The Face of the Fields

April 10, 2014

Stubble in the fields near Collegeville, MN

Stubble in the fields near Collegeville, MN

“The hum of the wind in the tree-tops has always been good music to me, and the face of the fields has often comforted me more than the faces of men.”
— John Burroughs, from The Writings of John Burroughs, vol. 15, The Summit of the Years

I like the phrase, “the face of the fields.”  Here is the stubbly face of the Minnesota landscape near St. John’s University in Collegeville.

Barn with flag

Barn with flag

 

 

 

Field corn

Farming sure has changed over the past 50 years.  When I was growing up, my Dad’s farm was a small, 160-acre homestead and a diversified operation.  Dad grew corn, oats, alfalfa, and soybeans and also baled hay from the meadows.  He raised dairy cows, steers for beef, hogs, and chicken. (Very few farmers still raise livestock — it makes you wonder where your food comes from.)  Back then, you needed a large family to keep up with all the work.

Today it seems that farming no longer requires large families, just large (huge) machines.  On past visits to Minnesota, it was rare to even see farmers working in the fields.  But this visit coincided with corn  harvest time, so once again I saw activity in the fields as farmers brought in the corn crop.

Even a few decades ago, farmers planted just some of their small fields with corn after plowing, disking and dragging the soil.  Then, as the corn grew, they cultivated the corn a couple  of times before it grew too tall.  At harvest time, a corn picker followed the rows; the cobs of corn were caught in a grain box and then transferred to the granary or corn cribs for storage and food for the hogs.

Today virtually every field is a cornfield.  And the fields are huge!  Gone are the windbreaks of trees that used to border the fields.  With treated seed, farmers no longer need to cultivate the young plants.  At harvest time, a combine picks 12 or more rows at a time and shells the corn in the field, discharging the kernels into semi-trucks (semi-trucks!!) for immediate transport to the grain elevators.

Field corn ready for harvesting

Picking and combining the corn

This farmer still uses a grain box instead of a semi-truck.

Continuing the harvest in tandem

Large expanse of cornfield already harvested

Corn husks in the field after harvest

When I was in school, we learned that the lessons of the Irish potato famine and the Great Dust Bowl were to plant windbreaks, practice contour strip planting, rotate crops, and diversifiy.  It seems to me that today’s farmers are ignoring these lessons.

I suppose that the type of small-scale farming I grew up with has little appeal in today’s affluent society.  Back then, farm profits, if any, were modest.  We never went on vacations, wore hand-me-down clothes, could not afford a second car, and shared one bathroom.  I don’t want to bemoan change, but I have misgivings about my observations of farming in today’s world.  I believe the “corn is king” mentality is bad for the soil, bad for the future of farms, and bad for our grandchildren’s future.

Corn cob water tower near the Libby's plant in Rochester, MN

Watercolor sketch of field corn

Another watercolor sketch of corn gleaned from a harvested field