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The View from Here: Harvest season in the heartland

Mike Gangwer Published on 07 December 2010

As reported in my last article, I am preparing for my next deployment to Islamabad, Pakistan. I will spend a month or two at the U.S. Embassy coordinating our USDA and whole-of-government effort toward development. This will be my first deployment as a Civilian Response Corps active member.

However, I am taking a break from Washington, D.C.. My aircraft is in Willmar, Minnesota, for its annual inspection. I rented a car and drove home to Alma, Michigan, and then back to Willmar. I will fly the Mooney home to Washington, D.C., for the next two days and once again continue my preparations for Pakistan.

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Here in this article, I write of the trip across Wisconsin and Minnesota, east to west, largely through two-lane roads and, every 15 or 20 miles, a rural town just like my hometown of Alma.

It is harvest season, except that today it’s raining and I see no equipment at work. The croplands through Wisconsin are rolling terrain, dotted with stands of timber and farm homes along roadways. The harvested cornfields have already been chopped, reducing the stalk residue to a golden mat that blankets the surface soils. Many fields are already plowed, though, with exposed earth sitting on the surface.

I know farmers like to incorporate the cornstalk residue and get one step ahead for what might be a wet spring. However, the NRCS conservationist in me worries about water and wind erosion. These are valuable soils in this rain-fed environment and we must protect them as long as we expect them to produce optimal crop yields.

I see many empty livestock facilities, many gable-roofed barns that had a small milk house jutting out in the front. They show a lot of wear, and often, sections of roof are missing or doors are gone and windows are broken.

Then, around the next corner, is a modernized livestock facility. There are new barns with canvas siding that can be rolled up in warmer weather, concrete sloped in the right direction, some form of manure storage, and a nicely-kept set of adjacent buildings. The manure storage systems seem to be circular concrete tanks. I saw few earthen manure ponds, although on the few larger dairies, these exist.

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I noticed the farm equipment especially is newer and larger. John Deere dominates here, and I rarely see any older equipment. Much of what is sitting alongside the field is capable of harvesting enormous quantities of corn in a day. The supporting corn bins and over-the-road trailer boxes sit with the combine; I imagine that while the storage bins may be some miles away, the transport portion of this harvest is efficient, given this equipment scale and capacity.

The rural towns certainly show the importance of farming support. The large concrete silos that sit alongside a railroad grading, the Cenex retail center and fertilizer yard, the machine shop, the agricultural bank, and the peripheral businesses support the people here.

I am pleased to report several FFA signs, noting that an active chapter of Future Farmers of America is part of the high school. I remember receiving my American Farmer pin in Kansas City, Missouri. I was a sophomore at Cal Poly and it was nearly forty years ago.

Interestingly, I see few WalMarts or Home Depots out in these rural landscapes. My guess is, the population base is too small to support one of these. However, on the outskirts of every small city of eight to ten thousand people, there they are, and the parking lots are full.

As I crossed over into Minnesota, I found fewer livestock farms. The crop fields, largely corn and soybeans, are huge. Typically, I would see a quarter section (160 acres) planted as one field. Certainly, in the landscape around me the poorly drained soils were perennial grass or small timber. I assume that all the good soils have had timber removed from them.

I see many new flat-bottom galvanized tanks newly installed for grain storage. They will have the piping manifold for pushing grain to the tanks, and of course the grain dryer, with a propane or natural gas tank sitting nearby. I also see some outdoor storage already built. These are temporary areas with short walls, and every dozen feet or so the tunnel air ventilation carries heat away as the corn hardens and dries. Generally these facilities are tarped.

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I stopped for coffee at two Cenex truck stops and asked about this year’s crop yield. Both answers were the same: a bumper crop of both corn and soybeans. I should also report that I saw three operating ethanol plants and two very large ethanol plants that weren’t operating. One appeared to have been operational at some point. The other was not quite finished.

I have often written in these pages of my spiritual journey back to the cornfield. I am 57 years old now and 22 years gone from the farm. Yet on this blustery day of wind and near-freezing temperatures, I stopped alongside the road, Highway 12, just about 20 miles east of my destination of Willmar. I walked about a quarter of a mile into a cornfield, carefully stepping on the crop residue so my military boots would not track mud back to the rental car. And sure enough, I found the beauty of the world here, my farm child and farm adult senses once again rapt.

There is something quite extraordinary about visiting a cornfield, and in these fields, in this one in western Minnesota, I find my home, my base, and my blissful path.

For the next two days I will fly my Mooney aircraft over these fields, two miles up, and see the most productive soils in the world. I will see the patchwork of land uses, the natural flows of rivers and the forests and pastures and plowed fields and blankets of residue.

My work takes me all over the world, evidenced by my many journal articles in these pages. I will likely find cornfields in Pakistan, too. There is something quite comforting about the commonality, the simplicity, the uniformity, and the loveliness of these fields, wherever they are on the planet’s surface.

I am fortunate to work as an agricultural scientist and travel the world. Yet the most meaningful part of my life is the walks into a cornfield where I find comfort, familiarity and the natural world at my feet.

I find art here too, for in a cornfield, wherever it may be, I find the beauty of the world. My pilgrimage is, therefore, an artful and spiritual one. Science can take us only so far. When we reach that boundary, then we find this beauty.

I did today in western Minnesota, and thus I truly brought meaning into my life. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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