Heartland lessons

When has economic prosperity made us better people?

Issue: "Midterm elections 1998," Nov. 14, 1998

I became a truck driver for five days last week, chugging 2,600 miles in a huge diesel Freightliner up, across, and then back down the nation's heartland. It was an exhilarating and depressing trip. My assignment was to pick up, from four different sites, more than four tons of old printing equipment. WORLD readers had responded generously to my earlier columns about my dream of establishing here at our offices an operating museum featuring historic tools of the printing craft. In addition to the Linotype I described before, I found two wonderful platen presses (one from the 1800s), several dozen cases of foundry type, a huge imposing table, and dozens of odds and ends. Also offered to us as a gift-but not yet picked up-are two Washington hand presses, whose design dates back to colonial days. I'll mention them again, but they were in the wrong direction for this trip. Instead, I crossed the mountains from Asheville, heading west through Tennessee and Kentucky, and then realized that the fall harvest in southern Illinois and central Missouri was in full swing. As I rumbled into Council Bluffs, Iowa, right across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb., an unusual single-vehicle accident had stalled all traffic on the northbound interstate. The truck was three times as big as my own, carrying a load of freshly picked and shelled corn to market. But the load was so heavy the truck had split completely across its overladen middle, and the golden grain poured richly across three lanes of traffic. Slightly delayed and then rerouted, I headed on up the Missouri River valley to Tea, S.D., a burgeoning suburb of Sioux Falls, where WORLD reader Mel Hartman had stayed past quitting time to help me load my first press. Then it was back east across my home state of Iowa (including a quick visit in the small town of Holland to my father's gravesite, just a few hundred yards from the grain elevator he once owned), and south along the Mississippi River to St. Louis and then to Vandalia, Ill., for three more equipment pickups. The itinerary left some enduring impressions:

  • God has made this an incredibly productive nation. Our breadbasket is bursting. Neither human beings nor animals can gobble corn and soybeans as fast as these ever more efficient farmers can grow them. Scientists at the big Midwestern universities and in the mega-corporations are working on new uses for agricultural products-like fueling the big truck I was driving, or maybe using cornstalks as a substitute for wood in the manufacture of paper for WORLD magazine. But for now, the surpluses are still enormous.
  • Along with its productivity, our society has been blessed with a remarkable infrastructure. Experts claim that Russia's natural resources are easily equal to those of the United States. But Russian farmers suffer the perpetual frustration of growing good crops only to see them rot in the fields. Throughout our own farm belt, however, gigantic trucks thunder down tens of thousands of miles of modern hard-surface roads, speeding crops to market. Railroads, gas lines, and electrical grids crisscross the countryside. Almost all this infrastructure is modern as can be, put in place for the most part since World War II.
  • Yet for all these wonders, the surpluses are leading, as they have in so many previous cycles, to economic crisis in the farmlands. Grain is being dumped on the ground and covered with plastic sheeting. So what if the fields are producing 120 bushels an acre? If you have 500 acres of corn, you might have 60,000 bushels to sell-but at $2.10 a bushel, you'll barely cover your costs. A hog farmer was inviting anyone who wanted free bacon or pork chops to stop by and pick up one or two pigs; he got more satisfaction from that, he said, than from selling them at less than his cost. Hogs last week had dropped to $21-which means those pork chops and bacon were bringing farmers just 21¢ a pound. After several prosperous years in the Midwest, the coming months will bring new bankruptcies and foreclosures. It's an old story in modern dress.
  • All this tends to leave the middle part of our nation politically confused. After decades of overinvolvement by Uncle Sam in clumsy and heavy-handed agricultural welfare, the 1990s brought adoption of the so-called "Freedom to Farm Act"-a free-market measure designed to cleanse the landscape of the clutter of federal control. It doesn't take many months of low farm prices, though, to send even conservatives in Congress scurrying back to billion-dollar bailout packages like the one included in the October budget. Last week's elections produced Iowa's first Democratic governor in 50 years, but there's not really a dime's worth of difference between the two parties these days in terms of farm policy.
  • And even if free-market economics were carrying the day in our farm belt-which it probably isn't-good thinking on other issues is equally hard to come by.

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