Stubbing the giant’s toe: thoughts on Midwestern agribusiness

Corn. Soybeans. Corn. Soybeans. Corn. Soybeans. Corn. Soybeans. Corn. Soybeans. Corn. Soybeans. Corn. Soybeans. Corn. Soybeans.

And did I mention corn?

We drove last week from Austin to Gambier, Ohio, to deliver our youngest to college, and then back to Austin. (Empty nest. Delight. Depression.) That this trip was my maiden voyage into the American Midwest was just one of many notable firsts. At about the time we crossed the line from Kentucky to Ohio, it began: fields of corn and soybeans on either side of the road stretching to the horizon, interrupted only occasionally by copses of oaks or by farm houses and barns or by grain storage units. We started to joke about it by the time we got to Gambier, smack in the middle of Ohio. After installing our daughter in her new dorm room, we turned our noses west and drove from Gambier to Clarksville, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River, in one endless, relentless, repetitive, mind- and butt-numbing 600-mile day. The joking stopped at about mile 100.

The landscape wasn’t unpleasant by any means: the apparently unlimited fecundity of the earth was impressive, as was the system that ordered such abundance. The scope of it! And we didn’t even make it into Iowa or Nebraska! No wonder the people behind this astonishing productivity are proud of it.

But there’s another way to see that landscape, and those afflicted with the double vision I wrote about in an earlier post might see the abundance as a tumor, or at least a spreading rash. The economic, cultural, and environmental damage imposed by the efficiencies of agribusiness have been well documented, most popularly by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, along with films like Food, Inc. and Fresh. The idea that inexpensive food can be grown only through the use of annuals and monocultures, efficiencies of scale, and heavy pesticide use has been seriously challenged by farmers like Joel Salatin and Will Allen. Along with the steady depletion of topsoil, the off-farm effects of conventional agriculture are also well documented, from depletion of local biodiversity to the rapidly growing “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

After spending the night in Clarksville, we drove through another scene of apparent abundance en route to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Arkansas, of course, is the home of Tyson Foods, which began as a chicken wholesaler in 1935. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I love chickens for reasons that aren’t entirely rational. Last year, we moved our chickens at Madroño from the nasty old chicken coop to the Chicken Palace and added substantially to their numbers. The Chicken Palace, built by Robert Selement, the ranch’s redoubtable manager, could probably withstand a nuclear attack and has already foiled a whole lot of skunks, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, hawks, and owls.

One of the great pleasures of a Madroño morning is to let the ladies (one of whom is named Fred, for reasons not entirely clear to us) out of the Palace and into the adjoining pasture and then to throw them the previous night’s vegetable scraps. From the moment they see me coming down the hill, they begin an almost-intelligible running commentary that steadily increases in volume and intensity. (“Can you believe she wears boots with her nightgown?” “God, I hope there’s no fennel in that scrap bowl.” “Hasn’t she ever opened a gate before? What’s taking her so long?”) Anticipation is so focused that by the time I open the door to the yard, and then the gate from the yard to the pasture, there’s a charge in the air that surely rivals the first seconds of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. No, really. Those chickens are moving. And I’m laughing. And very happy to gather (and sell) their marigold-yolked eggs. (For the reflections of a true chickenista, be sure to check out the highly readable blog posts of Carol Ann Sayle, who owns and operates Austin’s wonderful Boggy Creek Farm along with her husband Larry Butler. Carol Ann’s chicken blogs are worthy of a BBC comedy of manners with period costumes.)

Given my tender feelings toward our chickens, seeing a Tyson truck rolling down an Arkansas highway carrying its cargo of tightly packed chicken cages made me tense. When we got to Eureka Springs, with its funky old boutiques and gingerbread houses, we found a restaurant that served local produce and whose waitress told us that she was a “universal soul.” I relaxed a little, enough to start chatting with the friendly couple sitting next to us. As it turned out, the husband was a Tyson chicken farmer. The 16-year-old boy he had hired for the summer was worthless, he said, but the 14-year-old was great. He didn’t have an attitude yet, and never complained about the hours he had to spend each day picking up dead chickens.

I got tense again.

How can something that seems so clearly wrong to one person seem perfectly acceptable to another? How can I have arrived at my advanced age and still be surprised that this is so? Even though we all technically speak the same language—the Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, the Arkansas chicken farmer, and I—there seems to be an unbridgeable perceptual gulf between us.< When I’m feeling this kind of tension, I become almost ridiculously grateful for things like the National Geographic website, which describes the work of young scientists with big ideas that “show a potential for future breakthroughs.” Among the chosen for 2010—and they are a fascinating group—is an agroecologist named Jerry Glover who works for The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. His field of study, so to speak, is perennial grains, wheat in particular. Unlike annual crops, which need to be replanted every year, drain nutrients from the soil, and allow erosion when they die, perennial crops can be “harvested year after year and maintain excellent soil quality.” Glover doesn’t preach (at least not on the National Geographic website), and he doesn’t point fingers at conventional farmers and say: Bad, bad, bad. He points to the evidence in the soils he works with, which speaks for itself—and in the same dialect as the farmers whose practices I find so confounding.

Seeing the scope of those Midwestern cornfields is sobering. Thinking about the money, time, and corporate muscle they represent is daunting. Reading about the salmonella outbreak in factory farm-produced eggs is appalling. When you buy from your local farmers and humane producers, you’re allying yourself with an entity so tiny it barely stubs the giant’s toe when it gets kicked aside. But that tiny stumbling block gathers a little more heft with each kick. To mix my images, watching this process is like watching a big pot of water boil: just when you think your stove is busted or your water’s dead, you start seeing those tiny bubbles appear and get perceptibly more emphatic—especially when then are young scientists like Jerry Glover working next to the giant and turning up the heat. And if those of us who eat keep asking for it, the giant will eventually be able to put sweet organic (or at least less devastating) corn into the pot and feed the less-eroded world with it. Sounds like a fairy tale, I know, but maybe it’s more of a parable—a story with an unexpected and revelatory twist at the end. Whatever it is, just think of the possible chicken commentary on giants in the kitchen. I’ll bet their footwear choices are even more entertaining than mine.

What we’re reading
Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian
Martin: Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation

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3 Responses to Stubbing the giant’s toe: thoughts on Midwestern agribusiness

  1. Joslyn says:

    On our round trip from Austin to South Dakota we went through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa. I too was amazed at the endless fields of corn. All I could think was no wonder everything is made with high fructose corn syrup!!! Couldn't we use those endless crops of land for other useful fruits and vegetables.

    Glad you made it back home!!!

  2. Tinky says:

    Great essay–and the palace is clearly a work of art.

  3. Joybells says:

    Can the giants understand chicken-talk? I doubt it.

    Funny, I spent so much of my life driving through the vast corn, soybean, and wheat fields of the Midwest, that whenever I drive through cornfields of the DelMarVa peninsula (on our way to the Delaware shore each summer), I feel a little homesick. I don't really want to move back there, but it reminds me of thousand-mile road trips where my only responsibilities were to be relatively quiet, not spill anything, and give my parents plenty of notice when I had to pee. Ah youth!

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