This week I bring to my readers a special feature I wrote this spring. I currently attend college in Sioux County, Iowa, so the agricultural and economic prosperity of this region piqued my interest.
If U.S. farmers could compete for a medal on a podium, the farmers of Sioux County, Iowa would take the gold. A land flowing with milk and honey, the fertile topsoil of this sliver of Northwest Iowa makes it some of the most coveted real estate in the Corn Belt.
Like a finely tuned athlete, Sioux County shatters record after record. This prosperous patchwork quilt is home to more than 1,664 farms, 330,000 head of cattle, and 1.2 million hogs, topping the 98 other Iowa counties. Cattle and hogs outnumber humans 44 to 1. Two biodiesel factories and thirteen ethanol plants operate within its 768-square-miles. In 2011, Sioux County land sold for an unprecedented $20,000 per acre.
Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, one of six biotech firms in the county, is pioneering nationally acclaimed discoveries in embryo transfer and cloning as research for human disease cures. Rock Valley’s booming manufacturing industry draws commuters from 66 zip codes. Sioux Center alone boasts 2,200 jobs. Interestingly, the community’s Hispanic population has more than tripled in the past decade. “The vast majority are doing farm-related jobs that they aren’t able to get Americans to do,” said Judy Hauswald, president of CASA Sioux County.
In a land where the smell of manure equates to money, the towns of Rock Valley, Orange City, Sioux Center, and Hull boast unemployment rates two points below the state average. The population is growing at a rate 63 percent faster than the rest of Iowa. Sioux County’s thriving educational system includes multiple private and public school systems as well as four-year liberal arts colleges, Dordt and Northwestern.
As opposed leaving Sioux County to seek career placement elsewhere, Dordt and Northwestern graduates are reputed for reinvesting in their community. Currently, Dordt College alumni run, “among others, three large machine shops in Rock Valley, a pork broker in Sioux Center, a bank in Sioux Center, ozone water treatment and candy companies in Hull, electrical contractors… financial and insurance companies, coffee shops, hotels, law offices, bakeries, and dairy, cattle, and hog farms.” Not to mention all the education grads who teach thousands of students in the local elementary, middle, and high schools.
“I think kids that go off to school come back because it’s a good place to live. Jobs are here. We’re in a community that has good economic growth, whether that be in the ag sector or in the manufacturing sector. We have a very good city council that attracts businesses into town. It not only promotes agriculture but also promotes industry,” said Mike Schouten, head of Dordt College’s Agriculture Stewardship Center.
According to Iowa Congressman Steve King, this kind of cycle has been keeping Sioux County prosperous for a long time: “Even through the ‘80s, they continued to invest in their communities, invest in education, and because of that faith in the next generation, those kids are raised to believe they have a future here.”
What is the impetus of the long-term prosperity of Sioux County, Iowa? At first glance, one would conclude that it’s the ideal climate for crop and livestock production, the fertile soil, and high concentration of biofuel and livestock operations. Furthermore, the success of the manufacturing and industrial workforce can be traced back to the work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit of its farm-raised people.
But other Midwest counties with similar conditions seldom experience the same long-term economic boom. Could there be another factor driving Sioux County’s prosperity? Its Dutch, Christian Reformed heritage may explain the strong culture of Sioux County. “We are probably the most Reformed county in the nation, just in terms of church membership,” said Carl Zylstra, former Dordt College president.
The first Dutch immigrants settled in Sioux County in 1870, when a Pella, Iowa group led by Henry Hospers staked their claim in what is now the town of Orange City. Hospers returned to Pella with a glowing report of “green plateaus of limitless prairies, as yet untouched by the hand of civilization,” as quoted in the 1879 Sioux County Herald.
Today, the modern descendants of these fervently religious Netherlanders take great pride in their work. Their devout Christian Reformed churches foster orderly, disciplined lifestyles. The shingles on the roof of a home along Sioux Center’s Main Street spell out “In God We Trust.” Word has it that newcomers to town who are sighted mowing their yards on Sunday will quietly be informed that working on the Sabbath is considered taboo.
Rather than viewing this lifestyle as prison camp, however, the Dutch embrace their devout culture, believing that they are “called not only to preserve Creation, but to develop Creation,” according to Zylstra.
Sioux Center native Gary Den Herder is a perfect example of a lifelong Reformed Christian whose family has prospered financially.A third generation Dutch farmer, Den Herder manages a large row crop, confinement hog, and cow-calf operation west of Sioux Center. Den Herder credits his grandfather as his inspiration. “’The Lord has been good. We are so blessed.’ He preached that and preached that to us,” said Den Herder reminisced of his grandfather.
All farmers must have a great deal of faith to undertake so much financial risk. Den Herder presumes that the high concentration of devout Christian farmers of Sioux County has especially attributed to the economic success of the region.
“The Bible says if you are faithful, you will be blessed. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have hard times. We have the same drought and hailstorms come through to us just like everybody else. I believe that we are maybe more blessed because the majority of us are faithful to His word,” Den Herder said.
Den Herder was quick to emphasize that unforeseen troubles can puncture the bubble wrap that seems to surround Sioux County just as they can anywhere else. Similarly, Schouten acknowledged, “Without God’s blessing, Sioux County wouldn’t be Sioux County.”
A role model for other rural regions of the Midwest, Sioux County has attracted the attention of political figures. Iowa congressman Steve King often expresses the high esteem he holds for the county. He surmises that its success stems from “strong families, competitive schools, capable leaders, geographic loyalty, good colleges, patriotism, and Christianity.” To King, it’s a conglomeration of elements that give the Dutch access to the “Promised Land”. “It’s the churches, the work ethic, the belief in free enterprise, the educational component. That’s all built upon the foundation of some of the best farmland in the world.”