Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Greater purpose of the BVU lectures

On the surface, you would think that the glittery annual American Heritage Lecture series at Buena Vista University, renewed for the 13th time this weekend, was pretty utilitarian in nature. It poses as a chance to further dialogue on current affairs, to attract the wealthy and powerful of the midwest (that is, potential donors) to the campus, to further the university's image with a big-name speaker.

Saturday's appearance of Benazir Bhutto achieved all that, as have the annual lectures before it.

You have to start looking at the thing taking shape over time to begin to suspect that there is more to it than this.

I cornered former BVU president Keith Briscoe some years ago, badgering him until he grudgingly admitted that there was something bigger in mind when he and campus benefactor Harold Walter Siebens created the series.

They wanted nothing less than to create the ultimate statement on the meaning of American freedom, perpetually building over time a vehicle to capture the thoughts and vision of former presidents, world leaders, visionaries, and shapers of opinion from all fields.

Generations from now - perhaps centuries from now, they hoped that Americans would draw on this rich mine of thought on freedom, a subject precious but elusive.

No wonder they don't go around talking about the lectures in this sweeping scope. That's a big ticket to punch.

But there is no question that one more golden stitch was sewn into this fabric of freedom's discourse this Saturday.

I overhead one student say that, "For one day, it feels like we're going to the most important university around."

And for this day, I think, perhaps they are. Small need not equal insignificant. Not even the major state universities in this state or others are doing what BVU is attempting to do in capturing for all time the meaning of freedom, the true essence of what we are as Americans. No community in Iowa, perhaps in America is attracting such luminaries for such an ambitious if seldom stated purpose.

The American Heritage Lecture has become part of what BVU and Storm Lake are. To this flat oasis amid the cornfields in the often-ignored belly of the country, something important is coming each year, quietly building a definitive statement that I suspect will pass the test of time. We should be proud.

* I spent a little time watching the Farm Aid concert this past weekend. The message in the music (and on Neil Young's T-shirt) was "Stop Factory Farms."

Presuming that the underlying meaning is to preserve the smaller, family farming operations, I have to think that you aren't going to sing that done, just as all of the debate in Iowa for years hasn't talked that done.

It's also true that the consumer has little information when they hit the meat counter at the local grocery. They don't know if their pork chop was grown on small lot in a father-son farm, or a massive confinement at a Murphy Farms industry. They usually don't know where the animal was processed, what chemicals might present in it, what it was fed. We blindly depend on the dubious ability of the FDA inspector that what we eat is okay. And we couldn't use our grocery dollars to help the family farmer if we wanted to.

Farm Aid makes me wonder. Would we be willing to pay a little more for a Family Farm brand piece of meat, if we knew it came from an Iowa farm, an unincorporated Iowa farm, say of 1,000 animal units (about 2,500 hogs) or less? If we knew how they were fed and what was in the meat? If we knew those extra pennies were going back to Iowa farmers instead of to a middle-man?

I don't know if we can "Stop Factory Farms." But there's no law that says we can't compete with them, if growers start to take control of their own marketplace.

Companies like Storm Lake's own IBP and Bil-Mar (Sara Lee) are experimenting with putting their own brand-identity products on the grocery shelves - why couldn't they market "Iowa Family Farm" brand meats? Why couldn't producers in our area coop promote the best product going.

Heck, maybe an IBP could even come off as a hero, as well as help to guarantee itself a steady supply of local top-quality meat to work with, if it is the first to bring the Iowa Family Farmer brand to the local grocery store.

I know there's probably a million reasons this isn't feasible, but I also know that until the people get a choice at the grocery store, there's not much they can do to stop factory farming, or support family farming.