Storm Lake Times wins Pulitzer for editorials challenging Big Ag in Iowa

Art Cullen, co-owner of the Storm Lake Times, published twice a week in northwestern Iowa, won the Pulitzer Prize “for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” The editorials criticized county officials for letting agricultural interests dictate their response to a lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works over nutrient runoff and held agriculture responsible for polluted waters.

The editorials also assailed Buena Vista county supervisors for refusing for months to reveal that farm groups, behind the nameplate of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, were paying the county’s legal bills in the Water Works suit. “Our snout smells something that is being hidden,” said an April 2016 editorial arguing the counties were obliged to make the names public.

“It took a year to get the information,” said Cullen, who credited the public-records fight with raising interest in the editorials published by a newspaper with 3,000 subscribers. He told The Associated Press that he felt vindicated when the information was released.

In March, U.S. district judge Leonard Stand rejected the legal underpinnings of the lawsuit and dismissed it, two years after it was filed. Dismissal ended the chances for a precedent-setting interpretation of federal clean water laws, which generally exempt agriculture from regulation. The Water Works suit contended that drainage districts in three counties, including Buena Vista, were identifiable “point” sources of pollution and should be required to meet clean-water standards.

“We still have a surface water problem in Iowa,” Cullen said during an interview. “We’re continuing to cover that story … We’ve been reporting on it for 25 years.” The lead story in last Friday’s edition of the paper, written by Cullen’s son, Tom, carried the headline, “As nitrates red-line in river, more health risks surface,” and a summary saying, “U of Iowa reports thyroid, bladder, ovarian cancers and wide range of birth defects linked to existing levels of Raccoon (River) running at twice the threshold cited by U of Iowa.”

Cullen, 59, a Storm Lake native, learned about his award the instant it was announced — he watched the Pulitzer announcements, which were streamed live from New York. “It’s been surreal. You don’t think a country editor is going to win the Pulitzer,” he said a couple of hours later.

The newspaper’s website was silent about the award on Monday. Cullen said an announcement would appear in the next print edition, which comes out today. “Print feeds the bulldog here,” he said.

Here are two samples of the Pulitzer-winning editorials:

“Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America,” Cullen wrote in a March 2016 editorial, one of 10 submitted to Pulitzer judges. “What’s more, the public probably suspects that it should not cost billions of dollars to fix the problem. It doesn’t. The solution demands that we quit farming into the ditch and over the fenceline. If we left 10 percent of Iowa’s marginal land fallow the nitrate problem would disappear.”

In a September 2016 editorial, Cullen said Buena Vista County, his home county, “officially is a Farm Bureau county” because the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers Association would pay the county’s costs of defending itself in the Water Works suit. “The Farm Bureau is setting the terms of the legal defense … We have given up our franchise.”

To read the Pulitzer award, a short biography of Cullen, and the 10 editorials submitted to judges, click here.