A state of hired hands


Managing Editor

Storm Lake, Iowa

The quickening pace of change in rural America was underscored with a walk through the Albert City (Iowa) Threshermen's and Collector's Show last month.

What was most striking is the local industry that has been lost or sold. A Thieman harvester and tractor caught my eye -- they were built in Albert City in the early years of this century. The patent to the harvester was sold to John Deere; the tractor was sold to a Des Moines company that I never heard of.

Little towns across the prairie had such manufacturing concerns. Pioneer steam tractors came from Winona, Minn., at one time a manufacturing hub that attracted Polish immigrants to the Mississippi River town.

Most of these enterprises were consolidated. Where there once were 20 tractor companies to choose from, now there are three or four, as a practical matter.

The little towns, far from the distribution lines, were the first to lose locally owned manufacturing. Then came the bigger-size communities. Mason City, Iowa, pop. 20,000, which once was a center for construction materials, is now primarily home to plants that are owned by large corporations. Community leaders are middle managers with no real stake in their community.

The consolidation phase is now sweeping our largest community, Des Moines. A Dutch conglomerate has bought Equitable of Iowa. The Des Moines Register, gobbled up by Gannett, celebrated the Equitable sale as being good for Des Moines. The money that once rested in Iowa now will flow across the Atlantic.

Now comes DuPont to buy a major stake in Pioneer Hi-Bred International. The alliance, as it were, will form a powerful agent in crop breeding and biotechnology. Two titans will stand in the seed corn industry -- Monsanto/Dekalb on one side, and DuPont/Pioneer on the other. There will be other seed varieties, of course, but it makes me wonder how long or how many of the smaller regional companies will survive. (We should note that Pioneer Hi-Bred founder Henry Wallace, one of the great progressive populists, also laid claim to Wallaces Farmer, which now is owned by a foreign corporation. Headquarters no longer are in Des Moines.)

Des Moines probably will end up as a city of middle managers, a Mason City tenfold.

The Twin Cities of Minnesota make for a truly cosmopolitan place because they are home to corporate headquarters: 3M, Cargill, General Mills, Pillsbury, Control Data, Honeywell. Wealth stays in Minnesota.

Fairly soon, Buena Vista County, my homeplace, will be served by only three or four farm suppliers. Time was when every little town had a seed and feed store or a cooperative. These enterprises brought vitality to small towns.

One wonders if sooner than we think, there will be but one big chain of hog farms, owned by some outsiders, surrounding IBP's plant here. It has happened in poultry already.

Waves of consolidation will not necessarily benefit Des Moines or Iowa. We will become a state of hired hands. Iowa, blessed with its natural resources and people, should be a place that creates wealth and builds on it. This is what Henry Wallace had in mind, no doubt. It was probably what the Thieman brothers in Albert City were thinking about, too.

What are we thinking about? Cashing in?

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