Talking Rural Farms and Art with Iowa's Poet Laureate, Mary Swander

Mary Swander is the Poet Laureate of Iowa. She is the author of numerous books, poetry and plays. The plays, based on hours of conversations with Iowans, draw on an oral history tradition, presenting rural stories in people's own words. Farmscape, developed with Iowa State University students in 2008, presents portraits of a variety of Iowa farmers, and Map of My Kingdom explores the thorny issue of land and farm inheritance ("It's easier to talk to your children about sexthan farmland transition," says one farmer). Swander's latest, Vang ("garden" or "farm" in Hmong), is an oral history of four recent immigrant farmer families, from Laos, Sudan, Mexico and the Netherlands. With only two actors and minimal sets, Map of My Kingdom and Vang have been developed into a compact touring production, easily performed in a farmer's barn, a church basement or a university stage.

With rural issues in the spotlight following the election, we spoke with Mary Swander from her home in Iowa about her work, the concerns of her neighbors in this political moment and the role of art in challenging times.

Vang tells stories of recent immigrant farmers to Iowa, in their own words and accompanied by photos by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Dennis Chamberlin. What was your impetus for developing the play? What are your plans for it now?  

I had written Farmscape in 2008, which is ten characters, nine white and one Hispanic - representative of a certain kind of family farm. The state folklorist saw it and we started talking about immigrant farmers. There was a lot of discussion of immigration then, nothing like now, but it was a hot topic. We had the big I.C.E. raid in Postville, Iowa, which deported nearly 400 people. It was the biggest deportation raid in the history of America. Obama came in and we thought the tide would turn, and instead he became the "deporter in chief." We started seeing people around us - boom, they were gone, deported. So I thought it was something to address. 

I've taken it to major universities as well as farmers' barns and church basements. Now after the election, I'm getting a lot of queries. We just performed for a class of immigrants at LaGuardia College in New York City, and the ESL teacher did a whole curriculum and English lesson on it. We've been in touch about getting a grant to do more work with immigrants on the show. It's also a real educational piece for native-born citizens. I get a lot of comments like, "I thought all immigrants were illegal," or, "Where'd you have to go to get the immigrants? California?" No... just fifty miles from where I live in Iowa. A lot of people just don't get it that these people are among us. 

I'm working on a book about the 1980s farm crisis, when tens of thousands of family farms went into foreclosure, leading to hollowing out of rural communities and a lasting economic and cultural trauma that still has implications today. It's a period that not a lot of people know about. What kind of connections do you see between the farm crisis and now? What can we learn?  

The farm crisis was incredible. It was just desperate here. Farms going under at a phenomenal rate; there were suicide hotlines for farmers. Farmers are not the type that would ever ask for help - or commit suicide, for that matter, and all of a sudden they're going out to the barn and hanging themselves.

Meanwhile - and this is part of the rural/urban divide and why so many rural people look at the coasts and roll their eyes - it was a real high time on the coasts. I had two brothers in California, and I would say, "My god, the farm economics are so terrible," and they would talk about how their portfolios were zooming up. It felt like they were completely out of touch. Still today, they talk about being really high in the Reagan years. Not here, we weren't. That is part of it - there was such a difference. It was a calculated difference: the government decided that the family farm was over, it was time for big industrial farms. But a lot of the farmers didn't understand that and blamed themselves instead, not realizing their failures were a set up

These days, farming goes up and down. A few years ago, commodity prices were really high, now they're at rock bottom. We just had a booming harvest, but you don't get any money when you have a booming harvest. It's not as desperate as it was in the 1980s, but there's still frustration.

It's not as desperate because people have other jobs. They were the smart ones that got themselves educated and repositioned. We have a terrible brain drain here. I taught for thirty years at Iowa State University and every spring, my seniors were ready to bolt. I would hope that they would go off for a while, have adventures, and then take a look back at what we have to offer here - but what we have is less and less. They want a job, and we don't have jobs.

The only good thing with so much urbanization is that Des Moines has really developed and is a really nice, livable city now. Five years ago, the stores downtown were all boarded up. The Chamber of Commerce, businesses and everyone got together and re-envisioned what the city could look like. They did major projects, rebuilt the freeways... good things like that have happened. But that's the city, not the rural area. 

