Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Corn Is High This Year

I’m only a city boy, but even I knew, driving through rural Wisconsin recently, near the St. Croix Valley, that the corn stalks are unusually high this year. The weather has been remarkable for some time, i.e. colder than normal in some places during the winter and summer, warmer than normal in some places in the summer and winter. Partisans for global warming have warmed up to the latter; skeptics feel cool about the former. But not being a meteorologist. I think it only proves what scientists have known about the weather for a long time, i.e. that climate is subject to many cycles, including subcycles, which often mask or imitate true long-term trends.

My point, however, is that it would appear that corn, wheat, soybeans and many if not most of the agricultural products grown in the U.S. are heading for bumper crops this year in many (but not all) regions. If it does turn out this way, and the droughts and weather-damaged crops of Europe, including especially Russia (which faces a serious wheat shortage), result in food shortages around the world, then our nation’s role as a great agricultural supplier in the world is once again spotlighted.

In the first one hundred years of our history, most Americans worked in farms and agricultural-related industries. By the end of the 19th century, however, we became known increasingly as an industrial and technological center. We continued to produce prodigious amounts of food products for ourselves and other nations, but our farm population shrunk as many farmers moved to our urban centers.

There is a romantic notion even today about the so-called family farm and its disappearance, and leftist criticism of so-called corporate farming. The latter is often attacked for its agricultural techniques of using pesticides, antibiotics and other tools that produce larger and larger yields. A charming cult of organic farming and chemical-free food, in reaction, has arisen, a well-meaning but atavistic attempt to revive conditions of the past. (Full disclosure: as a food writer, I do recognize that “organic” and “locally-produced” usually tastes better. I often praise chefs and restaurants who purchase, prepare and serve this kind of food and cuisine. However, these strategies of growing, preparing and dining on this kind of food is very expensive, too expensive to feed a nation of 300 million, and even to provide food in addition to billions more around the planet.)

Recently, it was disclosed that the “scientific” conviction that DDT caused cancer, held for decades, was inaccurate. The problem was that the UN and other world organizations banned DDT and related pesticides also for decades, and this resulted in worldwide food shortages (especially in Africa) that killed many millions from starvation. Organic and artisan food-growing has an authentic place in our culture, but we have to be honest about the fact that it is an elite phenomenon, and does not solve the larger challenge to feed everyone and reduce starvation.

This brings me to the irony of this year’s prospective U.S. harvest. Threatened by commercial and technological rivals around the world, including China, India, Korea, Japan, Russia and Brazil, it turns out that many of our rivals will not need from us electronics, airplanes and automobiles, but they will need our basic food products! (It should be noted that many of our farming methods still produce higher yields than those from other parts of the world.)

Of course, next year could be different. Harvests could be weak in the U.S. and strong in the rest of the world. But wherever it comes from, our basic food products will be as important as they were in 1776, and 1876.

I write this as a note to other city boys and girls, especially those who take food and hunger for granted. There is a true “romantic” history of the American farm, and the heroic farmers who have fed us, and billions of others, for more than two centuries. By all means, let us dine on “organic” produce, “wild-caught seafood, “grass-fed” meats, and exotic plants and fungae. But let us also acknowledge our dependence on the vagaries of the winds and clouds and the
weather fronts which move across our land, often forgotten by those of us dwelling and working in urban condos, apartments, townhouses and suburban homes in the “modern” America.

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