The year of really big stories12/23/2015
2015 will be remembered as the end of an era in Iowa. The $130 billion merger of Dow and Dupont killed off the state’s most identifiable icon — the company formerly known as Pioneer Hi-bred. Founded by plant genius Henry Wallace, the company was an intellectual brain trust that changed farming forever — and for the better. Its name was synonymous with Iowa, agriculture and food production. Its eradication is a colossal story in Iowa food history — bigger than the Postville raids, the closing of John Deere in Waterloo and Dupont’s original acquisition of Pioneer. It’s the biggest story since the Dust Bowl led to the triumph of two crop rotations, and that story took decades to develop.
This year, a herd of activist investors viewed the companies as burdened with too much staff and research and development costs. Pioneer’s legendary scholars, breeders and researchers are considered expendable by a new regime, which expects to realize at least 10 percent of $4 billion in cost savings by cutting research and development. Breeding is dead, and genetic modification has conquered the U.S. Herbicide and pesticide use will be further unleashed.
No one seems to have a good guess at what will happen to the former Pioneer facilities in Johnston, but it’s going to hurt the town. The new company intends to break into three separate companies — agrichemicals, materials science and specialty products. The agrichemical company will sell seeds, “crop protection” chemicals and biotech. Folks are hopeful the Johnston facility might headquarter at least part of that business, but with huge cutbacks in research and development, it will be a very different company.
Analysts predict the merger will have tough antitrust scrutiny with predicted higher seed prices leading to higher food prices and less incentive to develop new products. Some wishful souls predict the merger might lead to new, small seed companies geared to non-GMO crops.
The second-biggest food story of the year is related. In March, Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit in federal court against three upstream counties, charging they violate the Clean Water Act by allowing fertilizer to flow into one of the rivers from which the city gets its drinking water. If it succeeds, it will force farmers upstream from Des Moines to limit their fertilizer runoff. The lawsuit, which is scheduled for court in August of next year, has powerful opponents such as Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa Farm Bureau. A group affiliated with the latter has been running attack ads on Des Moines Water Works CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe. They have enough cynicism to call themselves Iowa Partnership for Clean Water.
Few see that as anything other than deceitful. Iowa’s biggest crop is corn, which uses more nitrate fertilizer than any crop. Most Iowa corn is fed to Iowa’s 23 million hogs, whose nitrate-rich waste leaks from manure lagoons into streams and rivers like the Des Moines and Raccoon. Des Moines, already has the world’s largest nitrate filtering center. In 2013, and again this year, the filtering unit was used a record-setting number of hours to cope with record-breaking nitrate counts. DM Water Works needs to replace the filtering center at a cost of $185 million, plus $4,000–$7,000 per day that it’s used. Since those costs are filtered down to users of Des Moines water, the lawsuit seeks compensation on their behalf.
Our third-biggest story of the year is about new developments in Des Moines mostly by the Riches — Hurd and Eychaner. Both moved to open new buildings anchored by multiple restaurants in the inner city. Hurd’s property at 27th and Ingersoll will feature a Panchero’s, a Pita Pit and a Firehouse Subs. Eychaner’s at Third and MLK has a Fuzzy’s Tacos, a Jimmy John’s and a Guru BBQ with a Rooftop bar coming soon. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.