During the farm crisis, there was a strong movement of farmers advocating for themselves, lobbying for policy change, and building relationships with labor, urban people and across racial lines. This was the last incarnation of what had been a very long US history of farmer-led movements. What lessons would you share from that period of activism for today's food movement and how urban folks can support rural organizing?  

They need to get out here and see what it's like. I run an organization called AgArts to promote healthy food systems through arts. One of the things I'm doing is setting up residencies for artists on Midwestern farms - stay for several weeks and have studio space in a barn. We're so polarized and cut off; food movement people need to come out here.

And policy: They have to be alert to what's going on in the farm bill. You read the farm bill and it makes your eyes glaze over, but it's really important. The farm bill is all designed for the big producer; there are so few breaks for the little guy. They just have a hell of a time.

There are a lot of enthusiastic young people who want to farm and they go belly up in a few years because it's so hard to make a living. Organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa offer mentoring, help with financial plans, internships...but it's still a struggle. Like long-time farmers, a lot of them have to have off-farm jobs, especially in the first few years. They're working two or three jobs, just exhausted, and they're coming to the farmers' market, and customers are saying, "oh, look at this beautiful squash! It's so expensive...!" Yeah, do you know how hard it was to grow, especially without chemicals? I'd love to see a little bit more interaction and understanding there.

I used to tell my students: grow something. Even if it's sprouts on top of the refrigerator. Grow something you're committed to for a whole season, see what that rhythm is like. It means you can't travel unless you arrange for someone to cover; it means you have a little bit of a financial investment; you have to plan... there's a lot involved.

There is a lot of writing right now about rural Americans feeling unheard by the rest of the country. From your perspective as Iowan and artist, what would you like urban and suburban people to know about what's important in rural America?

The whole question of agriculture, when we stopped being a hunting and gathering society, was: who's going to do all the hard work? First we had women and children doing it, then we had the idea that we could enslave people and they could do it, and then we stopped that and thought we could go to Mexico and scoop up a bunch of people and bring them up here to do it...A lot of our problems in agriculture have to do with the labor. It is a lot of work any way you cut it - even on the big industrial farms, the question is how to do it with less labor.

And then it's so interesting to me what the labor does with the profits. When I worked on Vang, the Hmong families took all the money they made at the farmers' market and sent it back to people in the refugee camp they had been in...The Mexicans, on the other hand, they were farming several acres, and they would say, "Sell food? We don't sell food. We use food to cement relationships, grow the health of our families..."

The big questions are: who is going to do the hard work, what kind of profits are you driven to make, and what's your investment with those profits? Do you plow them back into the corporation, or are you using them to survive, or for philanthropy?

What concerns do you have about the state of agriculture now and over the next decade? What would you like to see instead?

We're not going to all go organic, but I'd like to see some kind of balance where we're not polluting our rivers and streams. You can't go swimming in Iowa any more. It's terrible. It's ruining our beautiful state. Everyone says, "Oh, well, I guess the algae level is just too high..." without making the connection to why it's happening. But then, there's not more of an outcry because the pollution is the nitrates from fertilizer and the hog confinements, and that's how a lot of people make their living. There aren't many alternatives because those are the jobs there are now. 

What do you see as the role of art in times of cultural upheaval?

I've been thinking a lot about AgArts this week. Art gives people a creative expression, it uplifts the soul, it's a form of political protest - look at what happened at Hamilton! I think arts are one of the saving graces that we have. Life would be weird if we didn't have art.

I see this so dramatically with the Amish. [Swander lives in an Amish community.] They say they don't do art: no painting, drawing, poetry. But their gardens are gorgeous, with all this color and design. It's the same in their quilts and their woodworking. You can try to stamp out the arts, but the creative spirit is hard to suppress, thank God. 

What are you working on now?

I got a commission to do a show on Grant Wood's painting, The Appraisal. It's a farm woman holding a chicken and a city woman striking a bargain to buy the bird - a lot of what we've been talking about! Wood painted it in 1931, at the height of the Depression. The Iowa museum that owns it points to 1931 as the year when the family farm began to fade and industrial agriculture began to rev up; the show is on those themes. I'm taking the two characters through the ages, showing how they evolved. The country woman eventually becomes the owner of a Tyson chicken confinement operation while the city woman lives in the suburbs and has backyard chickens. I'm having a great time working on it.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for space.