Means, ends and granfalloons

“ ‘Shut up,’ he explained.” — Ring Lardner

I get asked with some regularity about pushback on these essays — do I get any?

The answer is less than what most people would expect.

I did get some about four months ago from what many would consider a person of influence. This was reported in the media about 10 days ago. The episode illustrates that we really don’t have free speech in the U.S.; what we have is no prior restraint on speech, therefore, say what you want but be prepared to absorb the consequences, no matter how just or unjust they may be.

As Howard Zinn pointed out (1), our right (or lack thereof) to expression flows not from the constitution, but from whomever has the power in the situation where we wish to interject our thoughts and comments. In my world, that is Iowa agriculture. You have a right to speech, but you have no right to your job. I still have mine, thankfully.

I’ve written these essays from day one with my eyes wide open. I knew/know what the consequences could be. This is one reason why I try to write them in a colloquial style that will hopefully be funny and entertaining. I want people who won’t agree with me to find some intrinsic value in my expression.

That is not how we write scientific papers. I know how to do that, and sometimes I can do an adequate job of writing them. But something occurred to me one day. While those papers serve as valuable currency in science and academia, agriculture sees most of them as chump change. You can’t use them to buy clean water at Iowamart.


As chance would have it, I’ve been fortunate to observe Iowa’s struggle with water quality from the private sector, a municipal drinking water supply, an ag commodity organization and now academia. As the years have passed and I’ve watched people work on the issues at the various organizations, I’ve become convinced that a culture of reticence exists when talking about Iowa agriculture and water quality, and that this is a huge drag on improving things. Maybe the biggest drag. It’s why there are still people that are convinced that our nutrient pollution problems are driven by geese, municipal wastewater, and fertilizing turf grass. Some people still think Gulf Hypoxia should be called Golf Hypoxia.

So yes, I am trying to thaw this frozen culture, or at least spread some manure on it in the hopes some of it might run off and get people’s attention. I don’t try to be neutral, because as Zinn said, being neutral means accepting the way things are now. I’m not, and I don’t. I think the ‘means’ exist to reach better environmental performance from agriculture, which for me and most other Iowans, I believe, is the sought after ‘end’. I think we could get there much faster than what we are led to believe by establishment agriculture.

Any policy in government begins with a desired end. Most policies also outline the means to achieve that end. When it comes to Iowa water quality, agriculture, with the help of its expansive network of advocacy organizations, agribusiness, and politicians from both parties, has seized the means. The means in this case is voluntary adoption of conservation practices that a committee of scientists deemed effective at reducing nutrient and sediment loss. This has been openly attacked by skeptics, but the truth is, this approach could work to improve water quality, at least in theory. There are farmers that have been early and aggressive adopters of what we call “stacked” conservation practices (i.e., many) and then documented the water quality improvements. However, we’ve assigned no timelines or milestones for improvement, and built in no consequences for non-adopters, and thus we don’t see many water quality improvements over the broad scale. In fact, our water continues to degrade in some ways and areas. As I’m fond of saying, the problem isn’t that farmers are evil, the problem is that they are human beings, albeit very wealthy ones in some cases. They’re going to act in their best self-interest, which in this case is to maintain the status quo.

And this brings me to the “ends”. Many skeptics of voluntary adoption miss the boat, in my opinion, by focusing their attacks on the “means”. They seem to think that establishment agriculture has the same “end” in mind that they do—cleaner water. Listen closely to what people in agriculture say—their desired end is not better water. Sure, they’re not against clean water, but it isn’t their overarching goal. That goal is to keep agriculture unregulated, and that includes the unregulated sale of products like fertilizer to farmers. This is in plain sight and the industry does very little to hide it. Hit anybody in agriculture with a dead a cat and “the nutrient strategy is working” pops out of their mouth like a gross furball. Well, for them, it is working! EPA is not regulating nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, DNR stonewalls nutrient standards for Iowa streams and lakes, hog populations continue to increase, farmers install tile like maniacal plumbers, Des Moines Water Works and others lose lawsuits, fertilizer sales are unrestricted, manure is lawfully over-applied, and to top it off, team Vilsack (USDA) wants to light Ag’s victory cigars with 12C-notes while they all backslap each other over $7 corn and billions in tariff relief payments. Have things ever looked better for Iowa agriculture? Meanwhile, nutrient pollution continues to increase (link, link), cyanobacteria bloom, beaches close, and Des Moines Water Works looks for a new source of drinking water. And some farmers have the gall to tell us their income limits conservation adoption.


