Driving I-80, starting in Ohio and continuing all the way to Colorado, we saw fields of corn, corn and more corn. This, combined with the fact that your author cannot read in a moving vehicle without unappealing side-effects, means there was a fair amount of time and inspiration to ponder crops.
One thing I wondered upon was how we can dedicate nearly half of the agricultural space we own to a plant with little nutritional value that mostly just serves to make us fat (see: corn syrup). Of course, as I learned in Kearney, Nebraska—where I was excited to eat at a Real Restaurant instead of having sandwiches or fast food, only to find no corn on the menu—I realized that a fair share of the harvest is feed corn, going to nourish the food product that was in ample existence on the menu: beef. As a failed vegetarian, I guess I can’t quibble on this one.
|Free Range Cattle|
Unfortunately for the Soviets, corn prefers a climate with warm, humid summers and requires a high level of mechanization to harvest, and thus most of the Russian crops were a flop. So perhaps we should thank American farmers for adding one more drop in the bucket that ended the Cold War.
Returning to my thoughts on my recent road trip, however, every few minutes or so the waving ticklish stalks would give way to a short, dense green crop I can only assume were soybeans.
|Soybeans (also note the trees, this will be important in a minute)|
On what do I base this assumption? Well, in my childhood, whenever we took family trips across the country my sisters and I would ask my father about what we were seeing in the fields. Undoubtedly exhausted by hours of driving with three squabbling kids in the car, he would blearily peek out the passenger window and announce, “soybeans.”
Now, my father grew up in a small town in the mountains in Colorado, and his agricultural chops are certainly far more advanced than my own, so I’ve learned to take him at his word. Any crops that are NOT corn, are soybeans.
All joking aside, my other observation of the middle of the country is that it appears to be miles and miles of flat or rolling hills of emptiness. Fields with crops, fields with scrub, fields with prairie grass (although, along I-80 these last two are a dying breed). I’ll illustrate with some of the photos I managed to snap from the moving truck:
|Fields and sky|
The newcomers bought up land, tore out the native grasses and did a rather shoddy job of putting in crops. Beginning in 1930, when a drought hit in conjunction with the beginning of the Great Depression, most of those crops failed and the farms were foreclosed by bankers and the government. Many farmers just walked away from what now actually were empty fields, newly ripe for soil erosion. And thus began the Dust Bowl. All that loose dirt was picked up by gusting winds, and blown all over the middle of the continent. The air was heavy with soil. In fact, in 1935, so much topsoil was blowing about in these dust storms that cities as far as Chicago, Boston and New York had clouds of dust partially blocking out the sun!
|Dust storm. Baca County, CO, ca. 1936. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress|
The Works Progress Administration, established to help put the masses of unemployed to work, and its kid sister the Civilian Conservation Corps instituted agricultural education and planting programs. They taught farmers about soil-saving methods like contour farming and crop rotation, and assigned work forces to put shoulder to shovel planting belts of trees across the country. The tree belts were to serve as breaks against all the wind and to help hold down the soil, and one can still see remaining trees and their offspring today. I snapped a few photos on my journey (and reference the soybean photo above, as well):
|Hay bales, with line of trees in distance|
|More corn (!), and tree break in the distance|
As a city girl, I had also always assumed nothing happened in those small agricultural communities that began less than an hour from my own front door. Not knowing the history and the economics of these areas, it’s easy for the passer-through to still assume there’s not much more excitement in aggie parts than the cows getting into the corn. Armed with a little bit of history, however, the world becomes a new place.
For a great read on the Depression Era’s effects in the Dust Bowl states, see The Worst Hard Time; The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.