This is Chapter 11 – “The Breadbasket” – of “The Nine Nations of North America” by Joel Garreau, as published by Houghton Mifflin in May, 1981.
“New Stuff” regarding Nine Nations can be found at http://garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=3
IN THE HUSH of the high-ceilinged expanse of teak and cork, near the soaring walls of glass, below the enormous chandeliers, oblivious of the hundreds of people who filed, blinking, into the bright, lofty space through a low portal, the three men talked of cathedrals.
"One is pretty similar to the other," said one thoughtful acolyte. "Basically, they're worshiping the same monolithic higher power. You know, the rules are different, just as the ritual is different. But essentially, these things tell us how to live. Very often where to live. How we dress.
"They make a lot of demands on us. You can kid about the rituals, but I think the guidance that they give to a large number of people is exactly what they want. In many cases, it is exactly what they need."
"The hat thing is very old," chimed in another disciple. "Nobody here wears a hat. But they used to. If you were going to sell for Hallmark, you wore a hat. But then Mr. Hall's blood vessels on his forehead began to enlarge, and it gave him headaches. So he took his hat off, and all the hats came off."
The man munched on his English muffin; stirred his coffee. To his left, on an open balcony, where the choir might sing if this were really a church, were the stacks of a law library. The chandeliers high above his head were enormous coronets, for the cathedrals of which he spoke had been a metaphor for corporations, and the vast room was the employee cafeteria of Hallmark Cards, whose totem is a crown and whose incantation is "When you care enough to send the very best." The Missouri morning sun streamed in, sparkling off the Christmas decorations.
A large chunk of Kansas City is beginning to look a lot like Hallmark these days. Five hundred million dollars of one family's money is being plunked down on what had once been the eyesore of Signboard Hill, at the southern edge of downtown, to build a city within a city of hotels, office buildings, condominiums, and specialty-store shopping complexes in what has come to be known as Crown Center. This theme park to what might be called high-quality capitalism owes a large debt to Walt Disney, a Kansas City boy who was disappointed to see his Disneyland ringed by taco stands. He told his friend Joyce C. Hall, the founder of Hallmark, to make sure not to make the same mistake - to make sure he bought enough land so that his monument, the Hallmark headquarters, wouldn't get overrun by blight, and Mr. Hall took the advice to heart.
In an urban setting in which space is usually measured by the square foot, privately held Hallmark has eighty-five acres. Because Hall, like Disney, believed that his products could help civilize the raw, gangly, unsophisticated population that was at the core of his market, Hallmark's headquarters are surrounded by artifacts of a taste that time has honored as good. The lobby of Hallmark tells the story. The paintings of Salvador Dali abut those of Norman Rockwell, who is hard up against Winston Churchill, who's next to Saul Steinberg, who is the neighbor of Grandma Moses. The juxtapositions are breathtaking. The comments on the plaques, like the one with the Grandma Moses collection, are straightforward enough. It points out that "no other single artist's work has ever achieved such popularity at Christmas as hers." Like that of all the other artists, her stuff sells.
Not only is the design at Hallmark clean and modern; it is, on one occasion, bold. In what has been termed the ultimate act of architectural preservation, the Crown Center Hotel has exposed the hill on which it is built to the indoor inspection of its guests. For four stories or so, the hill, lavishly planted, discreetly lit, and crossed by catwalks, marches up the inside of the hotel, leading to the swimming pool. At its base is a Trader Vic's.
At this time of year, for eighty-five acres of Kansas City to look like Hallmark, it has to look a lot like Christmas, and it does in a fashion that is stereotypically perfect: The Mayor's Christmas Tree. Fairy lights in the leafless trees. On the corporate skating rink, an old man struggles to master the art of gliding backward as a bright-cheeked blonde twirls around her tottering child. Lighted silhouettes of peace doves ten feet across. Bright ribbons and bows. It begins to dawn on you that Christmas would look and be different in North America if there had never been a Joyce C. Hall.
But at Hallmark they've known that all along. "Santa Claus," points out one high executive in the design end of the business, "has changed quite a bit over the years." In the early fifties, she points out, on our cards we wanted the old boy to be a ruddy, cottony-bearded cartoon of himself. But in the early sixties, as we became more sophisticated, we looked for a more stylized old elf. We went most overboard, she says as she sketches, over this Santa Claus more or less in the shape of a Christmas tree-like cone. We thought that was just clever as the dickens. In the late sixties, Santa took a back seat to pleas for "Peace." In the middle seventies, he made a strong comeback, but this time in the old-fashioned Thomas Nast-like etchings of another century, reflecting our contemplation of where we'd been. Now, for some reason, we're losing our affection for St. Nick again. We're getting into bells and birds.
This interest in birds, the executive feels, does not bode well for those interests inclined to pay less than strict attention to environmental concerns.
