Big Ag and Big Oil jostle for priority
The night before I boarded the Amtrak train for a three-week, multicity, 5,000-mile journey, I picked all my heirloom tomatoes. They were still green on the vine, but I put them in the basement to ripen, safe from a freeze.
Unlike air travel, a train ride lends itself to conversations and chance encounters. My traveling companion Ed met a young Amish man who loves snowboarding. He was on his way to Telluride to bag an elk; Ed didn’t find out if he planned to bring it home on the train. In Indiana, he farms his 20 acres using horses.
On the last leg of the journey, climbing mountains and clinging to the walls of otherwise inaccessible scenic canyons that lie on the route between Denver and Glenwood Springs, I fell into conversation with a passionate, talkative Scot sitting with a retired couple from the Chicago area. Craig, the Scotsman, had been in Glasgow during the recent referendum on Scottish independence from England, and I was eager to hear his impressions.
He compared George Square in Glasgow to Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring as he described the poetry, song and hope that soared above the town square as crowds of supporters gathered. Glasgow had strongly favored independence, and after it lost, Craig said, “People were like zombies.”
But before I knew it, the discussion around the table in the observation car veered to eating locally. Craig tracks and writes reports on the 150 or so ships that travel the world looking for oil reserves under the ocean floor.
“Too much oil we could use for fuel is wasted on plastic packaging,” he said. Fertilizers made from natural gas replace compost and manure, and by the way, we could save an awful lot of gas if we grew food at home.
Sally from Chicago chimed in to tell us about shopping the big city farmers markets and choosing restaurants that source local ingredients. Then they all rhapsodized about the superior flavor and healthfulness of farm-fresh produce.
I smiled and listened, mostly. We all agreed that those tomatoes in the supermarket really don’t deserve to be called by the same name, once you’ve tasted an heirloom or homegrown garden variety.
Sally’s husband-to-be said he hadn’t really retired, since he owns a 5,000-acre farm in Illinois. I wondered what he grows on all that prime farmland, and the answer came as no surprise: corn and soybeans — government-subsidized crops, darlings of genetic tinkerers, the common denominators of processed foods.
The Amish snowboarder also grows corn on his 20 acres. He works for an Amish-owned company that installs automated feeding systems for chickens and hogs on factory farms. Nothing is quite what you expect.
As the engine pounded away the miles and the Midwestern farmland rolled past the train window, one thing became obvious: Corn is king. Stretching off in every direction, cornfields, all the way to horizons made distant by the absence of mountains or even rolling hills. Tidy old white farmhouses surrounded by tall trees broke up the landscape. I wondered why they were there in this age of big agribusiness, and who might live in them.
Above the cornfields in Iowa and Illinois (grown partly for ethanol to blend into your gasoline), twirling in lazy circles, untold hundreds of wind turbines are transforming prairie winds into electricity. Supported with generous tax incentives, Iowa is third in the nation, just behind Texas and California, in wind generation. Energy is a major crop in the traditional breadbasket of America.
Speaking of trains, energy, food and the breadbasket … have you heard? I’d missed this until my sister-in-law mentioned it while we visited in South Bend, Indiana.
In the northern Midwest, farmers reaped their usual bounty this summer, only to find their harvest stranded and rotting trackside. Why? Rail lines congested with traffic moving fracked oil out of the Bakken field in North Dakota left no room for wheat, soybeans, sugar beets and other crops. Admittedly, this is not what we think of as local food, though it is made in U.S.A. The bulk of it moves by train to the East and West coasts, and from there to Europe and Asia.
Last winter it was Amtrak trains that waited hours to get in line behind the oil-filled trains; now it’s food.
The links between energy and food are myriad. As Big Ag and Big Oil jostle for priority, I’m reminded of the advantages of relying on my own garden and local farmers for dinner.
Home again at Colby Farm, a few of my tomatoes had gone squishy, but the rest, ripened to hues of yellow and orange and red, gleam like jewels.
Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local periodically for the PI’s Good Taste pages.
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