Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Crop Tours

After talking to my father, sister-in-law and brother along Mississippi's Gulf Coast and absolutely NOT worrying about Hurricane Isaac bearing down on them, I thought I'd describe one of my favorite bits of my new farm life: Crop tours.

Maybe once or twice a week, about a hour before sunset, Brent pulls up in one of his many pick-ups (usually the black beater) and says, "Maybe take a crop tour?"

"Looks like the (weed) sprayer wasn't turned on yet."
This is where we drive around "in squares" and get intimate with the produce while measuring the progress of other farmers. This is really when the teacher-student relationship blossoms and the fields become my classroom.

"Seeder wasn't turn on yet", hence, the big empty spot.
Although automation has definitely taken a hold of agriculture, there are still some old school measurements that Brent, and farmers of his generation, live by. Namely, "If the ground cracks enough that you can drop a 12" wrench - and not get it back - you got trouble."

We need rain!
"Kelly Mac's got a nice, even field. See how most of the beans are yellow with only a little bit of green? That's what you want," Brent tells me. "If it's too green, the beans aren't formed yet. If the pods are too dry, the combine might rattle 'em and they'll pop. You have to pick the right time to harvest." 

Soybean field, just off County 1, near Walhalla.
Brent's soybeans, nearly ready for harvest.

Soybean pods, in their youth.
 We go down back roads, along culverts, through cooleys and border fences. At least once, he'll pull right alongside a wall of corn and reach in from where he sits in the pick-up, and pull in a few ears.  

"Count the rows," he says. I count 19. "Nope. Count 'em again." Ah, I was mistaken, there were 18 rows. "Yup. He says. Always 18 rows."

 The corn he is talking about is GMO, grown for ethanol and/or livestock feed, not for you and I to eat. In fact, I don't even think our mouths or digestive systems could handle it.

"Edible corn," he once told me, "is a niche market."

He's dead right. When you hear the word "corn" you think of summer sweet corn on the cob, right? But that romantic variety doesn't even register on this recent graph from Big Picture Agriculture:

Fact is, corn is used in so many ways, we're surrounded by it. I remember Curt Ellis, one of the co-directors of the documentary, "King Corn" speaking at the MOSES conference earlier this year. He recalled a '80s-era bit by comedian Steve Martin that was prescient.

"In this routine, he theorized that when you go to a McDonald's or any fast food joint, the food is really just different shaped forms of the same stuff and they just truck in tubes of 'food matter', ready for sculpting," said Curt. "Turns out, he was predicting the future. Today, it's all corn, just in different forms." Here's a brief snapshot of corn products:

* Food: Cereals, snack foods, salad dressings, soft drink sweeteners, chewing gum, peanut butter, hominy grits, taco shells and other flour products, specialty corn including white corn, blue corn and popcorn.
* Animal feeds: Distiller's dried grain, gluten feed and meal, high-oil feed corn for cattle, swine, poultry and fish.
* Industrial products: Soaps, paints, corks, linoleum, polish, adhesives, rubber substitutes, wallboard, dry-cell batteries, textile finishings, cosmetic powders, candles, dyes, pharmaceuticals, lubricants, insulation, wallpaper and other starch products.
* Fermentation products and byproducts: industrial alcohols, fuel ethanol, recyclable plastics, industrial enzymes, fuel octane enhancers, fuel oxygenates and solvents.

 Early in the season, Brent grabbed a few cobs so I could see how evenly they formed. He showed me what to look for and explained how each strand from the silks leads to a specific kernel, fertilizing and nourishing it along, like a very thin umbilical cord.

You can see which kernels didn't get fertilized.
Inspecting the corn over the weekend, Brent explained, "You want to look for the dents, that's a good sign. It means the corn is almost ready."
Lots o'dents!
"Edible beans", I've come to learn, is Brent's term for Pinto beans. I've only ever seen them in their final form, like most people, but had never seen them as Mama Nature intended:

"Them beans got to be slick and striped."
When the beans themselves accidentally get split open, the split pods get sold at a lower rate to the government, who then sells them as refried beans, mostly in the form of government aid to other countries. 

Every so often on these crop tours, we run across an achingly bored Border Patrol officer. We chatted with one fellow the other night for nearly 30 minutes - he was sad to see us go. He'd once worked along the Mexican border  and was used to catching 1,000 people a month. "We haven't seen anyone trying to cross in years," he sighed. "The only thing we've found was a shoe from last year. Only one. I wonder what the story is there." 
Chatting up the border patrol.
"Oh, that belongs to my grandson," says Brent. "They were running around at the border last year and they came back with one less shoe." 

 "Well, that solves that mystery," said the agent, wistfully. I almost felt bad for him.


Anonymous said...

Just fascinating! Thank you for sharing this journey!


Heather Clisby said...

Thanks for stopping by! See you this winter.