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Admiring fields of dreams fulfilled


The waves of grain aren’t amber here.

They’re green — an endless ocean of it.

The green has a matte finish, not nearly as glossy as John Deere green. It’s also a slightly more bluish tint.

But the comparison between the company colors and the land is hard to ignore — impossible when the sun shines directly on the odd field of harvested wheat that glows yellow almost as bright as the other John Deere color.

Wisconsin, with its similar land colors, claims them for the Packers. But here, they belong to Deere.

As the wind blows the waves don’t really show across the corn fields that make the landscape seem about six feet taller than it is from Illinois to Nebraska and Missouri to Minnesota.

Instead, on all but the windiest of days, the row of corn at the edge of the field stands like a breakwater against the wind. And as they resist the wind, the corn plant’s broad leaves give it the appearance of a tropical plant. So it looks as though someone has plucked the fronds off a palm and stuck the stalks in the ground like a row of chicken feathers, fattish quill end down.

It’s across the fields of soybeans that waves appear like the surface of water being blown on an otherwise calm bay. The illusion of a mix of waves is so strong that when the angle of the car to the field reveals the space between the rows, I wonder where the water has gone.

At the gleaming John Deere Pavilion, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River in Moline, Ill., the whole thing seems more wondrous yet.

The machinery, of course, is huge, from tractors to graders to clear-cutting timber machines to harvesters that could work as Zambonis on football fields and tree cutters whose legs move like the Imperial Walkers from Star Wars.

Perhaps more highly polished than the shining machinery is the information about the new generation of smart farm machinery: Farmerless tractors that can work all night unsupervised spraying orchards; data power that can help a tractor put fertilizer and other farm chemicals just where they need to go, saving money and minimizing polluting runoff; modest size harvesters tailored to the needs and budgets of rice farmers in the world’s second largest economy, China; and engineering systems that maximize energy use while cutting pollutants and maximizing other resources, such as water.

To an adult, the real-size machinery seems as exciting as the John Deere toy replicas that can be had in the next building over at a more modest cost.

Of course, as a still working reporter, I do think of vulnerabilities of agriculture. In the face of ingenious human engineering, I worry about the dangers of what’s called mono culture, a plant community dominated by one plant. I worry about what would happen if a pest or disease or something else might undermine corn or soybeans as a small borer has undermined the ash tree.

If that happened, could we come up with another crop with the productivity needed to do what the John Deere exhibit says agriculture must do: Keep up with the needs of a hungry and growing human population?

That’s added to what I realized of a couple of years ago: That weeds, germs, viruses and other like forms of life are genetic machines constantly at work at trying to find ways to harvest that crop for their own purposes.

There also, of course, are the usual worries about the troubling power amassed by some of the biggest players in the feeding-the-world business, though that doesn’t separate them from massive players in pharmaceuticals and other sectors.

Still, while driving across Iowa, this vast amount of grain being grown seems something of a wonder.

And while the water towers still stand solitary sentry above small villages, the farmscape has other regular storage these days. The traditional grain elevators near towns are increasingly giving way to bins all across the landscape that themselves look like water towers, save that they are legless.

It’s in these tanks that farmers pour the oceans of corn and soybeans they harvest each fall so they can control the timing of their own marketing. And when they do sell, they take from those tanks the grain that helps to feed not only this nation but nations on the far sides of the shining seas that flank this land.

To farmers of 100 years ago, the landscape of Iowa surely would look like fields of dreams fulfilled.


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