Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement


Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) was founded in 1975 to assist low-income Iowans with predatory lending, unscrupulous car dealers, home ownership, and personal money management. Since its founding, however, ICCI has discovered that real power in Iowa lies beyond the city limits. In the last decade, the organization’s priorities have shifted away from defending the urban poor to more politically lucrative attacks against what its activists term “factory farms.” In making this shift, the group also started charging dues for the first time. Once three-quarters urban in its membership, ICCI is now mostly comprised of rural Iowans seeking to hop on the pro-“family farm,” anti-“factory farm” bandwagon.

ICCI is comprised of just 2,000 Iowans, but the frequency with which they protest and lobby is intended by its professional leaders to create the public perception of a much larger membership. They are a tiny but extremely vocal minority who consistently push for sweeping regulations on Iowa’s 90,000 farms — except for the ones owned by ICCI members.

The problem with the “family” and “factory” farm labels is that ICCI writes the definitions itself. ICCI rural organizer Lisa Whelan offered a definition of a “factory farm” to the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil in 2004, defining them as farms that “need a permit to operate.” This might be an objective standard if ICCI didn’t proudly take credit for helping to change those same permit laws to suit its own agenda. In its 2002 annual report, ICCI boasted of its efforts to pass Iowa Senate File 2293, which lowered the permit threshold on pork farmers from 4,166 hogs to just 2,500. In most counties a farmer must raise nearly twice that number of animals just to earn the median household income in that county.

Not content with protest-augmented lobbying, ICCI has also pressured judicial officials to interpret the law in questionable ways. In the July 23, 2002 Fort Dodge Messenger, Humboldt County Attorney Derk Schwieger related how ICCI encouraged him to set aside his professional understanding of the law in favor of mob rule. ICCI, Schweiger said, wanted him to certify the legality of a countywide moratorium on new livestock farms, regardless of what the law actually said. In Schwieger’s words, “I was told by ICCI members that I should draft my [legal] opinion according to public opinion … that’s not how this works.”

In a Des Moines Register interview, ICCI executive director Hugh Espey admitted that he has never set foot in a large-scale livestock confinement, the kind of facility his organization decries on a daily basis. For a group that claims to combat threats that supposedly lurk next door, it is unusual that its most vocal agitator has never witnessed the “problem” firsthand.

“Local Control” Hypocrites

ICCI consistently clamors for “local control” of agriculture, which typically translates to the suppression of out-of-state investment in Iowa farms. The model for “local control” is Nebraska, where a law enacted via ballot initiative forbids non-Nebraskans and agricultural corporations from investing in farms there. Less farming capital, of course, means fewer jobs and depressed economic development, a bitter price to pay for satisfying anti-business activists. Even if this kind of out-of-state investment would allow an Iowan to continue farming and maintain a family tradition instead of selling off his land, ICCI considers this a bad trade-off.

The irony of ICCI’s “local control” proposals is that it receives the bulk of its money from large, out-of-state foundations (membership dues comprise the remainder of its budget). One-time ICCI vice-chairman Vern Tigges lamented in October of 2004 to the newspaper Carroll Today, “We don’t have money. All we have is people power, and that’s the name of the game.”

Actual people do indeed comprise ICCI’s membership, but the game has some other names, too: Ford, General Motors, and Standard Oil, to name a few. The giant philanthropies that bankroll ICCI (none native to Iowa) trace their considerable assets back to giant corporations. The Ford Foundation, the General Motors-powered Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Standard Oil-fueled Belvedere Fund (a subsidiary of the Rockefeller Family Fund) all contribute substantially (see “Financials” section).

Foundation Home state Corporate origin 
Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Michigan General Motors Corporation
Rockefeller Family Fund, Rockefeller Brothers Fund  New York Standard Oil
Belvedere Fund District of Columbia  Standard Oil
McKnight Foundation Minnesota 3M
Ford Foundation Michigan Ford Motor Company
Educational Foundation of America Connecticut Prentice-Hall Publishing

The Waterkeeper Alliance

ICCI is adept at blurring the lines between its corporate funding and its “grassroots” public image, but the group is more open about its ties with the Waterkeeper Alliance. Led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer with a lot of name recognition, Waterkeeper is dedicated to suing pork farmers into the ground in the hopes of scoring a tobacco-style legal settlement. In the July 25, 2002 Van Buren County Register, ICCI board member Garry Klicker declared that “Waterkeepers [sic] is one [group] I not only am happy to support, but have joined as well. Robert Kennedy’s strong statements are exactly on target.”

