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Why Actually Helping Farmers Matters

We don’t want to get ANAL about AHF, but recent events have called for it.


On Sunday, Matt Campbell became self-aware. As the head football coach of THE land-grant university in Iowa, he finally acknowledged his university’s place at the global food table with a simple three-letter hashtag.

When WRNL hopped on the Actually Helping Farmers (AHF) train a few years ago, we did so understanding that it was time for Iowa State to recognize and celebrate their agricultural history and to know there’s more to helping farmers than slapping three letters in a gold circle and applying a trademark to it.

Almost immediately after Campbell tweeted his support for Iowa State’s influence in the global agricultural marketplace, the neighbors of ours to the east had to chime in. “Little brother” this and “get your own label” that. It was amusing to see a fan base so devoted to a sticker and not as much to the plight that the sticker is supposed to help solve. Some went as far as to claim that AHF is a drag on ANF and nothing but a childish play by its creators.

Let’s unpack all of that.

Does AHF “delegitimize” ANF?

In a word, no.

First of all, AHF is bigger than a hashtag. Secondly, in order for Actually Helping Farmers to "delegitimize" something, that thing must initially be legitimate itself. In fact, the discussion here should really be about what exactly the ANF campaign does to help farmers. And when you look at the facts, it’s hard to say anything except “not much”.

Yes, the farm crisis was bad. Hell, it was very bad. It was SO bad that the government revamped their subsidy program, despite President Reagan's promises of cutting subsidies. Only recently have some of these direct payment programs been rolled back, though many programs such as crop insurance have been expanded.

Yes, ANF was created by Hayden Fry in the 1980s to raise awareness about farmers and the farm crisis. There’s no doubt that his very good Iowa teams helped gain national exposure for farmers. That strategy, coupled with Iowa games airing on 1040 WHO, ingratiated Fry and the University of Iowa to an entire generation of farmers who would go on to create future students, alumni, and donors.

Yet when Iowa brought back ANF in 2010, it never felt as genuine as it may have been nearly 30 years earlier. ANF merchandise has since exploded and an unknown portion of the proceeds from the sale of such merchandise goes through Farm Bureau and to food banks across Iowa. The donations, when averaged, come out to about $20,000 per year. That’s certainly a nice chunk of change, but does it leave a little bit to be desired?

Say that the portion donated is around 5% of all ANF merchandise proceeds. 4,500 ANF T shirts (at $18 per shirt) would need to be sold to reach that donation level. That's a pretty low number of shirts and doesn’t account for the hats, stickers, and sweatshirts that are sold. Shockingly, it isn’t just the Hawkeye House owner and Mark Farley who buy these items. They sell, and they sell well.

Does the money generated from ANF go to farmers, to scholarships to support those who want to study agriculture, or to educational programs that promote farming? Apparently not.

And while we’re not going to take ANF to task for donating to food banks (an incredibly worthy cause), where does that leave ANF in terms of helping farmers? Surely, the promotion has helped Iowa farmers, right? We’re just asking you to put your money where your mouth is. If ANF is such a big deal, then surely you would have no problem donating all of the proceeds to actual programs that help the group you claim to want to raise awareness for, right?

The Cognitive Dissonance of an Iowa Fan

The most delicious part of this whole “debate” about AHF and ANF is how the average Iowa fan approaches it. Oftentimes those fans are the ones who love to crow about Iowa State being “Moo U” or getting mad online at Stanford’s courting of our fine agricultural state.

In reality, the average Iowa fan probably has no god damn clue what each state university’s role is in the larger picture, and that’s almost criminal. Iowa State missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only push the plight of the American farmer to the forefront in the 1980s, but also to capitalize on the marketing opportunity when Iowa brought back ANF in 2010. The university brass deserves some praise for the Farm Strong initiative, but it’s hard to see it as anything more than lip service from Farm Bureau.

Look at it this way, Mr. Snowflake Iowa Fan, you don’t get to claim that your precious gold circle matters to farmers and then turn around and chant “Moo U” when you’re driving through the streets of Ames.

Doing so acknowledges that you’re defending ANF because it’s associated with the University of Iowa, and not because of the message it delivers. But who knows, you might not know what Iowa State does. So let’s educate.

So What does Little Brother Do?

Oh boy, more like what don’t they do?

1) Iowa State educates students, community members, and members of the farm community about agriculture. This is done in formats ranging from offering 27 majors to undergraduate students to teaching Iowa's youth about farming both in the classroom and at events like the Iowa State Fair.

2) Iowa State has programs that provide actual support for farmers. Iowa State University Extension has created the Beginning Farmer Center, offers the Farm Financial Planning Program, and runs Start to Farm or Returning to the Farm programs for Iowa farmers. Want to know just how well ISU understands that we could use more farmers? They offer an 8-week course called From The Ground Up to help farmers put together a business strategy so they can actually make this whole farming thing work financially.

3). Iowa State produces research that increases a farmer's productivity. This quote is actually taken from the ANF website:

"Consider this: By 2050, our growing global population will require 100 percent more food. Because there is only a finite amount of productive land, we will need about 70 percent of this food to come from efficiency-improving technology used by farmers."

This quote is very troubling, and is very true. Now, guess which university contributes an incredible amount of time, money, and resources to developing efficiency-improving technologies? Hint: its football team doesn’t wear a gold circle on their helmet.

We’re not hiding the fact that we began pushing AHF over five years ago because it’s a direct troll on ANF. It’s still being talked today because there’s substance behind it — in this case, the (lack of) things ANF does to help farmers and the reality that Iowa State University does an enormous amount to help not only Iowa farmers, but those around the globe. WRNL has multiple farmers on staff, and pretty much everyone who isn’t a farmer themselves is directly related to one. If perpetuating a simple three-letter acronym inspires ANF to up their game or brings light to all of the great things that ISU does for farmers, then we’ll continue doing it without shame.

And you’re damn sure we were beaming with pride when we saw Coach Campbell use #AHF. Plenty of farmers who’ve benefited directly from the ag research done by Iowa State were proud of him, too.

Next time you want to defend ANF to someone coming after it, make sure to remember who helps put food on your table, who helps crops turn out record yields, or who helps a farmer turn his unprofitable family venture into a legacy that will last for generations.

That’s right — it’s little brother.