Thursday, August 12, 2010

Amber Waves of Grain

Having just driven approximately 1900 miles from Brooklyn across the continent, I feel I am especially qualified to sum up the Great Purpose of this Country: we are working our darndest to make sure we never run out of corn!

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
Corn also played an interesting role in the Cold War: envious of our agricultural successes, Nikita Khrushchev famously was inspired to institute a planting program in the U.S.S.R., which began with his 1955 speech on corn’s success in the American Heartland. Meeting with advisors and sending a delegation to the U.S., he then pushed collective farmers to plant acres upon acres of the stuff.

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:

Prairie grass
Fields and sky
Now, as I stated above, to the untrained eye these fields appear to be empty, but a little history lesson will tell us otherwise. Prior to the 1930s, the states that would become the Dust Bowl (CO, KS, NM, OK and TX) were divided between crop growth by long-term farmers, cattle grazing, and seemingly wasted fields of nothing but prairie grass. At least, that’s how it appeared to the eyes of amateur farmers and land speculators who started muscling in during the wet years of the late 1920s.

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 solution to this dust debacle, of course, was largely achieved by one of my favorite heroes of history: the WPA.

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
I had always assumed the trees one saw around farming plots were original-growth outcroppings drawn by pockets of water, which is sometimes true, but until recently hadn’t realized many were second-growth plantings dating from the Depression Era. This curious historical fact becomes more transparent when one considers that the trees around fields usually consist of a straight row, one tree wide—a configuration that does not happen in nature. With this new knowledge in hand, it is easy to see the physical remnants of our grandparents’ generation.

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.


  1. A drive like this makes you also aware of how the pioneers migrated across the country. Today we have speedy cars, trains and airplanes. I can only imagine how a trip back then would've been.

  2. Reading this post of yours brings to mind some documentaries I'd like to recommend to you on the subject of.......wait for it.......corn! If, for blog informational purposes, you want to learn more about the American agricultural obsession that is feed corn, you should check out "King Corn" and "Food, Inc." Both are very informative as to the state of the modern American diet, and I'll say they may just push you back toward being a veggie. I'm certainly considering it myself after watching them...

  3. Thanks Mari! I was thinking along those lines while watching miles of corn go by (that, and the few feedlots we also saw...shudder), but haven't investigated either title yet.

  4. Dag, I believe pioneers made an average of 14 miles a day. Between packing up camp every morning, stopping to cook meals on a campfire, broken axles, river crossings and pitching camp each night, I can see why! Quite a trip it must've been.