Now, you can believe that or not, as you see fit, but as Don Hall, the son of the founder and the president of the corporation, said:
We promote communications between people. I guess the reason greeting cards became popular is because people hate to express things themselves. They've become reluctant to say something meaningful to someone else either in person or in a letter. They feel awkward in their ability to do that. So this has been a method of people finding something that's very meaningful to someone else and sending it through the mail. People are no less sentimental. They just need more help in the expression of it.
Our computer would tell you that quote squareness unquote is a universal thing. We don't go after the gay market, for example, but you name a situation, assuming you know a liberated gay who wants to communicate with another one, and I'll find you a card that would be suitable. They buy our cards.
The implication is that, no matter what our status, Hallmark knows who we are and where we're coming from, and has for a long, long time. It's not too surprising that, in all its works, Hallmark stresses that it is "of Kansas City."
From the early part of the last century, when trade was opened with the Spanish over the Santa Fe Trail, to the opening of Oregon, California, and Colorado, Kansas City was a pivotal place. Not far from the exact geographic center of the United States, it was where Easterners became Westerners. To this day, it is a great marketing-research location, because of its utter typicality. Even urban employers will tell you that its friendly, open, hard-working people are still a product of the prairie.
As Paul Gruchow, the editor of the tiny Worthington (Minnesota) DailyGlobe, wrote:
The prairie is like a daydream. It is one of the few plainly visible things which you can't photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky. The sensation of its image is globular, but without the distortion that you get in a wide-angle lens. Any undistorted image is too flat to represent the impression of immersion, which is central to the experience of being on the prairie . . .
The essential feature of the prairie is its horizon, which you can neither walk to nor touch . . . We are helpless as babies about this: whatever we can see and do not understand and must acknowledge, we make over in our own image. The moon, the sea, the prairie all present insurmountable barriers of distance. We cross them on the craft of egocentricity. The moon becomes the marker of time and the dwelling place of desire. The sea becomes the mirror, the bosom. The prairie becomes the breadbasket.
The Breadbasket, of which Kansas City is indisputably the capital, is that North American nation most at peace with itself. It is the nation that works best.
Based on the most prodigiously successful agriculture the world has ever known, the Breadbasket has built an enviable, prosperous, renewable economy.
The Breadbasket produces three quarters of the continent's wheat and corn, and much of its cattle and pigs. The continent's need for wheat can be met by Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Manitoba, and the Breadbasket portion of Saskatchewan all by themselves. In 1978, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota, in combination, produced a pound of wheat, corn, beef, or pork for each of 261,808,230 people to eat every day for a year. That's a meal a day for a year for the entire population of the United States and Canada, with some left over for Mexico. The Breadbasket accounts for 18 percent of the world's exports of wheat. By contrast, Saudi Arabia accounts for 14 percent of the world's production of oil.
Even though the majority of its people are not farmers, the Breadbasket can afford to be choosy about the manufacturing it accepts. Unlike other nations, it does not feel obligated to leap at an increase in low-paying jobs. Nor does it have to embrace the boom-town syndrome. "With rapid growth," one corporate chief pointed out, "all kinds of things go wrong. You lose your ability to stay within your plan."
And staying within the plan is high on the Breadbasket's list of priorities. If you like roller-coaster rides, don't come to the Plains. Stability, here, is a virtue.
The Breadbasket, appropriately enough, starts in the wheat country of Saskatchewan north of Denver near Alberta. Well to the dry side of the 100th meridian, the line represents the place where carbohydrates become more important than hydrocarbons. There is grain in the oil country of Alberta, and minerals in the farm country of Saskatchewan, but this line describes a shift in primary interests.
The same is true as the border skirts the eastern edge of Wyoming and Montana, cleaving most of those places from the Dakotas, heading for the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. The mountains that dramatically meet the plains at Denver offer the most distinct food-mineral line, and they continue down the eastern edge of New Mexico. From there, the Breadbasket line passes through West Texas, where herculean efforts are being expended in keeping the oil fields of Midland and Odessa productive. Without them, the influence that could be characterized as Empty Quarter would diminish. But it's hard to claim this part of the world as MexAmerica yet. The harsh, masculine culture predominant here may be beholden to the Spanish, who named, if not invented, everything here from the lariat to macho. But it surely is Anglo. The Panhandle is still informed by straightforward, colorful, do-or-die ambitions that Dakota ranchers easily recognize. It's Breadbasket.
From there, the line walks across central Texas, following the impact of the Hispanics to the state capital, Austin, where it enters the cultural battleground described by the triangle connecting three of the United States' ten largest cities - Houston (fifth), Dallas (eighth) and San Antonio (tenth). It is the triangle in which MexAmerica, the Breadbasket, and Dixie clash.
Heading north, the boundary splits Dallas and Fort Worth at Runway 17 Left, the main north-south piece of concrete of the most heartless airport in the world - immense DFW International. Fort Worth, which hates to hear itself called a cowtown, is Breadbasket. The border then concedes Oklahoma's southeast corner, known as Little Dixie, to its appropriate nation, skirts the Ozarks, and splits Missouri in half, cutting well south of Kansas City. This is an interesting border. Even the weather respects it. The Arctic winds that make Breadbasket winters so insufferable battle the high fronts off the Gulf of Mexico around these parts. Local meteorologists have been known to split their forecasts into two completely different sections to accommodate different conditions separated by only a few dozen miles. Not too surprisingly, the U.S. National Severe Storm Forecast Center is in Kansas City.
