Corn and Country: Nebraska, Mexico, and the Global Economy

Corn and Country: Nebraska, Mexico, and the Global Economy

On June 21, residents of Fremont, a small meatpacking town just outside Omaha, Nebraska, voted by 57 percent to deny work and shelter to undocumented immigrants. Why Fremont, Nebraska, and why now? Some observers, not knowing the Fremont measure was cooked up by the same coalition that passed Arizona’s law—Kansas City lawyer Kris Kobach, for example, was involved in both measures—are calling it a homegrown, heartland, good ole Nebraskan approach to solving the immigration problem. The fact is that numerous dynamics have combined to make immigration particularly explosive in Fremont: ambitious politicians across Nebraska and nationwide; widespread economic turmoil combined with fast-paced globalization; and neoliberal policies that limit governments’ abilities, both in Mexico and the United States, to respond to these widespread transformations. Tying all of it together is the global journey of one transformative commodity: corn. Following Nebraska corn as it travels across the United States, to foreign countries like Mexico and back to meatpacking plants in Nebraska, illuminates the forces that made immigration a hot-button issue in Fremont.

Starting with corn comes naturally to me. I grew up surrounded by it, on our family farm about thirty miles southwest of Fremont. Back in 1891, my German great-grandparents acquired the farm, buying the land from the man who had homesteaded it. We occasionally find arrowheads and flint lying around in our fields, left by the Pawnee men and women who called the place home long before the Homestead Act. When I was growing up, my immigrant grandparents could still be heard speaking German—especially if they didn’t want us kids to understand what they were saying.

Like farms across Nebraska, these days, ours grows mostly corn. Corn is the undisputed king—not since the 1930s has the crop so dominated agriculture in the state. Its popularity is partly due to demand for ethanol, but also due to the fabulous market conditions that exist for U.S. corn around the world. Early twentieth century developments in the hybridization of corn, more recent genetic modifications (85 percent of U.S. corn seed is now genetically modified), and the use of fertilizer products made with petro-chemicals have radically increased the productivity of corn farms over the last fifty years. In 1932, Nebraska produced 250 million bushels of corn; by 2009 that figure had risen to 1.5 billion bushels, while the amount of acreage devoted to corn production dipped slightly. Meanwhile, massive government subsidies allow farmers to sell their corn for much less than it costs to produce it. Our farm receives more than $10,000 in direct government subsidies, plus another $15,000 or so for conservation techniques such as planting grass buffers or using GPS technology for maximal efficiency when we spray herbicide across our 450 acres. This $25,000 means that some years as much as one-third of our profit comes from the federal government.

All this lowers the cost of corn production in Nebraska and, combined with globalization, it has generated soaring corn exports from the United States to Mexico. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 required that Mexico eliminate both tariffs that protected corn farmers as well as a measure in its constitution forbidding the sale of communal peasant lands. Mexican tariffs on corn were gradually reduced and finally ended altogether in 2008.

These changes have meant the loss of at least 1.5 million agricultural jobs in Mexico. U.S. corn exports now constitute one-fifth of Mexican corn consumption, a tripling in volume since the passage of NAFTA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that figure will double again in the next decade. The decline of peasant agriculture, the resulting rise in unemployment, the increase in food costs, and concerns about importation of genetically modified seed corn have led to massive protests across Mexico, much of it organized as part of the “Sin Maíz, No Hay País” campaign (“Without Corn, There Is No Country”). The campaign demands a renegotiation of NAFTA, recognition of the multifunctional value of peasant agriculture, a moratorium on genetically modified seeds, a ban on using corn to produce ethanol, and a return to sustainable agricultural practices. Meanwhile, as farmers and farm employees have been pushed off the land, they increasingly look to emigration to the United States—and to towns like Fremont—for work. As Harley Shaiken has observed, “The beginnings of immigration are in the displacement of farmers in Mexico.”

TO SEE how it works, keep following the corn. The 35,000 bushels of corn our farm produces go first to the nearby Farmers’ Cooperative grain elevator. The Co-op, a product of early-twentieth-century populist agitation, rises up from my small hometown like a rare prairie skyscraper. It holds onto the corn for a few months and then sells most—two-thirds of it—to grain dealers. They in turn ship the corn in rail cars to Texas, California, or, very often, to Mexico, which is the top foreign destination for Nebraska corn. Our local co-op also sells just a bit of its corn to ethanol producers. Meanwhile, one-quarter of the Co-op’s corn goes to feed Nebraska cattle, and there lies the final key to the Nebraska-Mexico economy of today.

