Countryside Consternation

Because my dad grew up on the farm, he loved the county fair. Even though he left the farm in his late teens after World War I (like all his five brothers) the farm, as they say, never left the boy. All life long he’d go to the cattle barns at the county annual fair to pat a few hindquarters of bulls and cows and pet the faces of the horses—especially the draft horses like those he used to harness and drive as a kid. A number of times we made the long drive to Chicago to attend the International Stock Show at the Union Stockyards on Halstead Street. Once we even considered eating at the exclusive Stock Yard Inn at the stockyards where you actually picked out your ultra-fresh steak from a cooler stocked with meat that had been cut in the slaughterhouse right next door. We couldn’t afford to eat there, but we did get to see one of Chicago’s former iconic restaurants. It and the stockyards are long gone.

Henry Ohlman

A side story: My dad came home one August evening from work with a bit of a limp. Mom asked him about it. With a sheepish grin, he lifted a pant leg to show a very bad bruise on his shin. “I went down to the fairgrounds at lunch,” he explained, “to see the cattle. And I forgot one of the cardinal rules: don’t stand immediately behind a horse or a bull when you pat it; you might get kicked. Man, that bull just about broke my leg!” A couple days later when he came home, he was chuckling when he came in the door. “I just had to go by the cattle barns again,” he confessed. “And I saw a man standing by the bull that kicked me. I told him to be careful, and lifted my pant leg to show him my bruise. The guy said, ‘I know; I own him!’ and he lifted both of his pant legs. Each shin had a bruise just like mine!”

Dad always enjoyed rides in the countryside—especially in late summer. He’d tell us, “On hot days like this, boys, you could almost hear the corn growing.” In the spring he would have instructed us, “You plant corn when the leaves of the oak are the size of a mouse’s ear.” We’d get farmish wisdom like that all year long.

Attending small town fairs in West Michigan and having a father who grew up on the farm are part of the reason I love the outdoors and enjoy the seasons. As we travel around, I still try to identify the crops that are growing in this or that field. I know my dad would be amazed to see the crops here in Michigan this year. It’s been a fantastic growing year: ample rain and lots of heat and sunshine. Yesterday I was alone, so I decided to take my camera and go for a ride in the country. The best visual treat of the afternoon was provided by two sandhill cranes that were feeding next to the road. What a feast they were having at a virtual banquet table: big grasshoppers caught out in short wheat stubble where they had no place to hide.

My consternation? That came because of what I know about the soybeans and corn grown here (and all over the world). My dad would have been astounded to see hundreds of acres of corn and beans, lush and luxuriant, with scarcely a weed to be seen. The seeds sown on these fields have been genetically modified not only to grow larger and more uniformly, but also to resist herbicides that are dumped by the ton on these fields to control the weeds. Pesticides too have been applied in abundance. And because these chemicals tend to sterilize soil, more tons of fertilizers and soil enhancers have been applied. Typically a fistful of soil contains billions of microorganisms to help plants grow, but chemicals pretty much burn them out. In a sense industrial farming is practicing a sort of reverse alchemy: using gold to turn soil into sand.

Here’s another sad fact. The soybeans I saw were almost certainly provided by one company. This company has made billions of dollars by genetically modifying soybeans to resist their herbicide. This herbicide will kill virtually any other plant but soybeans—their soybeans. And when a farmer agrees to buy the company’s seeds, he must agree not to save any of their legally-bound beans as seed for the next year: what farmers have naturally done for thousands of years. They have to buy again from the same seed supplier the next spring. Because the seed provides such a rich harvest, in just 12 years soybeans with the company’s patented gene went from being 2% of the US crop to 90%! (1996-2008). Now many farmers simply have two choices regarding growing soybeans: Use their seeds or don’t grow soybeans. The reality is similar with corn, where, however, there are a few more major seed producers. The story of this is told in the chilling documentary “Food, Inc.” It’s been out a few years, but I first saw it yesterday morning—just before my country drive.

A hundred years ago my dad and his brothers were planting corn with those nifty hand corn-planters now sold as curiosities in flea-markets and antique shops all over the country. Memories are still vivid of my protesting to my dad about how hard and tedious it was to plant a few rows of sweet corn in our garden using such a device—and then having to use a hoe or hand cultivator to weed them. After a year or two, he gave up on the garden. Supermarkets (which now on average sell over 40,000 different products) made growing your own food an unnecessary bother. And that leads to another sad story: Our average meal today travels some 1500 miles from farm to supermarket—instead of being hand-carried in baskets a few yards from the garden to the kitchen. We are indeed in the “brave new world.”

As a mild protest, I went to a local farm market after yesterday’s drive and got most of the ingredients for some awesome Southern gumbo. Locally grown cantaloupe topped with locally produced (and wonderfully good) Hudsonville Ice Cream was purchased for dessert. I suppose if we all protested in like manner, we might help to turn at least some of our “growing medium” back into soil.