The swift Missouri River leaves the Breadbasket after its extraordinarily long trip from northern Montana as it joins the Mississippi at St. Louis, just below the junction with that important eastern Breadbasket river, the Illinois.
The Breadbasket border marches across south-central Illinois corn and hog land into west-central Indiana before being met by the pincers of two eastern nations: the gritty industrial Foundry, with more of a past than a future, in northern Indiana, and rolling Dixie, in southern Indiana.
The Plains continue across Ohio all the way to the Alleghenies, but the Breadbasket nation does not. The Breadbasket's most typical agriculture is heavily equipped, heavily capitalized, and with substantial acreage. The farm's proprietor is an owner or a manager too busy trying to outwit the gods of the harvest to have a full-time city job. By contrast, in the Foundry, there are a fair number of "sundowners" - steelworkers, for example, who keep a farm going for the extra income or the quality of life, but who couldn't financially swing a complete dedication to crops.
Thus, the Breadbasket ends at the point where farms with five hundred acres or more, representing a value of over a million 1980 dollars in land alone, become unusual. The Breadbasket ends at a point where the average farmer pushes out less than $30,000 worth of food per year from his spread.
The Breadbasket ends at a point where less than 80 percent of all land is dedicated to farming. (There are sizable farms within the Kansas City limits.) For all practical purposes, then, the eastern edge of the Breadbasket is in western Indiana, and Indianapolis, as we saw in the Foundry and Dixie, is a crossroads town for those two nations, as well as for the Breadbasket.
From Indiana, the Breadbasket curves back around, giving Chicago a wide berth. Chicago has nothing to say to the farmlands of downstate Illinois, as any political observer can tell you. It's part of the Foundry, as are the other industrial centers hugging the western edge of Lake Michigan, like Milwaukee and Green Bay. The Breadbasket starts thirty or so miles inland from the lake, in Wisconsin's impeccable dairy country. With the Lake Superior wheat ports of Duluth in the States and Thunder Bay in Canada to its back, the boundary then heads into the corn country of rural Ontario before ending at La Belle Province - Québec. Across Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, of course, the northern border of the Breadbasket is the point at which even barley, the grain with the shortest growing season, can't make it.
In preparing this chapter, it occurred to me that I started off with the least detailed image of what set the Breadbasket nation apart from any of the nine. On examining why that would be, I realized that my images were based on news events, and there just isn't that much big news out of the Breadbasket. Could it be, I wondered, that the news exists, but is just not being reported? No; the Breadbasket is littered with good newspapers from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Winnipeg. The Des Moines Register, for example, keeps winning Pulitzer Prizes for its national reporting. Of course, its topics are frequently agricultural, and those are of limited interest to folk on the coasts. But that's a fault of the people who think that food is grown wrapped in plastic, not that of the Register. What news there was, was being reported.
I finally came up with the theory that perhaps news occurred most typically when and where the social fabric was being torn; an absence of news of continental concern constituted the presence of social calm - and that this was the most identifiable characteristic of the Breadbasket. I found my theory popular even among Breadbasket journalists.
In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for example, in the spring of 1979, an avowedly gay high school senior decided he wanted to take a male date to the prom.
Sioux Falls is a nice town. I should say "city." In the seventy-seven thousand square miles of South Dakota, there are fourteen places with a population over five thousand, and Sioux Falls is far and away the biggest, with about seventy-five thousand people.
The falls after which the town is named modestly tumble the Big Sioux River over hard red rock. The rock, which in its natural state looks as if it had been laid down by a giant stone mason, was quarried by men for some of the handsome older buildings, like what is now the Sioux Land Heritage Museum. The hydro power was important for milling grain back in the 1870s. The granary is gone now, lost to some misguided soul who used the old building to store paint, right up until the explosion. The flume that carried water to an also-abandoned hydroelectric plant is now a picnic site, with a roof, four picnic grills, and a pleasant view. (The falls share a small park with the sewer-maintenance division trucks, but you can't see them from the flume.) Separated from the falls by the all-important railroad tracks, which lead to faraway markets, is the downtown. It's got a modern, if not terribly large, convention center. (The city is still served by commercial propeller-driven aircraft small enough so that they do not have fold-down snack trays on the back of their seats.) It's got a Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) program. The Arkota Ballroom, the Frontier Club Saloon. An honest-to-god Orpheum movie house. A Hallmark store. An automobile-free downtown pedestrian shopping mall. Minerva's Corner Creperie. Lots of stuff.
But by nobody's standards was it a likely location for a battle-line of the sexual revolution.
Nonetheless, according to the National Gay Task Force, Sioux Falls broke new ground that May. It was the first place in the United States to deal positively with a kid who insisted on his right as an American to bring the date of his choice to his own senior prom.
