Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Corn Country and The Land of Lincoln

For the past two weeks my folks and I have travelled 1,400 miles through parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. On our travels we've driven by a lot of cornfields, especially in Iowa. Last year Iowa farmers grew 1.8 billion bushels of corn on 13.7 million acres. So, there really is a lot of corn in Iowa. Each acre of corn produces about 172 bushels. Corn is selling at $6.88 a bushel as of today; two years ago it was $3.41 a bushel. You can see why farmers are growing a lot of corn and you can see why the value of an acre of farmland is over $6,000.
Farmers usually rotate fields between corn and soybeans, although we saw far fewer fields of soybeans.  This, despite "bean" prices of over $11 per bushel. However, soybeans yield only 50 bushels per acre, so corn remains the favored crop to plant.

Soybean plants struggling with too much rain in spring 2013

Our route through Iowa took us to the Ames and the home of Iowa State University, where I attended graduate school and met Srini. The town and campus have grown considerably since we left in 1988. Today there are many more campus buildings, wider roads through campus, housing developments where there were once hog farms, and campus town, where we used to hang out, seemed seedier. I liked it better 25 years ago.

Iowa State University Memorial Union--one of the few places on campus
that still looked familiar 25 years later

We crossed the mighty Mississippi River in Burlington, Iowa, after a brief tour of the historic downtown set on the river bluffs. As with many such places, the downtown has lost much of its economic strength of years gone by, and now expands westward with more hotels, chain restaurants and shops, a casino, and other less interesting attractions (in my opinion). The natural setting of this town seems lost to a new era.

Leaving the Mississippi River behind, we headed to Springfield, Illinois to visit relatives and to tour some of the Lincoln historic sites. We toured the Lincoln Museum that includes full-scale replicas of Lincoln's boyhood home and the White House. The museum offers plenty of history lessons and life-like reenactments. As with most such attempts at making history interesting to visitors, sometimes the stories are simplified or re-cast in 21st century style, not favored by some critics. We spent nearly 3 hours there and enjoyed it all.

Meet the Lincoln family

My Dad joins a conversation between
Ulysses S. Grant and another Civil War general

John Wilkes Booth - the villain who ended Lincoln's life

Lincoln's Tomb in Springfield Illinois

My Dad's family is from south-central Illinois--a place we visited often as I was growing up, especially during the hot, humid days of July and August. By late summer the corn would be over our heads, as tall as small trees when you are a kid. This is the first time that I remember visiting in June, when the corn is not yet knee-high. Dad inherited a few acres in the small town of Modesto (population 300 or maybe 100). Rather than grow corn, he has rented the field to a local farmer to grow alfalfa, helping to diversify the crops to benefit birds, pollinators, and soil health.

Dad's alfalfa field, recently cut and baled into
huge, round bales, amidst a sea of corn.

Our midwest tour is coming to an end. We've seen cranes and corn and capitols, crossed big rivers, traveled back in time to visit graves of grandparents and Civil War era sites, driven through the bluff country along the Mississippi River and across the pancake-flat farmland of central Iowa. It takes time to appreciate the subtleties of this territory, the small undulations in topography, the vast expanses of treeless land. I still wonder about the near complete transformation of this once tall grass prairie to a monoculture of corn and to industrial agriculture. At the same time, I'm uncertain how we as a nation could change the way this land is now managed. That will take a new era.

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