Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Down on the Farm
The world through the eyes of Farm Week
February 3, 1983
I have long regarded American farm aid programs as an instance of politicians bribing their voters. No economic sector, apart from war industries, is as reliant on government support (in the form of low-cost loans, price guarantees, and infrastructure investments) as agriculture, yet farmers still pose as heroes of American individualism and rugged independence.
I couldn't resist tidying up the original a bit before posting it here.
For all their broadening influence, the scattering of days I spent on my grandfather’s farm as a boy in Beardstown no more made me a farm boy than a package tour makes one a Parisian. I have no money invested in pork belly futures, nor do I lie awake at night fretting about outbreaks of Setoria brown spot or pod and stem blight; my pods and stems are immaculate, as even my casual friends will attest. And while the news that Turkey bought two million bushels of U. S. corn in the hope of capturing the Middle East egg market buttresses my opinion that the world is an interesting place, it has no immediate personal relevance.
In spite of my remoteness from things agricultural, however, I await the arrival each week of Farm Week as eagerly as a dentist awaits his broker’s call. Farm Week is a newsletter published by the Illinois Agricultural Association (the conglomeratized Illinois Farm Bureau) out of Bloomington, Illinois. In its editorials, Farm Week hews the Farm Bureau party line, which may be summarized (only a little unfairly) as Free Enterprise, Free Trade, and Free Help When Those Don’t Work. However, it is in its news columns that it really reveals itself. Farm Week links more than 40,000 of Illinois agriculture’s best and brightest in hamlets like Loami and Polo with the commodity markets of Hong Kong, the corridors of the State Department, even the back rooms of research labs where such mysteries as “silent heat” in hogs are plumbed.
Naturally, one’s eye is caught first by news of the more exotic aspects of farm life. Without Farm Week, I might have dwelt forever in ignorance of the fascinating battle waged among the USDA, the National Pork Producers Council, and the American Meat Institute over whether the product “turkey ham” might more honestly be labeled “ham-cured turkey thigh meat.” Or why farmers prefer one-pole utility lines. Or what rights one enjoys vis a vis balloon chasers. Or—since the modern mechanized farm is crammed with corn augers and other instruments of mayhem which would make certain South American colonels pale—how to wrap detached fingers in iced towels. As one especially helpful Farm Week how-to piece put it, “The proper recovery of severed body parts is critical to reattachment.”
Any naif who expects the news in a farm paper these days to be irremediably local would be disappointed by Farm Week. Illinois corn and soybean farmers export more than half of their crops. Farm Week thus offers more foreign news in its eight pages—Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Sydney, Geneva, Peking, Moscow, Port au Prince—than the typical Illinois urban daily newspaper does in eighty.
True, it is a smallish globe which Farm Week seeks to encircle. The coverage of the USSR seldom strays beyond the nation’s chronic failure to meet its crop production targets. Mexico, one reads, is aiming for grain self- sufficiency, while Argentina is alleged to have “leaked” grain through the U.S. embargo of the Soviets. Haitian refugees washed ashore on the pages of Farm Week because of fears that they might bring African swine fever into the U.S. in uncooked food scraps made from infected animals—an aspect of the international refugee problem which the daily press, to its shame, has overlooked entirely.
Indeed, there is little in the pages of Farm Week to remind one of those simpler days when farmers would plow a little, plant a little, butcher the odd hog, and, when he yearned for riper amusements, vote Democrat. For example, farmers live on borrowed money, with the result that one reads more in Farm Week about LaSalle Street than about Main Street; when a farmer talks about putting his money into a piggy bank these days, he probably means the hog futures market.
But even these mysteries pale next to farm programs. The farmer lives in more intimate relation with Washington than any other citizen save perhaps the welfare mother of legend—to whom he has been unflatteringly compared. The ties that bind include RCPs and RAPs, MBTs and FmHAs, target prices and paid set-asides, deficiency payments and loan plans. Reading Farm Week is like reading Le Monde equipped only with high school French; one gets the general drift of things, but the details are hidden by clouds of meaning. It may be that the survival even in these barren days of what H. L. Mencken once called “the complex fiscal imbecilities of the cow State John Baptists” owes itself to this very fact. As any congressman will attest, close scrutiny of farm programs causes a dull ache behind the eyes which causes one to pass us quickly as possible into the clearer air of cost-plus military procurement contracts or the fevers of the M-l.
Of course, government price supports and kindred subsidies such as the newly unveiled “PIK” program (under which farmers who agree not to plant corn next year will be paid with corn they planted last year) are typically advanced as necessary protection for the family farm. The family farm, as we know, is our nation's bulwark against corporate agriculture and the prospect of OPEC-like cold- cut embargoes. Maybe it was once, but these days many a family farm in Illinois is the worth as much as a mid-sized manufacturing firm, which of course is what it is.
The problem is that the biggest threat to the family farm may just be family farmers. Consider the vexing problem of surplus. Farm Week is filled with talk of surplus. Predictions of record harvests. Woeful summaries of unsold crops carried over from previous years. The latest mastications from traders about the effects of surplus on prices. Proposals to convert surpluses to alcohol. How to ship it, where to store it, how to finance its storage. Like the slag heap in Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, the heaps of unsold corn loom over the small towns of the Midwest, threatening to obliterate each of them in one last, crushing cornslide.
And how did farmers come by this unhappy plenty? Soil has something to do with it, and the blessing of weather. The rest of the world has enjoyed an unnatural freedom from disaster, so that both U.S. customers and its competitors are growing more of what they need. That plus a strengthening dollar abroad, improved productivity among foreign farmers . . . the news is unrelievedly bad.
In fact the universe for which Farm Week is a baedeker is a surprisingly dismal place. Farmers feed off calamity. Nothing so cheers a farmer like news of disaster—a drought in the steppes, a wet spring in Brazil, famine in Asia. A premature frost which reduces honest Iowans to begging at the bank suppresses supply and thus helps boost prices for those whom nature has spared. This is not to say that a farmer in Illinois prays that there be a cutworm outbreak in India. It is to say that he does not pray that there not be one.
Often what nature fails to provide, the farmer, ever industrious, seeks to supply himself. Acreage set-asides, under which participation in certain price support programs conditional upon reductions of planting of major crops, have done little to shrink surpluses. Farmers usually set aside only their least productive acres, hoping to reap good crops—and profit—off their best land in the event of a price upturn. “They can’t resist attempts to swindle each other,” Mencken wrote, recalling a similar failure to reduce cotton harvests back in the ’20s. “Instantly every party to the agreement began planting more cotton in order to profit by the abstinence of his neighbors.”
One soon wearies of such sordid dealings, however, and turns with relief back to contemplation of the ways in which life on the farm, though still indisputably rural, had ceased forever to be rustic. Only someone who hasn’t been paying attention will be surprised at ads for computer terminals in Farm Week. But what are we to make of the offer, available exclusively to Farm Bureau members, of Wilson golf balls at just $10.50 the dozen? Even Mencken would be confounded at hearing a farmer complain of a cow pasture as the ruination of a good golf course. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
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A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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