The View from the Buckle of the Corn Belt

Under the “Big Sky” of Western Illinois lies the splendor of an abused land, straining to produce one more bushel based on short-term efficiency and long-term loss.

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Western Illinois must be at the eastern end of Big Sky Country. The snow-capped mountains, aspen trees, and rocky streams are far away, but you only need to find a little rise to get a wide view of the usually restrained and constantly changing beauty.

Our backyard is truly Midwestern, without pretension. It is not boring, but you have to be patient and persistent, sensitive to daily changes of light and color, the seasonal cycles of sun, clouds, and sky. You have to know where, when, and how to look.

Glaciers, wind, and water have shaped this region over the past 12,000 years or so. The post glacial prairie environment thrived on deep deposits of rich soil cut by meandering streams. Even now, scattered woodlands and trees along waterways break the horizon. Some places pitch and roll a bit. Others are basically flat, the land of our Big Sky, especially when seemingly endless corn and fields are shorn in the fall.

For generations, Western Illinois has been the buckle of the corn and soybean belt. Human influence is all over this place, sometimes for better, sometimes not. Changes in agriculture scale and operations, especially after the 1960s and 1970s, altered the landscape and communities. Before the 1960s, maps show smaller farms, with houses not all that far apart. Aerial photographs reveal houses and fields with trees around them and their outbuildings.

Today, homesteads are more scattered than there were a generation or two ago, a sign of more concentrated land ownership. Trees sometimes mark the spot of an abandoned house or homestead long gone. In too many cases, the trees are gone, too. A gravel driveway to a grain bin and a dilapidated barn are all that remain.

Photo by Timothy Collins
State efforts at restoring wildflowers along U.S. 67 north of Macomb, IL were foiled by some farmers who insisted on mowing the roadsides.

Tree lines rapidly disappeared in the 1970s following the incantation of then Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to “plant fence row to fence row” to make U.S. agribusiness into even more of a global powerhouse. Fencerows continued to disappear over time. They have been ripped up with a vengeance in the past few years as corn and soybean production jumped to accommodate federal biofuels standards.

Our agricultural leaders say we have adopted a plan of “working land conservation.” With huge fields, groves of trees can be two or three miles apart. Human hands and machinery have torn out the woods, altering the landscape’s color and texture; watercourses and water quality; and wildlife and human habitat. All of this can be deceptively beautiful, romanticized as agrarian. But it really is a heavily managed, uniformly industrial agribusiness landscape, even if still called “family farming.”

Our Western Illinois Big Sky countryside is under the power of scattered farm families who dominate the local environment on the large expanses of land they own or rent for farming. This landscape—bleak and beautiful as it can be, often at the same time—is shaped by technology that reduced human labor but is more reliant on unsustainable fossil fuels; fertilizers and pesticides; questionable genetic modification; and uncertain global markets.

Working land conservation as it has evolved since the 1970s means we have secure food supplies for now. But we are beginning to see longer-run impacts of short-sighted policy and agribusiness practice. We face a broad field of tragic ironies.

In February, for example, USDA announced a $3-million program to provide “technical and financial assistance for interested farmers and ranchers to help improve the health of bees, which play an important role in crop production.”

Why is the program needed? Bee populations have crashed because of insecticides and farmers who destroyed pasture and woodland bee habitats to create those broad fields that are part of the landscape. Roadside flowers are a rarity in neatly manicured farm country. State roadside wildflower plantings are mowed down. Without their habitat, the bees (and butterflies) die off. Farmers have starved their friends, the pollinators.

The dark comedy of the climate-change/global-warming debate adds another dimension to the ironies of agribusiness and environmental decline. Research as early as 1829 noted the possibility of greenhouse gases, and by about 1859 scientists recognized the likelihood that too much carbon dioxide would warm the earth’s climate. Yet, fossil-fuel-based agribusiness practices wreak havoc on the climate.

Photo by Timothy Collins
A bucolic sunrise near Bushnell, IL, shows scattered trees in the haze of Drowning Fork, a small stream that drains runoff from the city and surrounding farmland into the Lamoine RIver.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, the agriculture industry is a disproportionate producer of greenhouse gases compared with its value-added economic output, based on soil and manure management, fermentation processes, and other factors. Minimal benefits come from “sinking” carbon into soil. Substantial carbon benefits do come from forestry practices, which are rare around here because trees are an enemy.

So why does agribusiness around here cut down trees that could help counter global warming while simultaneously protecting water and soil? Why does it insist on fossil fuel inputs? Why does it fight clean water and air regulations? What happened to the people we trust not only to grow our food but to steward the land for future generations?

The short-run economics of agribusiness work against long-run conservation on and off the farm. Individual farmers feel compelled to maximize profitability. Most agribusiness farmers hold an extremely narrow view of land stewardship because of the pressure-packed immediacy of markets.

In ironic counterpoint, the federal government—which is responsible for our commonwealth of natural resources—has reduced conservation technical assistance, relies more on incentives for “interested” farmers, and ties conservation practices to crop insurance premiums. The 2014 Farm Bill version of working lands conservation is not about putting soil, water, and the climate first. It is a method of securing short-run profitability for agribusiness first and putting conservation second.

Sad fact: The agribusiness oligarchy of farmers and landlords who control the best and most productive lands and dominate commodity production tend to equate conservation with government incentives. Evidence in my part of the world suggests they are sacrificing soil and water quality by cutting trees, plowing marginal lands, skimping on grass buffers, and laying drain tiles instead of impounding water and soil onsite.

National agribusiness organizations support poor local practices. They constantly challenge environmental regulations deemed to interfere with farmers’ property rights. The proverbial sky is the limit if the land can be made to yield another bushel of product. Meanwhile, waterways are dead and dying, and the climate is changing. Who’s paying? The rest of us.

And so, we return to the real Midwestern Big Sky, enduring above this place a few of us call home. This rich and often abused countryside frames the moody beauty of sun and clouds. It is here to behold in all of its splendor, even for those few who dwell alone on the widely abused land that provides their—and our—sustenance.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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