Waves of grain

Written by: Anna Herzberger

Primary Source:  Human+Nature Blog

My car packed with too many clothes, an extremely terrified cat and a live Kombucha culture, I headed west to my summer field site.

Oddly enough, my summer field site is also where I grew up.

The endless waves of grain remind me of my labor-intensive childhood detasseling corn,1 walking beans2 and bucking bales.3  I am not sure if there is an agricultural version of urban dictionary, but please see below for humorous definitions inspired by my childhood.

As a counter to my research last summer in China, this summer my fieldwork explores how connected U.S. producers are globally via agricultural trade. The first interview we conducted was with my dad and the following ones were with people to whom Dad connected us. This gave me a chance to mess up in a friendly environment — I was unsure how the farmers would react to specific questions and practicing with friendly farmers first allowed us to make necessary changes. However, this means the first 10 farmers I interviewed remember me as the curly-headed little girl pulling on my father’s pant leg while he was trying to discuss the weather or something equally boring to a child.

This was a unique dynamic.

Ship floating on top of corn fieldThe first thing I cover at the beginning of an interview is the consent form and the Institutional Review Board-recommended channels to file a complaint. Typically, the farmers would glance at the consent form, push it back to me and say, “I’ll just call your dad.”

In addition to filing complaints with my father rather than my boss, several of the farmers assumed my intern, Jake, was actually my little brother. In the farmers’ defense, Jake is only two years younger than my little brother and they do look similar. The case of Jake’s mistaken identity could have been fixed if I could remember to introduce Jake as my agricultural policy intern who is studying anthropology at William and Mary University — but I can’t remember. I can’t even remember to bring a pen to the interviews. So much, in fact, that if you asked Jake what his number one responsibility is, he would say, “To give Anna pens.”

I don’t even need a pen.

Jake’s job is to transcribe the interview. I ask questions and form a dialogue with the farmer while Jake notes the answers to questions we have during the on-going conversation. I only hold a pen because I feel nervous and during the awkward moments of silence it helps to be able to pretend I am taking notes while I actually try to think of follow-up questions to ask the farmer. After the interview, Jake types and cleans his notes before sending them to me and I add additional information if any was left out. After we feel confident with our transcription of the interview, we email it back to the farmer so he/she can review it and make any changes or corrections to his/her answers. This really strengthens the trust between the farmers and us. It would never be our intention to misrepresent or misunderstand something the farmer said, but it could definitely happen. By sending the transcription back to them, they have final say and ownership over their interview and our science is better because of that.

And that’s the goal, right? I have to explicitly tell the farmers I am here to learn from them, not teach them. But most of their exposure to research is Extension-based, where university or government researchers try to get the farmers to change their practices for sustainability reasons — for example, tillage practices, cover crops and nutrient management plans. Because farmers have the perception that researchers think they are damaging the environment and want them to change, most farmers start off by telling me how they are good stewards of their land.

I grew up on a small family farm and my dad is a conservationist. I know that farmers are good stewards of the land. They have to be; the farm is their inheritance, their retirement and their legacy. I was sent down here to find out things we, as university researchers, don’t know — for example, how do farmers deal with market uncertainty? How do they keep their farm viable with rising input costs but falling crop prices? How many years can they survive with corn prices less than $4 a bushel? And most importantly, how can we balance farm support programs so they are there when farmers need them, but also maintain quality trade relationships and access to international markets so that they won’t need them.

So, I guess what I am getting at is…does anyone know some medium-to-large scale corn and soybean farmers that would be willing to sit down with me for an hour?

Kids working to detassel corn1 Detasseling corn: This is when you remove the pollen-producing flowers (the tassel, hence “de-tasseling”) from the corn plant and drop them on the ground OR throw them like deadly projectiles at your nearest friend. If the tassel isn’t removed, corn will self-pollinate. Removing the tassel allows other varieties of corn to pollinate the corn, creating hybrid corn. The hybrid seed corn is sold to other farms to plant so that they can grow feed corn. I worked for eight summers at a local seed farm that employed approxmilately 900 kids from the surrounding areas. We were bussed in before sunrise from all over the state carrying as many fruit snacks, bottles of water and tubes of sunscreen we could and would ride/walk (depending on how muddy the field was) pulling the tassels from the corn plants. I included a picture because this might be hard to visualize if you didn’t participate in child labor. The money I made during those summers paid for my housing during undergrad, saving me from needing additional loans. Furthermore, I learned a whole lot about hard work, skin damage and the mating and dating habits of corn.

2 Walking beans: This is when you walk between rows of soybeans and use a machete (like a 12-year-old action hero) to chop out any rogue corn or thistles that may interfere with soybean growth. A rogue plant is one that you didn’t plant this year but may have previously — because both corn and soy are modified to resist Round-up, a herbicide sprayed to kill weeds, you will often get rouge crops when rotating between corn and soybeans. When walking through the field, the soybeans’ “arms” tend to wrap around your ankles and legs, often inspiring a retaliating whack of the machete to free yourself from their clutches. Also walking beans is done at home, after you work all day detasseling for a seed farm and you’re paid in breakfast instead of actual money.

3 Bucking bales: Also known as bucking hay, stacking bales or hay buck, all of which refer to the act of manually stacking or loading hay bales onto a flatbed truck or a barn for storage. Hay is a dried grass or legume used for animal fodder. We used alfalfa to feed our livestock. The hay bales are held together with twine, so protective gloves are a must when picking up 50 to 150 pounds by string that will slice into your hand. However, the real trick to stacking bales is in the knees. Once you have picked up the bail by the twine and swung your momentum towards the stack, you use your knees to really move and position the bale. The dried hay is razor-sharp and often leaves a slew of cuts on your thighs. On Wikipedia, it says people who stack bales use hooks and chaps to protect themselves, but I never saw anything like that. And if you can believe it, this farm chore actually has turned into an annual competition at most county fairs where groups of four teenagers compete to see which team can stack their bales the fastest. In high school, my team won both first and second place because there weren’t enough people to form separate teams, some serious small-town problems.

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Anna Herzberger
Anna Herzberger is an MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability doctoral student doing research in the Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. She hails from the farmlands of Virginia, Ill.
Anna Herzberger

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