In southern Minnesota, the Jolly Green Giant soars more than fifty-five feet above Interstate 90. Though modeled after the Green Giant brand “mascot,” he was erected by the Blue Earth community and stands for the prominence of crop production in the area. Many farmers here make a good living from the soil, but often at a cost to the health of the environment and themselves that is not so jolly.
Through hail and thunderstorm, I drive over the flat plains of my home state. In Martin County, I talk with a resident who says, “This is the biggest ag’ county in the state, maybe the whole country.” Evidence of agriculture is all around us in vast brown fields. It’s April and the bare dirt awaits cultivation of corn and soybeans.
Average farm size around here is 443 acres. The chemicals and machinery of modern agriculture mean bigger farms with fewer workers required. The population of the 730 square mile county is just over 20,000 and has been decreasing.
Cancer, however, is on the rise. The county lies west of Rochester, home of the famous Mayo Clinic. “At Mayo Clinic,” the local guy says, “they see cancer and they say, oh, yeah, you’re from Martin County.” Farmers here tend to make liberal use of insecticides, pesticides, and all those “cides” that can also lead to subtle, slow, unintended homicide and suicide. They seem to be killing themselves and their neighbors with poisons.
Do such toxins remain in frozen peas and corn we buy at the grocery store? That concern is one reason I buy organic when I can.
According to Scorecard that keeps track of pollution by area, Martin County is known as one of the worst counties in the United States for “air releases of suspected carcinogens,” along with endocrine toxicants and immunotoxicants. In other words, substances designed to disrupt hormonal and immune systems in pests can affect us, too.
While people on huge combines and tractors profit off the land, they repay Mother Nature by altering just about every inch of her. How do people earn an income while protecting an ecological system? Is recovery possible? Martin County is forever changed and will probably never be the prairie land it once was. The bison and other factors that helped create the prairies are too long gone for that. Poet Wendell Berry writes, As the machines come and the people go/ the old names rise, chattering, and depart. We humans have the knowledge and ability to live well with the land. Berry says, do not tell it to a machine to save it. Reach back to other times and reach out to other cultures, beyond the corporate giants to people themselves. The land teaches us, if we watch and listen. If we take time.
Landscapes are slow to change, but we humans can change today by treating environments as our communities rather than our commodities. In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold wrote that our land ethic depends on our attitude: “man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.” There is no separation between our health and the health of the soil, air, and water upon which we depend.
Let me end on a hopeful note for Earth Day (and Week). The Martin County resident tells me he’s raising bees now. He thought about the needs of the bees and started growing native plants for them to visit and pollinate. One conscious, sensible, loving step leads to another, and that is jolly good.
Here’s the Kingsmen’s goofy song about the Green Giant, ho ho ho.