View from the Levee: Heartless Heartland

Modern monoculture polarizes communities, pitting neighbor against neighbor with a relentless focus on the bottom line. Is that how it has to be?

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After nearly 30 years of living and working in the very center of the black and beautiful farmland of central Illinois, I’m still a relative newcomer. Literally. This is the lovely Catherine’s native territory and often I am still identified as “Catherine’s husband” or “You remember John Watson; this is his son-in-law.”

No problem because, after nearly 40 years of marriage, I am, in fact, still Catherine’s husband and still John Watson’s son-in-law.

The productive, sweeping prairies of my adopted home, however, are nothing like the rolling, river-dominated land of my native southern Illinois. Up here the land is stunningly level and immensely fertile; down there, as we charitably note, the land has more (stage direction: clear throat) “character.”

The neighborhoods are different but the neighbors are pretty much the same. Most conversations in both places are dominated by the narrowness of today’s agriculture: corn versus soybeans, crop insurance versus government payments, land prices versus land rents, green machinery versus red machinery.

That narrow focus has flattened the view of how they describe what it is they do; most “manage” their farms and very few speak of “farming” their farms.

In truth, they don’t so much manage farms as manage assets. That means their time, talent and treasure will—as if by law—flow to the most profitable enterprise at hand.

For several decades in Illinois that has meant corn and soybeans. A closer reading of the American farm policy that delivered this equally flat, two-dimensional reality, however, might be more descriptively explained as ethanol and exports.

Whatever you call our rising monoculture, one certain consequence for both my native southern Illinois and adopted central Illinois is that it sure has changed the neighborhood.

For example, in 1960, a widely diversified Illinois agriculture had 52,000 dairy farms (my father’s was one) while today’s is home to fewer than 1,200. Cows lost their place when the crop rotation moved from “mixed” to “corn-soybeans-and-Miami” in the mid-1970s.

Likewise, in 1980, 30,000 of the nation’s 674,800 hog farms were in Illinois. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t even track the number of hog farms nationwide, let alone in Illinois. The demography and sociology of hogs and hog farmers just doesn’t matter to the bean and bacon counters in Washington anymore.

It should because everyone benefits when we know the neighbors. After 30 years of living in one neighborhood, however, I can’t say that I know ‘em.

A large part of my ignorance is my profession. Since I am an ag journalist, any conversation with any farming neighbor invariably includes the phrase, “Well, I wouldn’t want to see this in print…” Fair enough.

I know them and their business in other ways, though.

Sign of the season: A cultivator in central Illinois creates a plume of dust, announcing to the neighborhood it’s planting time.
Springtime dust plumes mean they’re planting. Screaming grain dryers in the fall mean they’re harvesting. Emails and phone calls mean the weather is too bad for them to be doing either. Roaring, low-flying aircraft and huge, road-hogging sprayers and spray tenders means their war on Mother Nature has escalated to another level of costly me-or-them-ism.

Lately I fear I am becoming more of “them” and a less of a “me.”

I want to be a good neighbor but modern, mechanized, heavily managed agriculture seems to want me most when it wants something from me: a zoning variance for an enormous livestock confinement facility; my looking away when a local creek is re-routed because it doesn’t fit a landowner’s farming plan; my vote against taxes to fund local schools or roads.

It’s a view that startles me because neither they nor I was raised to be so focused on the business of farming that we divided the people of farming, neighbors, into camps of allies or enemies, good or bad, farmers or “foodies.”

We were, in fact, raised to be good neighbors, something today’s eight-wheeled, 60-foot, 300 horsepower, GPS-wired farming makes difficult because farming is so laser-focused on the money and a good neighbor is about everything but the money.

As our numbers, like our hair, continue to thin, we need each other more, not less; we should be closer neighbors, not more distant. Let’s work on that. After all, we’re gonna be sharing this neighborhood for decades to come.

 

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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