Kennedy’s statements include the 2001 bombshell he dropped in the Los Angeles Times, when he said that Waterkeeper “will march across this country and we will bring these kind of lawsuits against every single pork factory in America if we have to … Whatever it takes to win.” The Des Moines Register reported in April 2002 that Kennedy called pork farmers “a greater threat to the United States and U.S. democracy than Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.” That same month he also told a television reporter that “the best thing would be if this [pork] industry did leave the country.”

At times ICCI’s hatred of modern animal agriculture drives the group to make some allies that livestock farmers normally avoid. As if the group’s support of the Waterkeeper Alliance wasn’t enough, the roster of speakers at ICCI’s 2002 convention included Michael Appleby, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Appleby’s fellow HSUS spokespersons have advocated the abolition of all livestock agriculture.

Child Abusers and Serfs?

“I feel an obligation to society in general to stop these people – and I will,” ICCI board member Garry Klicker told the Burlington Hawk Eye in June 2002. Klicker’s rant reveals a dark side to ICCI’s fight against ordinary Iowa farmers:

[Klicker] also doesn’t believe that hog producers who contract with a corporation are true family farmers. “If they are not taking a market risk, they are not farmers — they are employees,” Klicker said. “I personally have problems with farmers getting paid — they are like serfs.” He also is adamant that putting animals in confined spaces is wrong. “My feeling is if a farmer is raising hogs in a confinement, they probably need to be visited by DHS [the Iowa Department of Human Services] because they probably have kids in the closet,” he said.

Pork farmers are child abusers and serfs? No wonder ICCI feels it has so much to yell about.


ICCI’s tactics are more antagonistic than they are neighborly. The group is notorious across Iowa for holding aggressive protests and disrupting public meetings. Farm market analyst David Kruse wrote in a 2003 issue of The CommStock Report that “ICCI State Director Hugh Espey says first they call you and if there is no response they come after you, showing up with protest signs on your doorstep if they have to.” Added Kruse: “I don’t think they always bother to call first.”

The home-visit protest is indeed one of ICCI’s favorite tactics. The group routinely charters buses to transport activists to the homes of private farmers, businessmen, and state employees for “spontaneous” rallies. Occasionally they fly out to Washington, DC to protest on the front lawns of hapless administrators there, too. ICCI member Viola Faust’s May 2005 letter in The Winterset Madisonian details one such federal adventure:

Sunday afternoon we boarded 11 school buses and went to the Acting Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture’s house and knocked on his door. Can you imagine 600 people with sighs of dislike, standing out in your front yard yelling at you. Well, of course he called the cops, they always do.

Another preferred ICCI tactic is to publish private citizens’ home phone numbers in newspaper scare ads. Recent examples involved fourth-generation farmer Nick Hunt, who had two phone numbers and his home address published, and third-generation farmer Jay Edge, who suffered harassing phone calls. ICCI’s tactics succeeded in blocking the construction of Edge’s hog farm, even though it had passed the county standards that ICCI itself helped shepherd through the regulatory process.

One Iowa Falls Times-Citizen columnist wrote in July 2000 about ICCI’s antagonistic tactics in protesting a state economic development administrator: “It gives the community another black eye to see the group basically accost a private citizen at his own home … Invading a state employee’s home on a Saturday afternoon was uncalled for.” A 2004 ICCI protest — on the front lawn of Farm Bureau employee and Ankeny, IA School Board member Denny Presnall — brought Presnall’s friends and neighbors out of the woodwork crying foul. One fellow school board member wrote the Iowa City Press-Citizen:

No one, especially Denny, deserves to have their property invaded and their family harassed on a quiet Saturday afternoon. If these people were angry with the Farm Bureau, they should have descended on the West Des Moines facility with their three busloads of rabble and not molested an innocent Ankeny family. However, that would have taken conviction by CCI, as it is always easier for them to bully and intimidate defenseless women and children on a quiet afternoon than it is to go after the source of their anger … I also find it amazing that the only published names were the victims of these CCI hate crimes. I would hope that the paper would publish the names of those who perpetrated this pathetic demonstration.

