Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Art Cullen ’80 will return to campus Friday, Oct. 5, to read from his new book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper” and talk with community members.
The event, which starts at 4:30 p.m. in the O’Shaughnessy Room of O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library, features the St. Thomas journalism alum who last year won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. As the late Doug Hennes ’77 wrote in his St. Thomas Magazine feature of Cullen, “The odds of a twice-a-week, 3,000-circulation newspaper beating the likes of The New York Times to win the most prestigious award in American journalism seemed far-fetched.”
That is exactly what happened, though, and since then Cullen has written his first book, an affecting memoir about a family business and what it takes to keep an endangered species of media alive and healthy. It is a valuable reflection on how American farming has changed—and transformed the heartland with it. It is also a fascinating encapsulation of Iowa’s politics and character that could serve as a primer for any political observers with their eye on the next presidential campaign. And perhaps most importantly, “Storm Lake” is a forward-thinking, hopeful vision of rural America.
“Read this book and you will understand why Art Cullen’s courageous writing—sensitive, challenging, sometimes abrasive—helped build Storm Lake into, as Cullen phrases it, ‘a community, not just an unrelated gathering of people,’” said Tom Harkin, former U.S. Senator from Iowa. “Cullen captures, in prose that is almost poetry, the ethos of small town, rural Iowa, the heart and soul of the ‘good America.’”
Below is an excerpt of an interview with Cullen earlier this year.
Let’s start with a basic question. Why is local reporting important?
An informed electorate is the cornerstone of democracy. Without a strong and free press there is no freedom and thus no real democracy. Without the free flow of information, unvarnished by mercantile interests, we cannot know if our water is safe to drink, or if our neighbors are in fact criminals. Every arrest made by the police is noted in the local newspaper as an event that affects public safety and personal liberty. Every bill listed in a published legal notice tells taxpayers about the stewardship of their hard-earned income. Today, local and national reporting are under direct assault on a daily basis by political and market forces that threaten the very foundation of the Republic.
The Storm Lake Times is a family business—you compare it to running a family farm. It seems every day we hear news of more local papers closing, more staff cuts. How have you managed to keep The Storm Lake Times going all these years?
By grit, determination, hard work and absolute commitment for fear of failing. And luck. Also, by knowing our readers. I was born here. I know that Missouri Synod Lutherans like to polka. We keep our costs rock-bottom—our publisher John works for no salary and I get paid the same as a high school journalism teacher with five years of experience. We treat our employees as companions. John has the best horse sense of anyone I know or will know. We lead with hard news and strong opinion, always. We write well. We use photos better than anyone. We charge a relatively stiff price for a subscription, but still cheaper than a daily cup of coffee. We are a reliable medium for local advertisers interested in readers who have money. Our ad revenue is shrinking but we never had much to begin with. Ultimately, I think, our honest relationship with readers will somehow sustain us if we can maintain the energy and passion for the business of journalism and for the community. I believe we can.
In the book you speak to an abiding frustration felt by farmers, of “a system engineered, rigged from a distance.” How has the vertical integration of the meatpacking industry changed Storm Lake, and why is it important for non-Iowans to know about?
It’s not just the vertical integration of meatpacking that has changed the Midwest, and Storm Lake. The entire agricultural supply chain—chemical and seed companies, ag financing, livestock production and processing companies, and commodity merchandising and trading—tightens and consolidates and relentlessly seeks return and efficiency. That has blown out much of rural America.
It has come to Storm Lake with a benefit along with the tragic costs seen waged from Kansas to Kentucky: consolidated meatpacking meant a rapidly expanding job base in Storm Lake as Iowa was emptying out of young people. Immigrants were sucked into that vacuum and rejuvenated a rapidly aging community, consolidated the community’s place as a regional trade and recreation center in Iowa, and seeded population and economic growth over the past 30 years. Consolidation also has meant exploitation and disregard for natural and human resources—soil is eroding at exponentially higher rates, the Gulf of Mexico is choking from ag fertilizer spewing from the Mississippi River Watershed, and the incessant market pressure on ag commodities is starving peasant farmers in Mexico who are forced to flee to Storm Lake to cut meat while living in fear of deportation. Soil loss and chemical agriculture is leading to worse human health, less foundational capital in the Midwest (the breadbasket of America), sliding rural income and fewer hands controlling the levers of food production and distribution.