While U.S. corn exports to Mexico have received a fair amount of media attention, meat exports have also grown significantly since the passage of NAFTA. Mexico is the top foreign destination not only for Nebraska corn, but also for its beef and pork. This means Nebraska corn grown on our farm often ends up being fed to Nebraska cattle, which then end up slaughtered in the huge meatpacking plants that have sprung up in Nebraska towns during the last two decades. In the late twentieth century the meatpacking industry restructured and moved out of cities like Chicago and Kansas City. Corporations wanted to escape urban environments with powerful unions like the Amalgamated Butcher Workmen or the United Packinghouse Workers. New conglomerates like Iowa Beef and ConAgra aggressively relocated in small Midwestern and Southeastern towns. Across Nebraska meatpacking plants popped up in Fremont, Lexington, Grand Island, North Platte, and Schuyler. The labor force composition also changed, as companies began energetically recruiting Mexican workers. As a result the Mexican population of Nebraska grew by 155 percent between 1990 and 2000. Today 75 percent of Nebraska meatpacking workers are Mexican. This is part of a major demographic shift, involving new destinations for Latino immigrants. Since 1990 they have begun to shift away from border states such as California and Texas and move in much larger numbers to the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. The restructuring of the meatpacking industry also generated lower wage structures; deskilling; much faster production line speeds; and, not surprisingly, much higher rates of injury.

Even as cheap Nebraska corn helped transform Mexican agriculture, generating economic turmoil among Mexicans who migrate to the United States for jobs in the new meatpacking industry of Nebraska, other forces were at work to make the migrants’ presence in Fremont such a tense issue. Homegrown economic troubles generated anxiety across Nebraska, and neoliberalism has also reached the state. The resulting strategy of limited government leaves few resources for towns needing help to integrate new immigrants culturally and socially or to cope with the tumultuous changes wrought by the smells, waste matter, and high accident rates of the new meatpacking plants in their midst.

Although the government has been relatively ineffective and uninvolved, individuals and organizations across the state and nation have been drawn to Fremont and helped to intensify hostilities. Nationwide groups like FAIR—the Federation for American Immigration Reform—have stirred Nebraska’s pot. Ambitious individuals from Omaha to Kansas City who were looking for a hot issue found Fremont attractive. Thus Omahan Susan Smith, for example, the founder of Nebraskan Advisory Group (NAG, the group that pushed most forcefully for the passage of Fremont’s measure), became an anti-immigrant activist and soon moved to Fremont, where she would have a local address. Since then, Smith has been mentored by FAIR and by Kansas City lawyer Kris Kobach, giving her political style a somewhat sophisticated veneer even as she presents herself as a hometown gal.

Still, a look at NAG’s Web site shows that the group relies on the same scare tactics as right-wing, anti-immigrant groups across the country, proclaiming that “illegal aliens” in Nebraska are responsible for higher mortality rates on highways, increases in drug trafficking, gang warfare, and so on. Such claims seem far-fetched in Fremont, where crime is low, gangs do not wander the streets, and housing seems readily available. In a population of 25,000 people, Latinos constitute less than 10 percent, immigrants less than 5 percent. The town’s unemployment rate, at only 4.9 percent, is about half the national average. The meatpacking companies there, the town’s major employers, are located mostly outside of city boundaries, so they will be unaffected by the measure residents passed on June 21. Yet it is a town that has experienced significant economic and social change, and this, particularly when combined with anti-immigrant politics rising nationwide, has led some in Fremont to focus on the immigrants in their midst as the source of their troubles. Lourdes Gouveia, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has studied Midwestern meatpacking towns for many years, analyzed the situation in this way: “People need someone to blame and this is fertile ground. If you look different and sound different, and people are facing a time of anxiety, economic difficulty, confusion, then you are going to be the one who is blamed.”

Nebraska state politics have also played a role in strengthening the anti-immigrant movement. Governor Dave Heineman hails from Fremont, and he won election in 2006 after a fierce battle in which the politics of immigration played a central role. His opponent was Tom Osborne, a veritable god to Nebraskans because he coached Cornhusker football for twenty-five years and led the team to national titles. Osborne supported Nebraska’s version of the DREAM Act, which gives in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants. Heineman had vetoed the act, Osborne said he would sign it, and local analysts credited the issue with giving Heineman the support of western and central Nebraska. The Nebraska legislature overrode Heineman’s veto, and in 2010 a protégé of Heineman’s, Fremont state senator Charles Janssen, introduced a bill to repeal Nebraska’s DREAM act. Simultaneously, Kobach filed suit against the DREAM Act, naming regents of the University of Nebraska as defendants. So far these actions have been unsuccessful, but this powerful group of politicians has continued to make headlines and encourage anti-immigrant agitation across the state. The popular Heineman is soaring to re-election this year with little opposition.