Sioux Falls rose to the occasion. When the senior showed up at the dance in earrings and a powder-blue tuxedo, on the arm of a member of the local gay coalition, camera lights ignited and reporters jumped to life, but the disruption was brief and largely ignored. The two melted into the throng, indistinguishable in their boutonnieres and brightly colored clothes. The only special treatment they got was a lot of room on the dance floor.
"What's the news in all this?" wailed the principal of Sioux Falls Lincoln High School. "What do they think we are in Sioux Falls, a bunch of people with big thick red necks letting fairies go to the prom?"
The week before, NBC's "Saturday Night Live" satire show had intimated just that, and more.
But the principal didn't think he was being liberal. He didn't think he had a choice. "The rules," he pointed out, "only say one prom-goer has to be a senior. They could take their mother if they want. Homosexuals have rights, too; you have to accept that. Getting myself in a situation as an advocate of gay liberation is humorous to my friends. But I'm not promoting it. There are some real confines to the law."
The students themselves shrugged it off with jokes and went to the prom with a good time in mind. It was a typical school dance, with the band showing up late and dancers slung around each other's shoulders. In fact, one student said, as she left early, that she thought it was boring. That was all fine to those who wanted to get the prom invited back the following year to the downtown Holiday Inn's Embassy Room. The Holiday Inn is one of the classiest locations in town.
In his office, cluttered with mail and newspaper clippings, with a "why me?" look on his face, the principal lamented, "We have this feeling the press used Lincoln to make a point. Most people in this community can separate the legal and moral issues. If people will forget it, it will all be fine."
The press most certainly did make a point. The point is that Sioux Falls has a delicate sense of what constitutes social limits. As does the rest of the Breadbasket, which is as straightforward as the landscape.
In fact, in a time of change in the way we look at the value of work, the desirability of marriage and having a family, how trustworthy our governments are, and what constitutes patriotism, the Breadbasket has come to be the ratifier of what constitutes a truly mainstream continental idea.
Opposition to the Vietnam War was at first considered the province of effete, intellectual snobs from the East and West coasts. That canard wasn't silenced until Paul Harvey, the widely listened to radio voice of Breadbasket news and views, turned against Spiro Agnew's notion of the universe. Admittedly, Harvey's conversion was less than that of the other Paul on the Damascus Road. His full attitude was that the war was stupid and wrong because we refused to let the generals have their heads and get it over with. Although he vigorously denies it, there are also those who think it no accident that his change of heart about the war came precisely at the time that his son was about to turn eighteen and become draftable.
But be that as it may, the war was over, politically, when the Breadbasket turned against it.
The tale is told of the high school teacher in a small Great Plains town who, in the late sixties, was discovered living with a man to whom she was not married. Her students still speak in awe of waiting for the explosion from the resident keepers of a morality that hadn't changed for a century. When it didn't come - when there was nothing but a few puffs of gossip and grumbling—these kids, now adults, marked the day. That war was over, and change had won. What had started in Berkeley had come to Nebraska. In North America, what had been a question of sin had been turned into a problem of etiquette.
By contrast, the most bitter strike in the history of Peoria, Illinois, occurred in 1979-1980, at the huge Caterpillar construction equipment works. One of the most significant issues was whether the company could compel its employees to work overtime. Just a few years before, it would have been unthinkable in the Breadbasket to value leisure over the honest gains from hard labor. Especially at Caterpillar, the very symbol, worldwide, of being ready and able literally to move mountains. The length of the strike demonstrated that the social importance of work has not been settled on this continent. Laid-back is still a regional idea. It doesn't necessarily play in Peoria.
Abortion is a social issue that pro-choice forces thought had been settled with their legislative victories. Again, they had not counted on the Breadbasket. If a person really believes that the termination of a fetus is murder, in this part of the world he is simply not going to compromise. In 1978, in Iowa, Dick Clark, one of the more gifted men in the U.S. Senate, a liberal on the issue of abortion, was defeated by an opponent with less than half his candlepower. Pundits suddenly discovered "single issue" politics. That fight is not over.
Some avant-garde sections of society, of course, don't see the Breadbasket as the ratifier of anything. They just see it as behind the times and, for that matter, not too smart. For generations, some of the holders of cultural mirrors, like Harold Ross at The New Yorker magazine, made it clear that they had little use for the "old lady from Dubuque." Not too surprisingly, Plains folk ended up defensive. To this day, a visitor to the Breadbasket who, when asked, must admit that he lives in the East, repeatedly has to put up with natives going through their "aw shucks" routine.
Before the stranger has a chance to peep the slightest opinion about his surroundings, the local goes through this song and dance, shaking his head and allowing as how it's tough to find fresh abalone in Tulsa and the Library of Congress isn't in Wichita, and he knows how that must weigh heavy on the mind.
He doesn't believe a word of it. He's just trying to find out if the outlander is ignorant enough to bite at the statement. His conviction is that the Breadbasket is the best place to live in the whole world.
