22 October 2010
Musing about corn
In the Upper Midwest, this is the season for corn mazes. (This past weekend I also drove past a "corn maze for blondes" which I didn't photograph; you'll need to use your imagination).
When I was growing up in Minnesota, a cornfield was the very essence of rural America and a defining factor for the family farm (I understand things would be different in cotton country or wheat country). Here's a great map of "land cover" in the Upper Midwest, from GIS and Science, showing the "corn belt" of the U.S. in yellow:
Some of my earliest memories are of the cornfields on my grandparents' farm (in one of those bright yellow southern Minnesota counties), and of walking with my dad down cornrows in southwestern Minnesota while hunting pheasants. We had two golden retrievers, neither of whom were properly trained, who when taken on a hunt for pheasants would rush down the cornrows and flush the birds hundreds of yards away, much to my father's frustration. Now in retrospect I'd like to think that Champ and Sport had a hidden agenda of warning the pheasants ("flee for your lives!").
During my years in urban Massachusetts, Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, and Missouri I didn't realize how much I missed the cornfields. Ten years ago our careers brought us back to Wisconsin, and we found a home on a dead-end street where the cul-de-sac terminates at forty acres of corn. I also see corn when I'm hiking, since many of my favorite trails abut farmland.
In these past ten years, I've thought I detected a change; the cornfields seemed to be increasing. At the micro level, I've noticed it where I hike; the farmers have been swinging their cultivators a bit wider each year, trying to get in a extra row or two of planting. On the macro level, I seem to see corn where there wasn't corn before. A search this morning yielded this graph:
Those data come from 2008, and confirmed all-time record acreage planted in corn. I presume the trend is continuing. Those increased plantings are not to supply the sweet corn that I love. In Wisconsin, of the 3.9 million acres of corn planted in 2010, only 83,300 acres are sweet corn; that's about 1 acre in each 40. So the way I think of that field at the end of my road is that it has one acre of "eating'" corn, and 39 acres of corn for ethanol, polymers, cattle and hog feed, gluten, corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, and other products. Now when I look at a cornfield, what I see is not a scene of pastoral tranquility; I see a factory.
I can't really say with any conviction that this is "wrong." It's just the way things are, and it reflects a reality that has changed during my lifetime. Others are not so sanguine about the changes; for an article by someone with practical experience in the corn business I would offer this letter from the Daily Yonder.
Credit for the corn maze photo to Greg Dixon at Madison.com. The other two are mine.