For two generations, American agriculture has focused on wringing the last ounce of profit from the earth without returning sustenance to the land or its people. The results are plain to see – or not see – in a drive through a heartland bereft of farmers.
The 1,000-mile, roundtrip drive through the heart of the American cornbelt was not as long as it was revealing.
The first leg was an eight-hour, all interstate trip from Peoria through the Iowa cedars—Cedar Rapids and Cedar Falls—with a sweeping westward arc to the top of the Hawkeye state before an easy, cruise-control 90 miles into America’s most livable city, Minneapolis.
Along the entire 500-mile, mid-August drive north, however, the lovely Catherine and I saw no farmer anywhere.
That’s right; eight hours of daylight, 497 miles of asphalt, more than a million rows of corn and two million rows of soybeans and we didn’t see one farmer, farmboy or farm hand and not one tractor, sprayer or implement of any kind any where in any field or pasture at any time.
I am, of course, well aware that it’s the tail end of high summer so most farm fields between Moline and Minneapolis need no tending as corn dents and soybean pods fill.
Still, no one anywhere—not even a farmer in a pickup truck getting the mail?
At one end of the farm production spectrum, this Midwestern emptiness makes sense. It’s a sure sign that our GPS-guided, GMO-driven monoculture is reaching a high point of near-perfect efficiency. We’ve wedded capital to land and management to sire a juggernaut of corn and soybean production that’s monitored by satellites, controlled by statistics and driven by computers.
But people? Not so much.
That, too, makes sense because for two generations we’ve focused our ag research, government farm policy and rural “industry” on generating great wealth from the land with only a rare glance at sharing even a small portion of that clear necessity with regenerating a culture of and for the land.
We were—I was—eager to shake the straw from our hair and move forward (as fast as possible) to The Next Big Thing. And we did, fast. Then we sped up. Today, most all of Midwestern agriculture moves on at least eight wheels at high speed with only a cloud of dust to mark its planting and harvesting presence.
When the dust clears, however, we see that in those two generations one out of two cattle operations, six out of 10 dairy farms, nine out of 10 hog farms and four out of five farmsteads went with it. Most of those farms, by today’s balance-sheet standards, are gone for good.
Little wonder there’s nothing out here because, well, there’s nothing out here. Not cattle, not hogs, not Holsteins, not people.
We discover that when we return to visit some of the good things—safe communities, great food, caring people—we left 40 years ago. What we find, however, is an aging rural culture known more for what it once was.
What it is now is bleak: a hundred empty Main Streets for every busy one, far more cafés than restaurants, five taverns for every school, dozens of branch banks for every hometown bank, more full-time “antique” dealers than full-time pastors. Empty libraries, closed churches, full cemeteries.
But, glory be, you can buy car insurance, health insurance, property insurance and crop insurance from any one of three or four representatives within three or four blocks of each other in any almost any American rural town.
You just can’t buy a loaf of bread, get a medical prescription filled or find a hardware store.
The busiest new place—eyesore, really—on the edge of almost every rural town today is the franchise gas station. (There’s no such thing as “service” stations anywhere.) Most are planted next to corn fields where, it seems, they have a ready stock for almost everything they sell—corn-based ethanol, high fructose corn syrup-based candies and drinks, corn dogs, corn liquor and corn chips.
Add it all up and there’s less culture in today’s agriculture than ever before. With little forethought we’ve traded millions of people for billions of bushels and we believe we’ve done good.
Maybe we have; maybe we haven’t. But we are bigger, we are more efficient and we are nearly empty.
Alan Guebert is an agriculture journalist who lives in central Illinois.