WHILE POLITICIANS advance their careers (Kobach is seeking election as secretary of state in Kansas), Mexican immigrants across the state of Nebraska struggle to build decent lives. Facing low wages, poor working conditions, and, sometimes, no union, they look for support from the communities around them. Sometimes they find it. A few years ago in North Platte the local police refused to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raiding and arresting undocumented immigrants. The police chief there explained that his job was to protect and serve all town residents, and if he cooperated with an ICE raid he would become unable, in effect, to serve the Latino community in the future.

Last year, my daughter and I visited Lexington, a meatpacking town in central Nebraska, far from any major city, where Mexican immigrants now compose nearly one-third of the population. In Lexington, the huge Tyson plant dominates the town, and Mexican panaderias and tortillerias are as plentiful as any other shops. We chatted with the Anglo owner of an antiques store about how he was experiencing all the changes in his town. He stressed that things were going well. “There have been some good results and some more challenging ones from the influx of new residents,” he said. “But even the challenging ones would have happened with any new residents—like strains on the educational system. The fact that many are Mexican rather than U.S. citizens is irrelevant.” This shop owner’s comfortable reaction to immigrants in his midst was a reminder, especially useful in the face of the recent vote in Fremont, of the complexity and diversity of Anglo Nebraskans’ responses to the changes around them. For many years, Lexington prided itself on welcoming both the meatpacking plant and immigrants to their town, and relations remained harmonious. More recently, however, observers sense growing resentment and hostility aimed at immigrants.

Small towns like Lexington have few resources to help them cope with the ill effects of the meatpackers. The United Food and Commercial Workers has established a presence in some Nebraska plants (including the Hormel factory outside Fremont). But generally the meatpackers have put unions on the defensive. Lexington’s Tyson is a prime example. Known as the “Wal-Mart of meat” for its determination to control every step of the food chain, Tyson is the second largest food company in the United States, controlling 27 percent of the poultry and meat industry. Famous for the absence of safety protections in its plants as well as suits against it for racist practices, Tyson has managed to keep the UFCW out of many of its plants, including in Lexington. As we left the antiques store that day in Lexington, my daughter pointed out a beautiful old porcelain sign on the wall proclaiming Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen.

Meanwhile, back in Fremont, opinions differ. Many residents—43 percent—opposed the measure in June. Those who supported it seem concerned about the rise of a different Nebraska, a Mexican Nebraska. They have watched as the Mexican population has risen. They cite the fact that some of their new neighbors don’t know English or don’t know the laws. They are bothered by having to select one for English when they dial certain numbers or hearing someone speak Spanish at the local Wal-Mart. And when groups like NAG link “illegal aliens” to gangs and terrorism, they encourage Anglo residents of Fremont not to lift their gaze beyond individual immigrants to the larger economic and social forces—the meatpacking companies, the decline of government support—shaping their lives and their town.

NAG founder Smith explained in a television interview why bills like the one that passed in Fremont were needed: “When we implement an illegal alien ordinance, illegal aliens usually leave the city and with them they take their children, so you have a decrease in costs, a decrease in education, the hospitals, criminal and judicial proceedings. You then have an increase as openings in jobs, as Americans take those jobs, they are paying taxes, the businesses are paying taxes on those Americans and your tax coffers go up.” Despite Smith’s fantasy the measure will most likely result in further cuts to social services and education in the town. Fremont government officials—who opposed the measure—expect costly and ultimately unsuccessful court battles, as occurred in towns in Pennsylvania and Texas that passed similar laws. To pay the court costs, officials have already announced, they will be forced to cut city services and raise taxes.

Latinos in Fremont see things differently from Smith and her allies. A young Mexican American in Fremont explained why: her grandparents had come to the United States from Mexico, had learned English, and the United States was now her and her family’s country. “I’m Hispanic, I’m not illegal, but the measure will lead to racial profiling of all of us.”

The sea of corn across Nebraska still seems a symbol of heartland goodness to many, but this gen-mod, petro-chemically fed crop is a global commodity with global consequences. In Mexico, the campaign declares, “Without corn, there is no country.” Many in Nebraska also believe they are losing their country. There are the Anglo, native-born U.S. citizens who believe their imagined community is threatened by the Latinos in their midst, while the Mexican and Central American immigrants feel that in coming to the United States they have become men and women without a country. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent believe that Fremont’s measure would deprive them of their country as well. As corn’s journey reshapes imagined communities across Mexico and the United States, perhaps it is time for everyone to begin, in effect, some new imaginings.

Julie Greene is in the history department of the University of Maryland.