensures a nation can feed its military, whose men and women in uniform are deployed to protect and defend a nation’s sovereignty, at home and abroad. I also like to remind policymakers that any society is only nine meals away from a revolution.

Political leaders who embrace the misguided notion that socialism is the answer to peace and prosperity are either grossly misinformed or willfully ignorant about the peril of leaders who promise to fix “inequality” with government control. Just look at the economic crisis in Venezuela, once one of the most prosperous nations in the Western Hemisphere. The poverty and humanitarian crisis falls squarely in the hands of the nation’s authoritarian regime and its ideologically driven policies. History teaches us that when government suppresses freedom and liberty, the people’s path towards peace and prosperity is replaced with food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation, power outages and even more economic and social inequality.

History teaches us other important lessons. Namely, how not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Don’t forget, the overly harsh tariffs in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1932 shut down world trade, led to a worldwide economic depression and foretold a world war that killed tens of millions of people.

Another important lesson I keep in mind at the policy-making tables is the 1980s farm crisis. The loss of thousands of family farms was a heart-wrenching loss for so many families and long-time neighbors across Iowa. It stole a sense of vitality from small towns and rural communities. It arguably steered away a generation of beginning farmers from following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. The farm crisis invigorated my advocacy on behalf of young and beginning farmers, including my work to push for robust enforcement of anti-trust laws and oversight of mergers and competition in the agriculture industry. Previously, I’ve introduced legislation that would have amended the Packers and Stockyards Act to make it illegal for a packer to own, feed or control livestock intended for slaughter. I’ll keep my oversight hat on to protect the integrity of the marketplace so that independent producers have a fair shake at a fair price for their commodities.

I also led efforts to enact and make permanent Chapter 12 in the federal bankruptcy code. This unique chapter is designed to help farmers and ranchers who have fallen on hard times to survive bankruptcy and restructure their debts without losing their livelihood. Most recently, I secured an update to Chapter 12 to fix court rulings that undermined congressional intent. Previously, the IRS muscled its way to the front of the creditor’s line to scoop up capital gains taxes and potentially block a farmer’s reorganization plans. Farmers shouldn’t be penalized for being asset-rich and cash-poor. When they need to reorganize debts to hold on to their livelihoods, my reforms ensure they aren’t going to be slapped with a big tax bill and lose the ability to continue farming.

Another way I advocate for family farmers at the policy-making tables is my longstanding efforts to restore fiscal integrity to the farm safety net. In our free market society, farmers ought to be able to decide how large or small they want their operation to be. However, the farm safety net shouldn’t be manipulated for operations to grow at taxpayer expense. It’s very important to uphold the credibility and strengthen the public trust in the farm safety net, as well. That’s why I will continue my efforts to attach reasonable payment limits so that off-site managers, including nieces, nephews, cousins and other family members who aren’t actually contributing to the operation of the farm, are prevented from cashing in on farm payments.

In 2019, I launched my 39th consecutive year holding meetings in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. I keep in close touch with Iowans and count on this dialogue to make representative government work. I also apply the lessons of history to inform my work on making better policies and fixing laws that create unintended consequences. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has oversight and legislative jurisdiction over international trade, I’m currently working to reform a 1962 federal law that delegated authority to the executive branch. Specifically, Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act authorizes the president to impose tariffs on selected imports if the chief executive determines those imports pose a threat to our national security.

This law was enacted with good intentions and for good reason. However, history has shown that reforms are necessary in order to give Congress a role in the process. In my view, Congress delegated too much authority to the executive branch at the expense of the people’s branch. American agriculture too often shoulders the burden of retaliatory action from our trade partners. It’s another example of why I always check the rear-view mirror to ensure the road ahead paves the way for prosperity and opportunity for family farmers and all those who earn their livelihoods and enjoy their way of life in Rural America.

What are some of the biggest changes in Iowa agriculture you’ve seen and experienced in your lifetime?

Technology and innovation have revolutionized farming as we know it. Mechanization allows an individual farmer to dramatically improve productivity and harvest bin-busting yields grown from disease-resistant seeds, for example. At the same time, farmers are able to conserve resources and save money using no-till, cover crops and precision agriculture. As a first-generation farmer, my dad used a team of horses when he started farming. Like many family farmers, the genetic code of fiscal discipline, conservation and ingrained work ethic was handed down to me from my parents’ experience carving out a living from the land. In my case, the Grassley household and farming operation was influenced by the Great Depression, to conserve resources and stretch every penny.