And The Des Moines Register reported in July 1999 on an ICCI protest that was held on a dairy executive’s front lawn:

Protesters spent roughly 20 minutes chanting in [Jim] Erickson’s front yard and reboarded the buses after police were called. Erickson apparently was not home … Saturday’s hubbub did not sit well with Erickson’s neighbors in southwest Des Moines. “I think it’s low to go to a man’s home,” said Paul Canfield. “This is tacky.”


While Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement certainly has its share of true believers, a different feeling — resentment — seems to motivate most of its members. The war ICCI wages is one that pits neighbor against neighbor. Resenting the financial success of nearby farmers who raise livestock using modern high-yield techniques, ICCI’s farmers reach out for any regulatory weapon they can use to strike back.

In a July 2004 letter to the editor published by The Des Moines Register (Iowa’s largest newspaper), farmer Gary Boswell wrote: “Barb Kalbach of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement readily admitted that she was unable to compete in livestock production, yet there are many of us who can. She gives this as a reason for ICCI to fight to stop modern livestock production.” In 2003, hog farmer Max Schimdt echoed Boswell’s analysis of ICCI in the Register:

They have a very antagonistic attitude … They feel so desperate, they’ve chosen that way. It hurts those who choose to associate with them. The overwhelming majority of them are people having trouble succeeding in their station in life, having trouble economically and seeking something to satisfy their plight. They don’t come with a negotiating attitude.

ICCI’s website reveals a more craven motivation as well. It features a section where viewers can look up self-proclaimed “family farms” and buy meat or produce from them online. Serving niche markets, ICCI’s farmers have a vested economic interest in regulating their more efficient competitors into oblivion and disparaging their products.

Eleven-year ICCI veteran (and former vice-chair) Vern Tigges told the rural newspaper Carroll Today in October 2004 that his competitors’ pork “doesn’t taste the way it used to … it doesn’t taste as good as home grown. It’s always got that cardboard taste to it.” Tigges, of course, raises and markets his own “family farmed” pork and markets it at a higher price than what mainstream growers charge.

Such naked economic protectionism makes ICCI’s conflict-of-interest complaints against politicians who farm especially ironic. The group’s farmer-activists complain that Iowan public officials who farm are using the political process for economic benefit, yet the policies ICCI’s farmers push are designed to block, cripple, and shut down the more efficient farms that they can’t beat in the free marketplace.

So far, the paperwork tactic hasn’t worked out very well for ICCI, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. ICCI’s recent ethics complaints against Iowa Environmental Protection Commissioner Heidi Vittetoe and state senator Mike Sexton were ruled groundless. Sexton’s charge was unanimously dropped by the Senate Ethics Committee’s three Democrats and three Republicans, while a separate state ethics panel said that “you have to torture and twist the statute to reach the conclusion sought by ICCI that Vittetoe has a conflict.”

With its self-interested motivation and high-pressure lobbying, however, ICCI poses a serious threat to modern agriculture. In a December 2004 letter to the Iowa Falls Times-Citizen, farmer and ICCI foe Dave McClellan called further attention to the self-serving implausibility of ICCI’s proposals:

Recently, [Iowa] CCI placed an ad in the Times-Citizen stating “Family farms yes; factory farms no.” Is anyone using modern technology in grain or livestock production a factory farm? This unjust persecution of the livestock industry is outrageous.

CCI proposes I raise livestock like a family farmer. I propose they do the same in grain production. That’s right, no hybrid seed corn, no insecticide, herbicides or commercial fertilizer. Try farming like that and see how long you last in business.

CCI doesn’t want more livestock production in Hardin County but are the first in line at the local elevators or grain processors like Cargill to cash in on the benefits of higher grain markets that have been stimulated by that same livestock production. What we have here is nothing but economic jealousy by a bunch of whining hypocrites.

If ICCI’s cavalier use of the “factory farm” label doesn’t smell funny enough already, consider an August 2002 Associated Press story titled “Ultrasound May Cut Smell of Hog Waste.” By collecting hog manure and treating it with ultrasound waves, large-scale pork producers are able to cut the potency of its smell in half, reducing or eliminating nuisances for nearby homeowners. ICCI leader Hugh Espey’s response? “This just gives the bigger operations reason to expand and proliferate.” Even though odors are among ICCI’s biggest complaints about modern pork farms, the group protests more (not less) when science presents an opportunity to mitigate the problem without having to deploy heavy-handed regulators.