Tag Archives: Farms

With Modern Agriculture, Green Giant Not So Jolly

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.

Green Giant

Green Giant

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.

Midwest farm

Midwest farm


Here’s the Kingsmen’s goofy song about the Green Giant, ho ho ho.

“Charlotte’s Web” inspired by animals–and what they produce

Wilbur loves Charlotte.

I’m writing this blog post on the birthday of E.B. White (July 11, 1899- October 1, 1985) and remembering the pure pleasure of reading his 1952 children’s book, Charlotte’s Web.  It turns out that both Elwyn Brooks White and his character, Wilbur, were fond of warm manure, that inextricable aroma and texture of farm life.

A new book by Michael Sims, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, provides a hundred ways in which White connected with nature.  Of course, a book about a spider named Charlotte and a pig named Wilbur began in nature; what is fascinating is how addicted White was to domesticated nature.

He was a shy, quiet, and sometimes depressed person and, though he tried therapy, he found his greatest solace and healing in the barn.  Growing up, his family in Mt. Vernon, New York had stables with horses, pigs, geese, hay, and manure.  Little Elwyn loved watching and listening to the goings-on there and later wrote about himself, “This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people”  (Sims, p. 4).  As an adult, he and his wife, Katharine, bought a farm in Maine where they worked on their writing and editing.  White wrote, “Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did” (p. 132).  The Whites raised pigs and chickens and enjoyed watching spiders spin their webs in the doorways of their big, white barn.

In the book, the manure pile was a big part of Wilbur’s world, as it was a big part of White’s experience of country living.  “There is no doubt about it,” he wrote (p. 195), “the basic satisfaction in farming is manure, which always suggests that life can be cyclic and chemically perfect and aromatic and continuous.”

I notice in my own posts on this blog that various forms of manure have come up, including that of turtles and birds.  The truth is that encountering scat is part of being outdoors and gives us clues as to who is doing what and where.  My first chore when I arrive at our cabin is to sweep the guano off the stoop.  Bats sleep in the peak of the covered entry and poop like mad.  Someday I’ll also clean off the robin and phoebe droppings that whitewash the log walls where they build their nests.  Lately, I’ve had to clean off the dock some mounds packed with crunched-up bits of crayfish shell, probably from a raccoon.

As David Gessner wrote in his book, Sick of Nature, nature writers talk a lot about scat, but are supposed to be refined about it.  White put it front and center in his book, starting a draft, before there were any human characters involved, with: “Wilbur was a small, nicely-behaved pig living in a manure pile in the cellar of a barn” (p. 195).  We write what we are called to write, as Charlotte did in her web in order to save Wilbur’s life.

Birth and death, intake and output, animals and manure–you cannot have one without the other.  For White, it was part of “a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung” (p. 188).