Harvesting the Dark and Bright

Eyes wide open to the flaws in current farming practices, Timothy Collins gives thanks as a hard growing season comes to an end in Illinois.

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On my office wall hangs a page from the Journal Herald in Dayton Ohio,  a photo-feature story about harvest time that I produced thirty years ago – and, today, a reminder of how agriculture has changed.

The piece featured one of our printers who owned a small farm on the rolling land about an hour southeast of the city. It was romantic, using Ecclesiastes to describe the turning of life and the seasons for a part-time farmer, his father, and the neighbors who helped harvest the corn and soybeans and take them to the elevator.

It was just before the 1980s farm crisis, a few years after President Nixon’s agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, irresponsibly had urged American farmers to plow fencerow to fencerow to bolster production and fill the global markets with corn and soybeans. It was a time of “get bigger or get out,” many farmers going deeply into debt to finance land and machinery purchases. My friend’s farm survived because he had good income from his job. He readily admitted that he farmed because he loved it, not because it made him money.

The romance of farming was actually probably long gone by the 1970s. Then came the horrid 1980s, when the Farm Belt reeled into a depression with high interest rates and low prices. Now, farming, while clearly still a family enterprise for many, is even more of a big business with large sums of money tied up in land, equipment, fertilizer, herbicides and genetically modified seed. At the same time, farming practices and the sheer scale of operations raise questions about sustainability and environmental damage.

Timothy Collins

When I drive across the Illinois countryside every day, I feel pulled in different directions as I watch the seasons change. The land here has a subtle beauty. Plowing, planting, and harvesting of crops mark a rhythm for all of our lives, even non-farmers. Yet, the subtle beauty is deceptive. During the winter I see snowdrifts blackened with wind-blown topsoil from fields plowed during the fall. I watch huge clouds of dust as farmers do spring plowing, with no fencerows to slow the wind. I watch the leaves on the redbuds around our house curl, warnings of windblown herbicides from fields around our town. We close the windows when the cropdusters spray. And every rain washes soil and agrichemicals through our local watersheds into the Illinois River to the east and the Mississippi to the west, headed to the Gulf of Mexico to kill the once-teeming waters there.

Typically, there is a race to begin planting in March or early April so the harvest can begin around Labor Day. Ideally, corn here can be knee high by early May. This can be discouraging if planters are out in wet fields during March. Market pressures and the size of farms drive bad farming practices. Yet, many farmers also use good practices, with grass strips and contour plowing and tree-lined buffers along streams to control erosion.

Timothy Collins

The harvest season now ending, however, has been particularly hard on farmers here. A cool, wet spring pushed the limits on both corn and soybean planting. A cloudy, cool, and wet summer slowed crop maturation. The cool, wet fall delayed harvesting. If memory serves me correctly, I have seen several fields along my daily drive flooded three times during the growing season.

Yet many farmers seem to have eked out a crop with fairly high yields, probably because of genetically modified seeds. Even so, the wet year has caused problems. Moisture was too high in the corn and soybeans, and farmers reportedly were forced to return their grain to the farm, where much of it rotted. Other farmers ended up paying extra to dry their crops or taking price reductions at the elevator. Mould has become a major problem because of the excessive rain. In addition, an October frost, something unusual in recent years, damaged crops that were planted late and slow in maturing.

The extreme conditions this year do arouse my empathy for the farmers who put food on our tables. Big business or not, farming remains risky and affects the families in our community who do it. But years like this raise even more doubts about our ways of farming. When some farmers feel pressed to get their crops in and end up cultivating damp fields, even in good years, something is wrong. When weather conditions are horrendous, as they have been this year, and some farmers abuse their soil at both planting and harvest time – leaving ruts in the fields and spreading soil gobs all over the road – something is wrong, far more visible than soil erosion and important debates about the value of agrichemicals and genetically modified crops.

Timothy Collins

I have known many farmers over the years, and I know most of them do their best to husband the soil for future generations. I have learned much from them in personal conversations and as a researcher. So, I share with you some of the things I’ve learned since the harvest season of 1979, as tinted by the unusual harvest season of 2009.

I knew thirty years ago that so-called market imperatives and increased productivity have driven farmers off the land since the 1920s, and especially since the end of World War II.

What I’ve learned since is that competition among farmers, coupled with the global markets, reveals something of the dark underside of rural areas, a kind of free-market cannibalism that has decimated rural neighborhoods and small towns, leaving mere shells, rural slums where poverty is high and opportunities are more limited than ever.

Timothy Collins

And I’ve learned that I still hold on to a touch of lingering romanticism when I see the “magic” of seeds growing after planting, the growing, and the harvesting. The seasons turn, and farmers are dependent on what the seasons bring, no matter what the business risk.

While I fervently wish we could do the work of agriculture in more environmentally responsible ways, the season of Thanksgiving reminds me that we need to be grateful to the farmers who do the best they can in the face of larger forces that are way beyond their control.

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




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