To this day, I carry a lifelong code of conservatism with me as a farmer and lawmaker. Although innovation – including WiFi-enabled farms and climate-controlled tractor cabs — hasn’t shortened the work day for most farmers, it’s certainly transformed productivity and changed the way we market our crops and livestock. When I started farming on my own in the 1950s, the average corn yield in Iowa was about 45 bushels/acre. Today Iowa farmers yield an average of 202 bushels/acre. This productivity helps feed and fuel a growing world population with affordable, wholesome food and renewable energy. So increased productivity has been revolutionary.

Another significant change is farmers are affected by worldwide market forces. That means a farmer in the 21st century must be able to survive not just the whims of Mother Nature, but also the winds of geo-political negotiations and foreign policy that impact exports and a farmer’s bottom line.

Ag literacy should be part of education, in my opinion, for any Iowa student. In your opinion, how does a basic understanding of agriculture benefit all Iowans, both rural and urban?

No matter what policy we may be debating in Congress, I often find the best way to sum up the debate boils down to this: Washington is an island surrounded by reality. As a farmer-lawmaker on the Senate Agriculture Committee, I bring a dirt-underneath-my-fingernails perspective to the policy-making tables. I take pride serving as a champion for rural America to advocate for our nation’s food producers and farm families. With only two percent of the population growing food for the rest of the nation, it’s more important than ever to educate consumers about where their food comes from. In fact, I often suggest that many Americans are under the mistaken impression that food grows in grocery stores, restaurants or take-out containers. I’m glad to see more and more farmers’ markets becoming a vital part of local communities. It’s good for the local economy and community vitality and fosters better awareness that food does not grow on the grocery store shelf.

With a global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050, the importance of agriculture research and education is vital for human civilization. Iowa’s deeply rooted agrarian heritage continues to lead the way with excellent opportunities to foster ag literacy, food, plant and animal science and entrepreneurship. Iowa boasts a vibrant network of FFA organizations across the state. What’s more, Iowa’s native son Norman Borlaug paved an agricultural revolution credited with saving a billion people from starvation. The Father of the Green Revolution was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970 and Iowa celebrates his legacy with a statue in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Iowa is also home to the World Food Prize. Since 1987 the World Food Prize Foundation has celebrated the achievements of individuals inspired by the legacy of Dr. Borlaug. Each year it awards individuals whose contributions have improved the global food supply, from plant, animal and soil science to technology and nutrition and rural development. For three decades, it has brought thousands of people from around the world to Des Moines in October to talk about food security in a symposium known as the Borlaug Dialogue.

Anything else you’d like to add about the importance of knowing history in general and the history of agriculture in Iowa in particular?

Iowans may know I love history. In today’s polarized world of identity politics, it’s important more than ever to strengthen civic education in America’s classrooms. Our youngest members of society need to understand the perils of communism, fascism and socialism. Regimes inspired by utopian socialist principles do not eradicate hunger or poverty, they extinguish peace and prosperity at the expense of individual freedom and liberty.

Despite the regional, ideological and partisan differences that divide Americans, we share a common humanity and fundamental thread of human existence. We all need to eat to survive. And I’m proud to be among the generations of Iowa farmers who have answered the vocational calling to put food on family tables. As a steward of the soil and U.S. Senator for Iowa, I am honored to serve as a voice for agriculture and rural America.

Want more?
Thanks for stopping by. I invite you to read more of my blog posts if you value intriguing Iowa stories and history, along with Iowa food, agriculture updates, recipes and tips to make you a better communicator.

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If you’re hungry for more stories of Iowa history, check out my top-selling “Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites and More” book from The History Press. Also take a look at my latest book, “Dallas County,” and my Calhoun County” book from Arcadia Publishing. Both are filled with vintage photos and compelling stories that showcase he history of small-town and rural Iowa. Order your signed copies today! Iowa postcards are available in my online store, too.

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@Copyright 2019 Darcy Maulsby & Co.  Blog posts may only be reprinted with permission from Darcy Maulsby. 

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