Wednesday, January 09, 2013
The big land of tall corn
It's virtually impossible to wander Sioux County's hinterland and imagine what the world was like a century ago, when farming was farming and not agri-business. The country has been transformed. Horses are long gone, replaced by behemoth machinery too big for blacktops. Okay, the smell hasn't changed a great deal and there are more--millions more--four-legged methane factories.
It would be interesting to know if any county of Iowa's 99 has more hog confinements than we do. If there is such a county, they'll be in second place soon enough because confinements keep popping up, so many that big broad landscapes, sans those steamy hog factories, have become really hard to find. The county's two private colleges, both of whom hunger for warm bodies, should find some meaningful way to enroll hogs since we've got so blessed many of them. Not to mention cattle. Or cows. Or chickens.
But a century ago there were more farms, many, many more farms. When people worked the land to raise a family and not get rich, there were thousands of 'em out here. No more. The story of rural life in the Upper Midwest is the same wherever you go--once upon a time there were enough children around to have a one-room school every two miles, huge families on small farms. Take a ride west of town today and tally the kids yourself. No more.
But then, nobody really wants to go back, even though tons of folks around here are quite sure yesterday's sweet rural life was, in fact, the Golden Age and that today the sky is most certainly falling.
Well, here's news for all of us Hawkeyes. Yesterday's Des Moines Register claimed that Atlas Van Lines, who should know about such things, has put Iowa--along with South Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Michigan--on its "balanced" category, meaning (trumpet voluntary here) that there are, today, as many new Hawkeyes movin' in as there are deserters. You read that right. For the first time in a long, long time, we're holding our own, reversing a demographic trend in the region that started in the 1890s. People are coming here, not just livestock.
Okay, the weather may well leave something to be desired, but global warming promises more balmy Januarys (that's not an oxymoron) like the last couple. And while you can't discount the smell emanating from all those four-leggeds, it's far better than it was years ago, when smirking, bibbed farmers lifted their noses and swore that what fouls the air only smelled like money. Iowa is a good place to live.
Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis weren't wrong, of course--small towns can be stifling. They don't have to be and not all of them are, but they can be. They tend to homogenize our differences so that on our collective way to church on Sunday morning we all hoist upon our shoulders the same Sunday coats. But they're great places to raise kids, who learn a kind of trust that's almost non-existent in city life. So come on down.
I've often wondered why more people don't move to the rural Midwest because the fact is, life can be, well, bucolic here. Really. People know each other, and they care. Honestly. They'll send over a peach pie at the drop of a hat. Have a baby and meals'll be delivered. Kids got the flu?--let me get supper. I'm not kidding. Go ahead and die, and your spouse's freezer will fill with cake pans heavy with arrangements of noodles and cream of this or that soup, enough lasagna for most of Naples, meatloaf forever. Desserts can swarm over the kitchen like a plague, I swear, sinful homemade torts festooned with real whipped cream, deserts to die for. These things happen. Often.
How about this? We've got like zero unemployment. The U.S. of A. suffers through its most horrible economic recessions since the Great Depression, millions look in vain for jobs, but not here. Abandoned farms are all but gone, and just about everyone who makes hay in the country has put on an addition or built anew in the last few years. Money-wise, we're doing better than well. You can't count the confinements. I honestly wish you could.
And rural and small-town life is not a cultural wasteland. Okay, we may not have the Concertgebouw, but if you've ever been to a high school orchestra concert, you know we're trying. While our worship of high school athletics may border on sacrilege, they offer finer recreation than what's available on a lot of city streets.
Look, you and I both know that no one really believed Kevin Costner--this is Iowa, and the Lord knows it's not heaven; but that someone out there has begun to think of us as something more than a 300-mile wide cattleyard is a good, good thing.
I say, welcome, stranger. How's about we bring over some ham balls?
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:34 AM