Julie Gammack's Iowa Potluck
Julie Gammack's Iowa Potluck
Some want to silence Chris Jones

Some want to silence Chris Jones

...we gave him a microphone

Monday Zoom Call with Dr. Chri Jones, and Dr. Robert Leonard

The state of Iowa has been recognized as having the second-highest rate of cancer diagnosis in the country. Rather than try to figure out why, this Iowa Legislature is blocking funding for the sensors in place to measure water quality.

This vital information is now in peril.

Dr. Chris Jones, the man in charge of the monitoring project, decided to retire early rather than succumb to pressures meant to silence his blog housed on the University of Iowa servers. 

Iowa Writers’ Collaborative member Dr. Robert Leonard reported the story in his Deep Midwest column

In today’s discussion, Jones talked about the state of water quality in Iowa, or lack thereof, with over 80 listeners on the call. Participants included career farmers, water environmental experts, legislators, reporters, and readers of this column.

Jones gave us a lot to think about, including pointing out that this problem does not fall on the doorstep of one political party over another. 

Tom Vilsack

He said he’s disappointed in Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Jones says the former Iowa Governor could be doing so much more in his position.

He chastised politicians on both sides of the aisle. Many environmentalists want to blame farmers or Republicans, yet when national Democratic party candidates come to the state and cut a TV ad, they’re often featured walking the fields with a multimillionaire farmer.

“To think we can come in and put diapers or Band-Aids on this, and that’s automatically going to deliver the water quality we want for the Iowa citizens is a fantasy. And that’s not something any of us want to talk about.”

Jones says we can’t expect the taxpayer to support the system that creates polluted waters and expect them to pay for mitigation. 

“That’s perverse,” said Jones. “And people need to talk about that.”

So, what do we do?

Farmer Liz Garst, of Coon Rapids, was on the call. She had an idea: Let’s drink beer and whiskey so there is demand for more small grains and, therefore, more diversity in our landscape.

Garst said the Farm Bill is coming up this fall, and the message should be simple: Taxpayers want environmental performance for our subsidies. Federal Crop insurance provides something like a ‘billion dollars a year to Iowa farmers,’ said Garst, “…and we don’t ask anything in return for those subsidies we provide, unlike previous bills where environmental degradation was addressed.

That was just one example.

Please listen to the podcast. Jones talks about the systemic problems from academe to policymakers on both sides of the aisle, farmers and taxpayers.

Yes, censorship is a problem, but much of it is self-censorship out of fear of losing a job, funding, and academic standing.

Jones is disappointed in others for not standing up and considers himself a failure for not achieving the state's goal of improving water quality.

However, on this call and with this audience, he is a folk hero for standing up, quitting a job, and speaking out. Taking effective action can be hard.

Mary Swander was on the call. She’s read an advance copy of Jone’s book, The Swine Republic, and wrote the following blurb:

“What happened to Iowa? What turned a state with the most fertile land in the country and a network of bustling small cities and small family farms, into a profits-over-people corn-bean-CAFO system? Why can’t we put our big toe in the water? Why are we drowning in hog manure? How and why have we destroyed our air quality and soil? And what can we do about it?  Read Chris Jones’ The Swine Republic for direct, clear-eyed answers and ideas that just may save our future.”–Mary Swander, author of Farmscape: The Changing Rural Environment

The worst thing we can do is pretend the problem doesn’t exist by defunding data collection so we don’t know what is happening.

Share this provocative podcast with your friends. And if you want to weigh in on the upcoming Farm Bill, here’s a form to fill out: https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/farm-bill-input

Jones had a following of about 200,000 on his blog. Two days ago he created his first column on Substack. Check it out.



Richard Gilbert was on the call and offered his observation for the Potluck column:

If you had a young family and were thinking about a move to Iowa because you just had an attractive job offer, would you, as part of your due diligence, ask your potential employer this:  Is the water safe to drink?

How would you think about the move if you were told there’s an equivalent of 170 million people using a statewide outdoor toilet without a viable sewage treatment plant?

How much weight in your decision-making process would you give to a report that ranked Iowa second in the nation in reported cancer cases? 

Those are takeaways for this writer from hearing the guest speaker at Julie’s Monday Zoom call with the subscribers to her Julie Gammack’s Potluck.  

Her guest was Dr. Chris Jones, who, up until a few weeks ago, was the U of I scientist overseeing 68-some water quality stations in Iowa. In short, he decided to leave the post because some folks didn’t like the things he was saying about what the water quality stations were telling the scientists.  

Agricultural runoff over time has put high levels of nitrates in Iowa waters, which is not good. The reference to a population of 170 million people is the equivalent amount of waste  Iow’s confinement livestock production—hogs, cattle, chickens—produces each year in Iowa, and to use an old but indelicate phrase: “That sh*t runs downhill.”

And like it or not, we all live downstream.

On the Zoom call, with almost 90 participants, there wasn’t any scapegoating or blaming, neither farmers nor agribusiness or Republicans or Democrats. Instead

, there was a sense of now what small (or large) part is there for each Iowan to do about it.

“Let’s make Iowa water quality great again!” 

Now there’s a slogan to put on your cap. 




Please subscribe to receive the Zoom link the morning of the program.

  • Monday, May 15: Kathie Obradovich, Iowa Capital Dispatch and her new education reporter, Brooklyn Draisey. Read about this new effort.

  • Monday, May 22, Randy Bauer, on Iowa tax policy. He understands the Iowa budget better than most, and comes highly recommended as a speaker on this subject.

  • Monday, May 29, author Jeff Biggers. He’s been a guest on MSNBC, the Rachel Maddow Show, and many other national media. Click for more about this talented writer and observer.

  • June 5, Romen Borsellino, comedy writer. He had a hand in crafting remarks for Biden during the Washington Correspondents dinner. Will the Hollywood writer’s strike be resolved by the time of this podcast? What is/was it about? Romen is from Iowa and is the son of Rekha Basu and the late Rob Borsellino.

  • On June 19, our guest, Courtney Crowder, a Des Moines Register team member, helped produce: SHIFT: The RAGBRAI Documentary. You can still watch the film. Check the schedule for the Varsity Theater.

Subscribers to this Potluck Column will receive links to the calls Monday mornings.

If you are not already, please join our growing audience.

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Julie Gammack's Iowa Potluck
Julie Gammack's Iowa Potluck
The Iowa Potluck features commentary, stories and interviews with notable leaders. Feel free to join our growing tribe, where you'll find a smart, engaged community of readers.