The defensiveness is not based on the Breadbasket's being insular. From "The University," as Texans refer to the school in Austin (one local wit referred to his alma mater as The Harvard University, just to keep things straight) to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, an excellent and enormous system of land-grant colleges make superior educational opportunities here universal. The question is how intellectually isolated other people are. It's not uncommon to hear people remark that it seems to them that the East is less parochial than it used to be.
The Breadbasket, in fact, is the home of a highly sophisticated sense of international interdependence. Ordinary people here make everyday calculations about events on the far side of the globe.
In the Breadbasket, for example, a lot of people's income, directly or indirectly, is tied to the weather in Siberia. In Manitoba, which is sparsely populated by the standards of North Dakota, good times and bad are very much tied to whether the virgin grain lands of the Soviet Union are attacked by hail or drought.
If Mother Russia must purchase millions of tons of grain to maintain her people's standard of living, there are a limited number of places where she can get it, the North American Breadbasket being far and away number one.
Around Portage la Prairie, if the Canadian Wheat Board doesn't screw up and sell too low, or make the mistake of having all its hopper cars at the wrong end of the continent at harvest time, for farmers such purchases will mean money for vacations where the wind does not blow, nice Christmases, new buildings, bigger tractors.
In Moline, Illinois, a good year at Portage la Prairie means the president of the United Auto Workers local can breathe a little easier. Moline is the headquarters of John Deere, the leading farm equipment manufacturer in North America and the world. As long as most of the planet finds the production of cheap food as elusive a goal as the production of cheap energy, his union's jobs are secure.
In Kansas City, the agricultural research division of the Federal Reserve Bank is keeping a close eye on John Deere. Deere is attempting to revolutionize China. It has made some sales of its gigantic food factories on wheels - there's no other way to describe a turbo 7700 combine - to the peasant society of the People's Republic. Will there be more?
In Omaha, they're watching the Fed. Double-digit interest is killing the operators, to whom a line of credit in the spring is as crucial as a line of water.
In tiny Spirit Lake, the resort town on the edge of Iowa's "ocean" (if the lake for which the town is named were circular, the locals boast, it would be three miles in diameter!), this all means a great deal to Berkley Bedell.
Bedell, who parlayed $50 in profits from the paper route he had as a teenager into a multimillion-dollar fishing tackle industry today, doesn't spend much time in his home town of Spirit Lake any longer. But he does get back as often as he can. A chain of events that perhaps starts in Siberia can affect him a great deal in Washington, D.C., because he's the congressman from the Sixth Congressional District of Iowa, the northwestern corner of the state that snuggles up against Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
Early one cold, crisp morning, Bedell, thin, scholarly-looking, with wire-rim glasses and carefully parted black hair, dressed in a checkered western suit and a butterfly-shaped belt buckle centered by a big swirled gemstone, was starting what he calls an "open door meeting" in the basement of the Spirit Lake City Hall.
The "community room" there in Dickinson County is a Spartan affair, its buff cinder-block walls dirty from having had too many posters taped up and taken down. It is decorated with a printed sign designating it a fallout shelter. Hand-lettered signs indicate that this is where you get your driver's license and, no, you'd better not smoke. The red paint on the concrete floor has acquired a few cracks. As the light brown, metal folding chairs are dragged from the closet, the talk is of Iran.
This was a time at the beginning of the hostage-holding in the American embassy in Tehran, an affront to the dignity of the flag that folk took personally. They wanted to discuss it with their congressman.
Not that that was the only thing on their minds. One man just wanted to know if the congressman could get the Army Corps of Engineers to stop draining a lake across his corn field. His harvesting normally would be done by now, he said, but he couldn't get into his field for the mud. The congressman nodded to the young aide, in her peach-colored suit and waffle-stomper shoes, taking notes. Let's look into that, okay? he said. He turned back to the farmer, sympathetically and seriously, and said he didn't know what he could do, but he'd try to work something out.
None of the congressman's other inquisitors looked much different from the man with the water problem, who was beefy, wearing a heavy red-plaid mackintosh, jeans, and galoshes. Only one man among the constituents wore a tie. Only one woman had paid a lot of attention to her make-up.
At this point in the Iranian crisis the polls were showing an overwhelming goddamnit-let's-do-something attitude among the general populace, but that wasn't the tone here. It was far more studied.
The folk dismissed out of hand the suggestion of an invasion. Interestingly, it wasn't from a particular sense of pacifism or isolationism, but from a genuine doubt that the volunteer army could swing one successfully. People who signed up for the military in this day and age weren't any too bright, they observed matter-of-factly.
Massive bombing runs didn't hold much appeal. Won't we destroy our own people? they asked. Besides, the real trick is to get rid of this government without doing any more damage to the oil fields than we absolutely have to. I think we should shut off the food supply now, one woman said. That wouldn't work, a guy four seats over said. The Russians would just sell it to Iran for twice as much and, knowing us, we'd then turn around and sell the Russkies more corn.
