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Voice of Rural Iowa: Pulitzer-winner Art Cullen

Book hits on agriculture, environment and immigration

Art Cullen
Art Cullen
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When journalists win a Pulitzer Prize, the profession’s pinnacle award, they get a bigger platform with a brighter spotlight to say what’s on their minds or in their hearts.

When Art Cullen, editor of the twice-weekly Storm Lake Times, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing, he wrote a book about pivotal issues facing Iowa and the nation.

“I picked these big topics, like agriculture, the environment and immigration, and how does it play in a little isolated community in the middle of nowhere,” Cullen, 61, said of Storm Lake, a city of 10,600 in northwest Iowa.

In his book, “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper,” published Oct. 2, 2018, Cullen takes aim at the myths that have dogged his community.

“We have the myth that we’re feeding the world,” he said of Iowa agriculture. “The reality is people of Sudan are starving to death today. Another myth is immigrants destroy American culture, Cullen said. “The reality is they enliven and inform our culture.”

Voice of rural America

The feisty editor who looks like Mark Twain and has a knack for evocative language told The Gazette in a phone interview that since the “Storm Lake” book published he’s been “busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”

In addition to readings across the state and talks at events like the Iowa City Book Festival, Cullen has become an unofficial spokesman for rural Iowa, and more specifically, a Congressional district that has repeatedly elected Steve King, a Kiron Republican recently criticized for comments that support white supremacy.

“People from New York think we’re all a bunch of redneck racists because we have Steve King,” Cullen said.

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While Cullen denounces King’s ideology, he makes sure the voices of Iowans who have supported King are included in the Storm Lake Times and in Cullen’s book.

The book contains vignettes with retired farmers, immigrants, a teacher, meatpacker, restaurant owner and a gay man who owns a bar and concert venue in a town of 600. A few are Cullen’s friends or neighbors, but most have been featured in the Times’s coverage over the years.

Also mixed into the book are Cullen’s own story and the history of the forces, geological and political, that formed Iowa.

Challenges for agriculture

Cullen won the Pulitzer for editorials he wrote in 2016 about how corporate agriculture was influencing a legal dispute over Iowa’s flagging water quality.

Based on reporting by Cullen’s son, Tom Cullen, who works at the Times, Art Cullen’s pieces hit on how the Iowa Farm Bureau and other ag interests pledged to pay county legal bills as long as county officials denied farmers had liability for water pollution.

Challenges facing farmers today stem from the farm crisis of the 1980s, Cullen said. When prices fell, many farmers started planting every available acre and abandoned diversity, he said.

“Markets naturally seek efficiency,” Cullen said. “What was going to stop the introduction of chemicals that allowed us to have larger farm sizes? What was going to stop John Deere from having a 24-row planter? What was going to stop Monsanto from developing drought-resistant corn?”

Progress has come with destructive side effects, such as erosion and leeching of nitrate and phosphorus from fertilizer into the water. But Cullen’s hopeful groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa, which champions sustainable agriculture, can help farmers see they have other options.

“Farmers are looking at the kind of corner they’ve been backed into and saying ‘Maybe there is a way out of this supply chain’,” Cullen said.

Immigration in one community

Northwest Iowa meatpacking plants long have drawn immigrants from Mexico and Central America to Storm Lake, Cullen describes in the book. There’s still the promise of plant jobs, but immigrants now also come because of the thriving Latino community. Storm Lake’s population is 38 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census numbers.

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Some immigrants are undocumented, but contrary to warnings by President Donald Trump, few are criminals or cause problems in town, Cullen said. The immigrant community has a strong relationship with the Storm Lake Police, but some undocumented workers have gone silent for fear of deportation.

“My next-door neighbors are moving to Wisconsin,” Cullen said. “They are undocumented. They will feel more secure with family in Wisconsin. It used to be we could do stories about Dreamers and now we can’t because they don’t want to be identified.”

The name “dreamers” refers to young people brought to the United States as children who now have temporary legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

On writing

For journalists, newspaper lovers or just underdog fans, one of the best parts of “Storm Lake” is where Cullen describes April 10, 2017, the day the Pulitzer winners were announced:

“We won! We won! John! We won!”

“Won what?” John asked, thinking I’d cracked.

“The Pulitzer!” I screamed to him from five feet away.

We hugged for the first time in our lives.

Cullen celebrated with his brother, Storm Lake Times Publisher John Cullen. The hug was photographed by Dolores Cullen, Art’s wife, who also works at the newspaper. Clare Cullen, Art’s and Dolores’ daughter, is a Gazette copy editor.

Two pages later in the book is the letter Art Cullen wrote his son when Tom, a University of Northern Iowa economics graduate, joined the family business. I won’t spoil the letter, because Cullen’s words aren’t to be missed, but his advice (“Correct your errors prominently and your credibility will build”) and encouragement (“Newspapering is the most fun you can have while fully clothed.”) are nourishing for any journalist, Pulitzer winner or not.

• Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

Book Reading and Signing

• What: Art Cullen will read from his book, “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper” and sign copies

• When: 2 p.m. March 24

• Where: Ames Public Library Friends Foundation Author Cafe, 515 Douglas Ave., Ames

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Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.