Your Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials brought attention to how pollution from agribusiness threatened the water supply of Storm Lake. How are the changes in how food is produced in this country affecting the environment?
Consolidation has led to concentration in production. Hogs and poultry were moved indoors, cattle were driven to the southern Great Plains. Iowa’s gentle rolling grass hills have been plowed up for corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, climate change has made the Upper Midwest much wetter since 1980, and the rains are more torrential. This caused a doubling in the size of underground drainage systems which efficiently remove water from the land, laden with commercial (anhydrous ammonia) and manure fertilizer. The result is an overload of pollution in Midwestern rivers and lakes — from Storm Lake to Lake Erie, from the Minnesota River to the Mississippi — from concentrated row crop production that is suffocating the Gulf of Mexico and the fishing industry. Our surface water is green with cyanotoxins that lead to neurological disorders and cancers. Residents of Toledo fear drinking city water. The same in Des Moines—where the world’s largest nitrate-removal system operates at a cost of more than $1 million per year. As water supplies dry up in the Southwest, livestock production intensifies in the Upper Midwest, wetter for now but quickly depleting its underground drinking aquifers through livestock production and processing, and through ethanol production from corn. It takes three gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol for fuel.
Storm Lake is home to a large population of immigrant workers, primarily from Latin America and particularly the Mexican state of Jalisco, which you visited in 2005. In Storm Lake you describe how white workers were replaced by Asian, then Latin American workers at the big meatpacking companies. How does immigration, as you write, revitalize rural cities like Storm Lake?
Iowa has been the number one state for education and literacy for generations. Unfortunately, that education has no market in rural places like Iowa, so we send our young off to Chicago or Kansas City to find a job that can pay off their student loans. It is a funnel: You pour them in the top and they slowly come out the bottom, bound for someplace else. Immigrants come to Storm Lake to fill the slot left in the food processing plant that the young Anglo now living in Chicago would not consider. They have children, and the first generation born to immigrant families do not want to leave. They are starting businesses and having babies. Storm Lake is one of the few rural places in America showing organic growth—not just from immigration influx, but from having more births than deaths. That is the definition of rejuvenation, if not revitalization.
You write about Storm Lake’s history as the adopted home of hundreds of Laotian war refugees, noting how that community thrived, while later immigrants from Latin America were received differently. “We had no perceived moral obligation” to them, you write. Could you talk about what you meant by that?
Iowa culture is shaped by Methodism and Prussian war dodgers, and farmers who have no interest in foreign entanglements. Iowa has no defense base. We elected pacifist Harold Hughes to the US Senate at the height of the Vietnam War. We were ashamed of the war; Governor Bob Ray wanted to make up for it by inviting Tai Dam refugees from Laos living in Thai refugee camps to live in Iowa. The entire culture was moved from Southeast Asia to Iowa. We were okay with that. But Mexicans, didn’t we fight them over the Alamo? Iowans have an entirely different relationship to Mexicans than we with Asians. We view Mexicans as marauders, a la Clint Eastwood movies. That is what we know about Mexico. That is what Steve King sells every day: if they didn’t take naps all afternoon they could get ahead like we do. We fail to acknowledge that we stole this land from the indigenous people, that we have invited Latinos in over the centuries to do our stoop work in abusive conditions, and when it is convenient we can just lock them up to remind them to keep in their place. We bear no shame for the way we treat Mexico and Mexicans, it seems. Unlike the shame, and attempt at honor, that we displayed after the Vietnam War or during the Civil War.