There are those who love living by the sea with its hypnotic waves and the soothing sound of the crashing surf. Then there are those who love the mountains with their majesty and snow capped brilliance, an intense panorama just outside your window.
And there are those who are moved by the lazy progress of a river’s running, meandering through banks choked with Spanish Moss growing on the Cypress and Weeping Willows, a slow pace to life mirroring the movement of the river’s unhurried current.
For me, it is the grandeur of the Great Plains. Scoured out and flattened by massive retreating glaciers 15,000 years ago, the prairie calls to those who love the land and seek to unravel its mysteries. With soil so black and loamy they used to say you could make soup out of it, you can grow just about anything in Middle America. And they do.
Take a trip from Joliet, Illinois to Des Moines down I-80 and you are enraptured by the landscape. You will come to stretches of road where you can look out the window and as far as the eye can focus, from horizon to horizon, there is nothing but corn. And then it hits you. There are millions of acres that feature this sight and more millions of acres featuring other crops; a gigantic shopping cart filled to the brim with food that fills the bellies of people all over the world. The Midwest isn’t a breadbasket as much as it’s a lifeline, providing sustenance that spells the difference between life and death for tens of millions of people every day.
Much is made every four years that the good people of Iowa don’t deserve all the attention, all the power that is granted them by holding the first meaningful test for Presidential candidates. They are too insular, too monochromatic, not ethnically diverse enough, or some other silly criticism that serves to denigrate or insult people who are as generous and good hearted as any you’ll find anywhere in the United States.
I know something of those people, having spent seven of the best years of my life in Iowa. I consider myself an honorary citizen of the Hawkeye state and proud of it. But in order to understand Iowans you must first understand their love of the land and how truly dependent the population is on an industry where the vagaries of the market and capriciousness of the weather spells the difference between fat years and lean years.
It may surprise you to learn that only 21% of Iowans are engaged in farming or farm related industries. The most recent figures show a little more than 92,000 sole proprietor farms representing about 5 1/2% of the total labor force.
That 5 1/2% are among the most productive humans in the history of civilization. Iowa ranks first in feed grains and products, first in soybeans, first in live animals and meat, 4th in feeds and fodders, and 9th in Hides and Skins.
This stupendous bounty has generated less and less income of late. The state ranks 25th in median household income. But that hasn’t stopped Iowans from indulging themselves in one of their true passions: education.
Nearly 30% of Iowans have attended college with 21% getting a degree. The state is third best in the nation in graduating high school students with 89%. There are dozens of excellent universities and small liberal arts colleges and dozens more community colleges.
All of this adds up to a middle class, educated, productive population. So I ask you, as long as someone has to be first, why not Iowa?
If Iowans are insular and inward looking, that would describe a majority of voters in America. When we do happen to think about what is going on elsewhere in the world, we are split between those who think the rest of the planet doesn’t deserve us and those who believe we should mind our own business and keep our big paws to ourselves. Besides, Iowans probably think more about the world beyond our shores than most. The state leads the country in agricultural exports.
I think most of this talk against Iowans having such a large say in the presidential process is simple Caucus envy. Witness all those states frantically trying to get ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire by scheduling their primaries in direct violation of their national party’s dictates. Michigan, Florida, and others jumped the gun and set their nominating contests ahead of the February 5 date the parties denoted as the earliest the state organizations could hold their primaries.
The great thing about Iowa (and to a lesser extent New Hampshire) is that we who live elsewhere in the United States can look over their shoulders while the candidates interact with people on an intimate level. Presidents may deliver major addresses before thousands of people. Even presidential nominees will end up traveling the country speaking to great masses of voters.
But it is in the small town gymnasiums, the church basements, even the private homes of Iowans that we can take the measure of the candidates in ways that just don’t come through on the stump. And Iowa is the perfect sized state for this kind of exercise in retail politics. You can get on a bus like Republican candidate Fred Thompson and hit 5 towns a day while still being just a couple of hours from the capitol, Des Moines.
In fact, I would argue that Iowa is the logical choice to hold a first in the nation nominating event. Given all that the state and its people have to offer, I hope this excruciating, maddening, marvelously and singularly American tradition continues into the future.
Iowans deserve it.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nuthouse.