So it’s against this backdrop that a mop-up relief pitcher the Aggies just called up from their farm team beans me with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th of their 13-0 victory, because I got a bunt single in the 6th. How do you explain this? All I can figure is that his manager was listening to the game on the radio and was in a bad mood because the announcers weren’t heaping enough praise on the boys. So he signaled the catcher to call for a brushback. But who knows.

Some say stories like mine are because agriculture is thin-skinned, but I think it’s far more sinister than that. Zinn says that “If those in charge of our society can dominate our ideas…they will be secure in their power.” Hmm. In a normal world, secure people do not threaten B-list scientists well past their prime. Something is causing some insecurity. It’s probably this: while many in agriculture are in denial, most consciously know that the truth about water quality is not on their side. And it’s much more efficient to shut one person up than it is to rework an entire industry’s strategic communication plan.

I make no bones about not kneeling before the greatness of Iowa agriculture. Sure, we grow a lot of stuff. We (including my ancestors) arrived at the best place on earth to grow stuff, evicted the original inhabitants, obliterated three ecosystems, applied the genius of chemists, engineers and geneticists to other-worldly soils, turned a blind eye to the pollution, and low and behold…..starch and protein happened! Take a bow everybody, we put the “I” in I-state. It sucks to be Minnesota, with its shorter growing season and all those rocks and trees, and Nebraska, with its meager 20 inches of rain. We rule. There’s no denying it.

But never have the conquerors been so insecure. Maybe all that taxpayer-subsidized pollution is the reason.


Some famous people have lived here in Iowa City over the years, and Kurt Vonnegut is one. In his novel Cat’s Cradle, KV coined the term granfalloon for a loosely-associated group of people who exist inside an opaque and somewhat imaginary bubble. It’s a band or clique who think they have a connection or a common belief system, but it’s mainly wishful thinking. Vonnegut said a granfalloon was “a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done.”

If you wish to study a granfalloon,
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.

I think those of us in Iowa working on water quality issues, especially if it’s our livelihood, are in a granfalloon of sorts. The conventional wisdom is that if you want to make a difference, you need to be ‘on the inside’. I’ve had people tell me this straight up. I believed it for a long time and I don’t have much evidence that it isn’t true. You should always cherish your place in the granfalloon, because once inside, credibility and relevance (and maybe a job) are yours.

But I’m a skeptic now about granfalloon membership. There’s not an overarching goal like “no regulation”; we’re mainly concerned with our own narrow program or focus. As such, the Venn diagram overlap that includes granfalloon members and difference-makers is not large. And any reading of history shows that insiders are just as likely to become part of the problem as they are to solve it. We don’t solve the problem of poor water quality; rather, we help Ag achieve their goal, either wittingly or unwittingly, of no regulation. There’s a lot of Henry Kissingers in here in the granfalloon, and a lot more that want in.

If somebody important enough tells me to stop writing, I’ll stop writing. I still have a mortgage and a kid in college. And beer and bait ain’t free, after all. If I stop writing, will that make the water better or worse?—no on both counts. Will it make some people feel more secure because one less person is calling out their pollution?—evidently. Too bad people in Iowa agriculture don’t feel as bad about their pollution as they do about their own bruised egos.

1) Zinn, H., 1990. Declarations of Independence Cross-Examining American Ideology.

Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer, Posted July 18, 2021
Water Quality Monitoring & Research
IIHR — Hydroscience & EngineeringCollege of Engineering

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