Our home sits on the edge of civilization where suburban homes give way to agricultural land. The farm fields extend 120 miles west to the Mississippi River, broken only by towns with a farming history; Dekalb, Dixon and Rock Island.
Right out our back door, we can jump on the two-lane roads that section thousands of acres of corn and soybean fields to the west. Each spring as the winds blow from March into May, we wait for the planting to begin. And come fall, we watch the combines mow down the crops and suck grain into trailers that carry it to giant circular commercial silos. There it is weighed and then carted off to be turned into a host of products upon which the world depends.
We spout all the necessary cliches as the crops rise in height each summer. “Knee high by the 4th of July,” we sputter about the corn in June. But more typically, we welcome the cheerful blue faces of chicory that grows in the disturbed soil along the roadside. Our eyes are so focused on the wheel ahead there is not much time to raise our heads and truly look around.
And once you’ve seen one corn or bean field, you’ve truly seen them all. Crops these days (especially corn) are genetically engineered by height and planted with such precision they resemble waves of robot armies from the prequels in Star Wars. The actual corn appears in frighteningly consistent rows about waist-high to a six-foot-tall man. I know, because I’ve stopped to pee a few rows into a cornfield. The silence in there on a hot summer day can be haunting.
It can also make you feel pretty feeble and small while riding a bike or running past those fields once they are stripped bare. The landscape opens up and the Canada geese and cranes sweep in to gorge themselves on wastrel grain.
Which brings hunters out in the fields with decoys to pop away at Canada geese. There are an estimated 60,000 Canada geese that reside in the Chicago area as permanent residents. That means the hunters are usually bagging their limit, and the golf courses wish they would shoot even more.
I’ve watched these rhythms emerge over the decades since moving to Illinois back in 1970. There were more alfalfa fields back then. That was an attempt to plug nitrogen back into the soil. But soybeans do a great job of that when alternated with corn. So the landscape has shifted to a cash crop that also repairs the rape of the prairie soil that started back in the mid-1800s.
From prairie to soy
That all seems distant now. There is only 1/10 of one percent of natural prairie left in Illinois. Prairie restoration is popular in parks and on some corporate campuses. But compared to the acres under corn and soybeans, there is no contest. That means corn gives way one year to the stubby growth of soy beans the next. It all dominates the landscape.
An article in this month’s Harper’s magazine chronicles the changing face of agriculture and how soybeans have taken over for other cash crops in the last 100 years. “In 1920, there were fewer than a million acres of soybeans planted in the entire United States. But soybean production boomed beginning in the 1930s––surpassing barley production by 1940, cotton in the 1950s, oats in the 1960s, and wheat and hay in the 1970s. This year, the number of acres planted to soybeans is expected to reach 90 million––and almost all of those acres are concentrated in the Midwest and on the Great Plains.”
It all got started when a guy named Henry Ford latched onto the idea of farm crops feeding the industrial complex. Automation lent itself greatly to farming efficiency. Unfortunately it also largely overwhelmed the concept of the family farm. Now technology drives the farming business. The family farmer wherever they exist is little more than a cog in a wheel. The rest is baldly orchestrated industrialized agriculture.
Just another cog in the wheel
One could say the same thing about every cyclist that pushes thin rubber tires down the road. We fancy ourselves independent of the forces that drive globalization. Who isn’t free when riding a bike? Yet we depend on the asphalt laid down by every township, and curse the cheapo districts that use that rough chip and seal stuff on roadways out in the country. So we stare ahead in hopes the road will smooth out again. In the meantime we bump along on the chip and seal that vibrates down to our very soul.
The ride is our planting. The smooth road and pace, our harvest.
We would have to be willfully blind to not notice the shifting face of fields here in Illinois. It isn’t much for scenery, but it is all we’ve got. So it pays to look around a little and make casual note of the shift from corn to beans as it happens.
There are the smaller treats as well. To revel in the glance at small streams coursing through channelized ditches. Then we follow the flight of a kestrel from pole to pole until it tires of the game and launches across the fields to the next fencerow.
Come winter the fields get brushed by snows if we have any at all. Last winter after an early snowfall there was nothing for more than 100 days. The dearth of snow was accompanied by relatively warm weather in January and February. Come March we got blasted with rain storms that swelled the wetlands behind our house. Soon we had wood ducks waddling up to our bird feeder to dine on the corn we’d dumped by our bird feeder.
Thus the symbiotic yin and yang of wild creatures and human existence continues. And when I see the tall figures of sandhill cranes in the fields, or hear their lonesome calls that hearken back some 60 million years in evolutionary history, the road on which I run or ride does not seem like such a lonesome place.