An Iowa farm county seeks answers amid cancer rates 50% higher than national average

By Keith Schneider

EMMETSBURG, IOWA –Raised in rural Iowa, 71-year-old Maureen Reeves Horsley once considered her tiny hometown in the northwest part of the state to be a blessed space. She recalls a time when the streams here ran clean and the lake water was clear.

The family farm where Horsley grew up was one of more than 1,200 farms in Palo Alto County in 1970. In her memory, the county’s 13,000 residents enjoyed a thriving agricultural-based economy and close-knit neighbors. Cows grazed in verdant pastures. And seemingly endless acres of corn marched to the horizon.

“We had good crops, corn and soybeans,” Horsley said of her family’s farm along the West Fork of the Des Moines River. “You could make it on a small amount of farmland. You felt safe. It was a good life.”

Two generations later Emmetsburg and Palo Alto County have been radically transformed into a place where many residents worry that the farms that have sustained their livelihoods are also the source of the health problems that have plagued so many families.

Horsley, a certified nurse practitioner who still lives in the county, is among many Iowa residents who ask whether the farms that make up the lifeblood of Iowa’s economy have become a source of disease and death due to the toxic chemicals and other pollutants indelibly linked to modern agricultural practices.

“We drank the water on our farm,” Horsley said in an interview. “My sister had breast cancer. She was only 27 when she died. She grew up here. My other sister had uterine cancer. As a nurse practitioner I’m aware of five people now with pancreatic cancer. I know 20 people who have other cancers or died of cancer here. Look at the obituaries in our newspaper. Everybody is aware this is going on.”