After being in Wisconsin for almost two weeks (plus a beautiful weekend in Minneapolis), I’m heading to the southern Midwest (SoMiWe, it would be called if it were an NYC neighborhood) for a week: Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. After a few lovely hours with a rabbit farmer south of Madison this afternoon, I’m spending tonight at the Super 8 in Mendota, Illinois, in the middle of basically nowhere and oceans of corn. Naturally, I’m fascinated.
I was expecting strip malls and chain stores when I got off the highway, but instead there are crickets out the window, over the sound of the interstate a half mile off. It’s a pretty nice town of about 7,400, with an actual, if slightly shabby, downtown, though everything was closed on Monday night, and some beautiful houses on the side streets. I’ve passed through other towns of this size and smaller not looking this good, but I imagine there’s decent employment here, given the Archer Daniels Midland plant (“supermarket to the world,” ADM used to call itself, not liking to talk about how it was convicted of price-fixing, to say nothing of how its commodities trading almost certainly contributed to the 2009 food price crisis) and enormous Del Monte facility, which sponsors the annual Mendota Sweet Corn Festival, and maybe processes a lot of its canned sweet corn right here. There is also a whole mess of railroad operations in the middle of town, including apparently three Amtrak stops a day (!), and connections to the two plants. Driving around here, you almost feel like railroads matter — like it’s the ’50s (from my dad’s stories of a Central Illinois childhood punctuated by steam engines) or some alternate reality that still includes huge agribusiness but has at least developed a sensible transportation system.
The hotel here is surrounded on two sides by McDonalds, Taco Bell/KFC, a small truck stop and weigh station, and so many trucks. One parking lot up the street a bit was full of empty animal-transport trucks, like for chickens or hogs; I’m so curious where they came from, where they dropped the animals, and where they’re headed.
The other two sides are bordered by corn, of course. I got dinner at Ziggie’s Family Room diner, and after accidentally getting my order to go (standard vegetarian road food: grilled cheese and a milk shake; this was a solid version, if no doubt also made almost entirely of corn products), I finished my shake out by the edge of the field. I had brief visions of old ball players emerging from the rows, but no such luck. With my food systems-focused brain and driving past millions of acres of corn, I interpret, “If you build it, they will come,” as being applicable more to ag policy than baseball dreams anyway.
Back in my room after dinner, I watched the sun finish setting beyond the fields and the Mendota water tower and listened to the swallows. I started out today having breakfast with Jim, a brilliant and soft-spoken Wisconsin dairy farmer and writer, and my host for much of this trip. Over cereal with garden strawberries and his milk, we talked about skyrocketing land prices, pesticides, and soil quality. Some of the rich river bottom soils out here are so good, he said, “I bet you could take a trained monkey and get a pretty good corn crop out of ’em.” And so good that they’re still holding up after having chemicals poured on them for decades — at least for now, at least sort of. I’ve had moments in the Midwest in the last two weeks of almost forgetting that there’s so much environmental disaster out here. There are birds and racoons and trees (sometimes) and just so many shades of green that it’s hard to remember that there’s also so much poison and monoculture killing any diverse life. Here in Mendota, the soil’s still allowing this patch of northern Illinois to maintain a semblance of quiet chirping country nighttime, but thinking about ADM up the road, it’s also hard not to wonder for how long.