You can find a stunning photo of the kingdom of corn in, of all places, the Sunday New York Times travel section Jan. 7. I stared at that photo on and off for three days, transfixed by what it silently said for all of us who know corn. In the photo, taken in rural Iowa, there’s one lonely farmhouse, surrounded by winter corn stubble as far as the camera can see. Miles in every direction of nothing—nothing — but corn stubble on low rolling hills, as forlorn a sight of human habitation as an artist could depict to me. To a corn farmer the scene probably brings more good feeling than bad because the thickness of the stubble indicates a very good crop there last year. All that stubble also indicates that little erosion will occur there over winter and as it decays and is worked into the soil, the fodder will add to the organic matter content.
But there is an ominous message in that photo too. The photographer could easily have taken a similar picture just about anywhere in Iowa where the farmhouse would be abandoned. Corn has been replacing farmsteads for fifty years at least because it looks like an easy and comparatively uncomplicated way to make money but requires constant expansion to do so, like all industrial businesses. Over the years pasture and oats and even wheat dropped out of the kingdom of corn. Grazing livestock and fences disappeared. Woodlots vanished. Crossroad and village stores closed. The number of farmers dropped precipitously. Over 60% of the land today is owned by non-farming investors. In fact, 21% of Iowa farmland is owned by people who do not even live in Iowa. What is particularly rankling about these figures is that some 40% of that corn is grown to feed piston engines. This is a travesty especially now that gasoline is so cheap. Everyone I talk to except corn farmers themselves admits it. Ethanol from corn is not a sustainable process. It is not profitable without subsidies. But our leaders, neither Republican nor Democratic, have the moral fiber to oppose the corn kingdom because they believe that without all that corn, the farm economy of the midwest would collapse at least for awhile.
That is the history of corn kingdoms. The Mayan civilization was a corn kingdom and it collapsed. The Mississippi mound building culture was a corn culture and then it collapsed. Corn is such a wondrously productive crop that we can’t resist growing more and more of it, even on land not fit for row crop cultivation, until it destroys the diverse ecology that keeps nature thriving.
I know parts of Iowa quite well because as a younger journalist I travelled there doing stories for Farm Journal magazine. I have friends there still and write for Draft Horse Journal which is based there. I don’t get homesick in Iowa because it is so much like my part of Ohio, only the houses in rural areas are closer together here. I would have difficulty in taking a picture of that much acreage of corn stubble here that did not include more than one house. But the story is the same in both places. We have a painting on our living room wall by local artist Pat Gamby which depicts a lonely farmhouse in our county surrounded right up to the porch with corn stubble. The barns are gone, the pasture is gone, the garden is gone, the people are gone and the house is abandoned.
Our hills do not generally stretch out as long as the ones in Iowa and so in the spring, runoff water on those Iowa hills can gain much more speed as it goes downhill. I have seen gullies in Iowa, even in this so-called no-till era, that are plainly horrifying. This is the fallacy behind all the good talk and practice of winter cover crops and true no-till. In reality many of these fields, no matter how well protected in winter, are so often worked up fine and level and beautiful for good germination in the spring and then, if heavy rains fall, gullies open up than can swallow a tractor.
We have discussed this subject regularly on this blog. Responders to my posts have mixed feelings, as I do. I certainly couldn’t disagree with “daddio7” a few weeks ago when he pointed out that I was “probably wrong” in predicting the end of factory farms. As he reminded me, “we need factory food farms for the same reason we need factories for everything else.” As he remarked, we could no more survive on organic food from small farms that we can provide a handmade car for everyone. But I also agree with Stanton in his rebuttal, that cheap factory food is more costly in the long run and that although small farms are not very profitable they can make some money and do it without government subsidy. And not-for-profit garden farming could provide a lot more sustenance if we really got serious about it.
There is surely something to be said for both opinions. All I know for sure is that something significant is happening in the way society looks at food production and it does not favor large scale industrial farming. I wonder, if 30 years from now, endless stretches of corn stubble and abandoned farmhouses will be as common as they are now.