Plants and Politics

Where Fossil Fuels And Fertilizers Rule

I'm on assignment in southern Illinois, spending time with an insightful and open-hearted farmer named Dave Burt. He's likely to be the first person I'll be profiling for a future Morning Edition series with the working title, AMERICAN MOXIE: HOW WE GET BY.

Dave's intelligence and compassion are inspiring: his love of the land where his grandparents farmed is incredibly touching and his understanding of the global marketplace positively mind-boggling. But I won't lie. The ways in which he and other farmers around here make a living depresses me.

This part of the world is all soybeans and corn; you can drive for miles, seemingly days, and see nothing remotely resembling an ecosystem. Instead, the landscape is dominated by "Roundup Ready" crops completely dependent on chemical fertilizers and the mega-vehicles needed to sow, reap and move product to "market".

Making a living as a farmer here is stressful and high risk. The soil is stingy, the weather often brutal, the prices of everything sky high. If not for customers like ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), many of these hard-working, self-employed Americans would go broke.

That said, as I look at the monstrous trucks and tractors involved in these farm operations and the Rocky Mountain-high tons of chemicals needed to sustain this way of life, the idea of minimizing one's global footprint — whether by eating locally or reusing paper grocery bags — seems merely quaint and faddish in the face of such entrenched, overwhelming odds.

Like I said. Depressed.

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It is, but it isn't. Eating locally and reducing one's global footprint are ideals that everyone should attain. But as a part of globalization, Mr. Burt's farm is helpful and needed. Just think about the odds that some of the harvested crops from his farm have gone towards helping someone in need of food in another country or continent. The chemicals he needs are probably required because of the advance in food science and genetically modified seeds. I dunno, I'm only assuming here, but please don't be depressed Ketzel! I only wish that farming as a career was more promoted in higher education.

Sent by Kellee Kess | 11:37 AM | 9-25-2008

It's a legitimate story. And it exists whether you tell it or not. So, of course, you might as well so folks know whats going on out there.

As depressing as it is you can at least console yourself with the knowledge that there are folks like the Boutard's in the Willamette Valley that are very successful and who have nothing to do with farmzilla. We are seeing the collapse of out of balance megabanking right now and maybe, at some point, we will see the collapse of out of balance megafarming too. The fertilizer that is put on all that corn and soybeans is washing down the Mississippi and creating a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The corn is gov't subsidized and is being used as much, if not more, for fuel than food. And in the long run, ethanol based on corn won't be the solution because greenhouse gases are still produced when it's burned. And corn is not an efficient base material for the fuel. Too bad ADM doesn't love sugar beets as much as it loves corn. Corn is more patriotic.

You probably remember the movie, "Koyaanisqatsi". Life out of balance. The format of the movie kind of gets on my nerves now but the concept of the word is more relevant than ever. Humans being of nature but wanting to live apart from and over nature.

Moxie is great but look at all it takes to beat that corn out of the land. As impressive as miles of tall green corn plants may look, that is an almost sterile landscape. But the story is still important. There's a huge ripple effect and the implications will be vital to us all.

Is anybody out there with moxie growing hemp? Not the smoking kind but the industrial kind. Now there's a useful plant that its just ridiculous we have to ignore.

I'm always impressed with how upbeat and unfazed NPR reporters can be while relaying the most disconcerting information. Bring back the story. It's what you do. And things will make sense again when you get home.

Sent by burro | 1:24 AM | 9-26-2008

Burro, you're an inspiration. Thank you.

Sent by Ketzel Levine | 9:23 AM | 9-26-2008

You're welcome Ketzel. I'll be looking forward to your reports. It's great to know that Mr. Burt is having such success with his sunflowers. There's a lot of future birdsong in that field. That's good news.

Sent by burro | 10:26 AM | 9-26-2008