How about getting the shah out of the United States? Bedell asked. Everybody in favor of that? Egypt had offered to take him. No, sending him to Egypt isn't the greatest idea, said one grizzled man, thoughtfully. Libya has never forgiven Egypt for signing the Camp David accords, he said, and those crazy Libyans are always spoiling for a fight. Sadat's got enough troubles. Don't hand him that one. I hadn't thought of that, said Bedell.
How bad a shape are we in, in terms of oil? one fellow asked. As long as the Saudis and the Iraqis hang in there, we're not going to face anything more than a price increase, are we? Bedell allowed as how that was the impression the State Department briefings conveyed.
The talk turned to how we get ourselves out of this mess once and for all. Bedell called for a show of hands. Six people were for coupon rationing of gasoline. Four were for a fifty-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline. Five didn't know. The talk passed to another issue.
It was an invigorating morning, and not an atypical one for Bedell that weekend, as he went from Sioux County to Plymouth, O'Brien County to Ida.
Here he was, over a hundred miles from a city with a population in six digits - two hundred miles from Des Moines - and the ordinary voters were casually and competently discussing the inner workings of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union. Most important, they were relating these faraway places to their own lives.
"How do you like our dumb Iowa farmers?" he asked me at one point, smugly.
This smugness is the caution about the Breadbasket. It's so quietly confident of its own innate superiority that some dangerous traits are shrugged off.
A notable lack of racial conflict, for instance, might lead one to believe that the Breadbasket was one of North America's more tolerant nations. Not so. It simply is so homogeneously Anglo that it doesn't have as many opportunities to hate as elsewhere. North and South Dakota, for example, have virtually no blacks. Minnesota, 1 percent. Iowa, 1.4 percent. But such opportunities as the Breadbasket has to discriminate, it takes. I asked one Jew in Kansas City, prominent in business and philanthropy, what it was like for him living in the Breadbasket, and he told me of the time in the late 1970s when his friends pressed him to apply for membership in a prestigious and discriminatory country club. Surely they couldn't turn you down, his friends said. He did and they did. He says he finds it kind of funny now. (Pause.) But, he acknowledges, his son doesn't.
The governor of Iowa got considerable recognition when he very publicly welcomed Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees to his state at a time when many other locations were shrinking from the idea. That was honorable. Within months, however, grim stories started leaking out from the small towns where these Southeast Asians had settled. The locals were running them out. They were just too different.
A United Church of Christ minister shook his head when asked about his parishioners who worked at a nearby maximum security prison. The inmate population was almost 100 percent black, and the guards were almost 100 percent white, and the careful way he put it was that some of his flock really enjoyed their work.
Nowhere in the Breadbasket is it agreeable to be a Native American. "Drunken Indian" is still one word in a lot of the Plains states. Oklahoma, until 1890 formally Indian Territory, is one of the more schizophrenic places on the continent. A certain amount of that is tied to the disdain in which Indians are held, at the same time as many whites acknowledge having some Indian blood in them somewhere along the line.
The most ironic comment on tolerance in the Breadbasket, in fact, came from the black executive to whom I had been carefully steered by a corporate p.r. man. Yes, he said, there was one golf course that a Jewish friend of his had played, but only because he'd come as the black man's guest.
Attitudes toward tolerance go back to the way the Breadbasket was settled. A lot of North Americans forget that the Breadbasket was the last frontier.
In the mid-1800s, the Plains were considered something to get across on the way to someplace "good," like the woods of Oregon, or Utah, if you were Mormon. The Plains were referred to as the Great American Desert. There were all sorts of barriers to settlement. Since there were no trees, there was no wood for building material. Houses had to be made of sod. There was no firewood. Heat came from buffalo chips or hay. There was no wood for fencing. Fences would await the development of barbed wire, in 1874. Even governing institutions were based on woodlands culture - a town meeting assumes it's easy to get to town.
So many cowboy movies and TV shows have had dramatic mountain and desert vistas that many think that the Ponderosa was the birthplace of the western myth. But the real Dodge City, as it happens, is in Kansas, not Nevada. Virginia City was a gold-mining town, not a cowtown. Not coincidentally, Boot Hill is also in Kansas. There are no mountains in Kansas. And by our present understanding, there are no deserts, although a century ago that was debatable.
Because of the incredible success of agriculture here (an acre of central Illinois can produce twice as much corn as an acre of central Virginia, and for centuries, settlers thought that Virginia was the best of the New World in farming), people tend to think that this Breadbasket land has been pacified for a long time. Again, not so.
Breaking the prairie to the plow was difficult. The tall grasses would send down roots a foot and a half, some of them as thick as a finger. There's only so much that a man with a horse and a fire-hardened wooden sod-buster could do to land like that. But far more critical was the defeat he faced a few years after he did break the prairie. The soil, which can be as much as seven feet deep, so black and rich that it looks like two-year-old compost, turns to clinging gumbo after being turned a few times. It would stick to an iron plow like lard, forcing a farmer to stop and clean off the blade every ten feet, making productivity impossible. It wasn't until John Deere, the founder of the firm that bears his name, developed a way of bonding steel to the implements, so that the mud could slide off easily, that the revolution in the Breadbasket could begin. Until then, it was very literally cowboys and Indians. Nomads, not "nesters."
