Mary Swander, a professor of English and a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University, was named the Poet Laureate of the State of Iowa in 2009. She is currently touring for her play Farmscape, a docudrama capturing the changing rural environment.
Were you interested in agriculture when you were young?
I grew up in a small town in Iowa. My great-grandparents came from Ireland and homesteaded here. So we had a family farm that was the original—we wrecked the prairie, essentially. When I was a kid, my grandmother owned that farm. We lived in town with her. She hired men on the farm, but ran both of them. So I grew up with it. I had the best of both worlds. I lived in town so I didn’t have to do all the hard work.
I was interested in gardening at a really young age. I bought my own house and I had a big yard and garden when I was 20 and I’ve had a garden ever since. It got me really interested in how to have the most productive gardening in an ecological way. I’ve done all these experiments, and worked out my own little methods, and do really funky, interesting things. I have done everything from conventional, to the root stout method, to French intensive [methods].
Could you describe your latest book: Farmscape: The Changing Rural Environment?
It is a play, which was written with my Iowa State University students in 2008. Then the play was really successful—it spread through the Midwest. For the book, I asked people to write essays and commentaries about the plays. So it [includes] major figures in the food movement, like Anna Lappé, Fred Kirschenmann and Jeanne Logston, and … producers, some actors in the play, a couple of students that were original playwrights.
How has the agriculture of Iowa changed?
In the beginning, it was all prairie. Each family had a garden where they grew all their food. Then, the disaster happened. The pioneers came and destroyed everything. [Iowa] became small, family-owned farms. And then when I was growing up, which was post-World War II, they began producing chemicals. My grandmother hated it, and was against it from the beginning, but back then people embraced it and thought that spraying chemicals was helping with the insects and bugs because no one knew how to deal with it.
Then Rachel Carson happened. Actually back then, they would just spray DDT all over the town and they wouldn’t even tell us. I remember one time I was outside, and this truck came just spraying all over, and I ran into my basement asking “what is that?” But since some people didn’t know they said, “oh, that, don’t worry about it, it won’t do you any harm.” Then after the chemicals came, [there was] the farm crisis when corporate farms took over the small farms.
Now there are even larger farms. And that is also what the play is about: the conventional farms and the larger corporate farms. People think that there would be a huge fight but actually it’s more dialogue.
What was one of your best moments in your career?
When the students from Iowa State originally performed Farmscape. I thought it was going to be one performance. But the next day I got a call from Fred Kirschenmann, from Iowa State University, and he told me that people needed to see this and that we need to go on a tour. I had no idea how big this would be!