But now, families with no North American history at all, by the standards even of other parts of the West, make a big deal out of centennial celebrations of their arrival on the land. Newspapers write stories about the most notable. Private histories with photographs of every single family member back to great-grandparents are published.
One hundred years ago, unlike the case in most of the rest of North America, the technology that made settlement at all possible here was brand new. The final solution to the Sioux, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Blackfoot, and Crow problem was still being worked on. The massacre at the dot on the South Dakota map called Wounded Knee was a decade in the future. Oklahoma wasn't open to the white man. A system for getting grain to market or for importing coal and other necessities was still being patched together.
The reason it's so easy to forget that this model of stability we call the heartland is so young is those who settled it: to a bedrock of Anglo-Saxonism was added Germans, Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, Germans, Finns, Germans, Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, and Germans.
Throughout central and western Europe a century ago, "America fever" rose to epidemic proportions, fanned by the glowing advertisements of steamship, railroad, and land companies.
According to the 1880 census, 73 percent of Wisconsin's population was of foreign parentage, 71 percent of Minnesota's, 66 percent of the Dakotas', and 44 percent of Nebraska's. In these years, the amount of land under cultivation in the continent doubled, and the increase came here.
To this day, all across the Breadbasket you'll find people who'll say they can't get over how "dark" the population is in other parts of the country. And they mean Italians. They're still getting used to southern European stock in these parts, no less Puerto Ricans. Winnipeg television still broadcasts Ukrainian programming. When you find anomalies like the Jewish pig farmer in Sioux City, Iowa, who says he has no idea what his product tastes like, and you ask him how he happened to get into a business that has to be unusual for a man who keeps kosher, inevitably the tale starts in Russia.
The Breadbasket is so homogeneously northern European, in contrast with other nations that are absorbing wave after wave of blacks and Hispanics, that what passes for ethnic conflict here has to be imported from a Europe of hundreds of years ago. An Illinois minister pointed out that one of his recent German Protestant predecessors had spent thirty-eight years denouncing German Catholics as creatures of the devil. The German Catholic priest who was his opposite number returned the favor religiously. This ended only in the 1960s. Martin Luther died in 1546.
In Minnesota you can still find automobiles to be a sectarian issue. One denomination drives Fords and another drives Chevrolets, because one wouldn't dream of buying a car from an infidel. The only-somewhat-kidding line in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is that some elections are decided by which side of a certain mountain in Croatia the candidate's ancestors were from.
This is not to say that, for example, the Irish and French don't maintain a rivalry in New England. But the difference is that those two groups have tended to join forces in recent years in response to a perceived threat from, say, Jamaicans. You don't have much of that kind of new wave of immigration in the Breadbasket.
This self-satisfied sense is reflected in the energy issue. Gasohol is a matter of keen interest out here. Fuel that can, in part, be made from grain, leaving behind a high-protein feed supplement as a "waste" product, obviously would be.
There is considerable debate surrounding the question of whether gasohol will ever be economically sensible without high subsidies. One side says that no matter how high the price of petroleum gets, ethanol and methanol will always be more expensive to produce because they take so much energy to distill. The other side says that even if that is the case, burning coal to produce electricity to cook a chicken is enormously inefficient, compared with cooking the chicken directly over a coal fire. Yet nobody is arguing against that conversion technique, so why are they demanding miracles from alcohol? But none of this has anything to say to farm machinery, which runs on diesel fuel, not gasoline.
Yet the research and development department of John Deere is not very interested in redesigning the tractor. When I talked to Fred Stickler, the director of the technical center in Moline, about what his people were working on, he talked to me about coatings, not about fuel. He was very interested in a paint that will stand up to both the salt spray of a long export voyage and the blistering sun of the tropics. When I asked him whether, because of energy concerns, John Deere had any plans to make their monsters smaller, or to fuel them with hydrogen or some other exotic alternative, he looked at me as if I were crazy. He allowed as how some tinkering was going to have to be done to the engines of his products in order for them to burn synthetics made from coal, but to him it was perfectly clear that the last drop of diesel fuel burned in North America was going to be burned in a John Deere tractor. It's God's plan. Do you want food or not?
This is not to say that all is sanguine on the flatlands. The rise of the American Agriculture Movement in the wheat fields of eastern Colorado and the cattle and irrigated cotton country of the Texas Panhandle made that clear. Frustrations over the price of land, fertilizer, seed, water, fuel, money, and equipment bubbled over there first. But the protests spread to every other farm region. Soon tractors were circling the Mall in Washington, D.C., and a red and black Massey-Ferguson tractor was roaring up and down the Reflecting Pool. The battle cry was "Parity," an idea that held that farmers ought to make as much profit per acre, proportionately, as they did at the turn of the century. Almost everyone recognized this as a fairly naive concept, considering how much farming had changed. But it didn't make the farmers' anger at society any less real. The facts are that farmers are simply not rewarded, either monetarily or psychologically, in proportion to the importance of their accomplishments. Not only do North Americans eat cheap, by the standards of the rest of the world, but they get the foreign currency to buy their petroleum thanks to agricultural exports.
So what really galls the farmers is that, in exchange for this miracle, the system is so wrong-headed as to make it increasingly difficult for their kids to follow in their footsteps.
About an hour east of Peoria, off a two-lane road known locally as the Flanagan-Gridley Blacktop, after the towns it connects, is the farm of Glenn and Marge Hillman. The tallest thing on the farm is the utility pole, at the top of which is incongruously bolted an enormous quartz-iodide high-intensity highway lamp. The light is the color of the moon on a night when that glow is so bright that it can illuminate the contrail of a transcontinental jet. It not only lights the whole farmstead; it serves as a beacon. The night is very black in farm country. There's no back-splash of light against the clouds, as there is in cities. The black ground meets the black sky at a horizon marked by scattered tiny blue-white lights, just as powerful as the Hillmans', but distant. The ground may not be table-flat out here, but folk casually point to this landmark or that grain elevator or the other town, and you can see it plain, although it's fifteen miles away. That's farther than Manhattan Island is long. The eye may take in well over one hundred thousand acres at a glance here. Folk say the beacons are a service to travelers forced to set out for help after a breakdown. But the real comfort is to the people who live here; they can look out of a clear night and remind themselves that they are not, in fact, alone.
The harsh light shows a tidy farmstead, actually on the small-ish side for this region. Surrounded by corn and soybean field, limitless the way buffalo once were, is the tan-brick, white-roofed ranch house shaded by a half-dozen carefully nurtured trees. The barn houses machinery, including the combine, the corn planter, the two plows, the discer, the field cultivator, three of the four John Deere tractors, one of which has four rear wheels to float over and dig into wet ground, and another of which is equipped as a front-end loader. The round, squat, corrugated, gun-metal-gray truncated silo, where corn is dried by liquefied propane gas and stored, is surrounded by the clean, white, farrowing, weaning, and finishing buildings, linked by pipelines of grain, in which is produced, every year, a third of a million pounds of pig.
Marge Hillman introduces herself as "Mom." She looks it. Not much over five feet tall, she is ample of build, easy of smile, and her silver hair is cut in a style that used to be called a pixie. Which is not a bad description of her personality. Glenn Hillman, who is also not overly large in his olive-drab jumpsuit, has the ears of a yeoman. Like Lyndon Johnson's, they're fleshy and bristled. Initially phlegmatic, once warmed up he's an avid conversationalist - even something of a philosopher.
About sixty, they've got five kids, all pretty much grown, by whom they're trying to do right. Three are removed from the direct doings of the farm. Bob, thirty, the oldest, is making his fame and fortune as a reporter in the state capital, Springfield.
Carol, twenty-eight, the number two child, is a teacher, married to Russell, who is in a formal partnership with his farmer dad and brother, a few miles away.
Jane, twenty-two, single, is teaching Amish kids in a public school that walks a very thin line between the constitutional separation of church and state.
That leaves Scott, twenty-four, and Richard, twenty-one. Both live within a distance considered long for walking by a human but reasonable by a dog, and both want to farm real bad. Scott, who is single, has a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Richard, married to Joyce, a beautician, is a crack John Deere diesel mechanic. Back in their teens, Scott and Richard figured out that their bents and skills could complement each other in a future farm partnership if they trained in these areas. That's how long they've assumed that their future was with this land. The question is whether they'll be allowed to make it.
For the fields that appear so empty are full of high-finance, personal deals, and family histories with a biblical quantity of "begats." The acres that used to go off at a couple of hundred dollars apiece can bring $4000 now. Folk say that it's only a matter of time before it hits $10,000.
Farmland costing that much makes exactly as much sense as gold going for dozens of times its intrinsic value as an industrial metal. On the one hand, it's crazy. On the other, it's a commodity that is there, tangible, and basic, should come a crash. In between, it's an enticing investment for advocates of the "bigger fool" theory - the theory that holds that no matter what you pay for Breadbasket farmland, there's a bigger fool who will pay more.
Whatever the pressure on land prices, there's a key truth in farming out here: it is absolutely and physically impossible to push enough food out of the land to pay off a mortgage at these prices.
Every economic and personal calculation flows from that fact. Glenn and Scott Hillman, father and son, farm 440 acres in two separate but highly interconnected operations. But only 80 acres belong to either of them - the 80 that Scott lives on but Glenn owns.
Of the 200 acres that Glenn works - has worked for twenty years, on which he built a home and raised his kids - not an inch of it belongs to him. It originally belonged to the father of Marge Hillman, nee Mooberry. When old man Mooberry died, he passed it on to Marge, her two sisters, and her brother.
It doesn't make much sense to divide 200 acres into four 60-acre parcels around here, since you can barely turn a combine around in plots that small, or so the locals exaggerate. So the four siblings hold the 200 acres in common for Glenn to farm.
That's working out all right now, but when one of the aunts passes on, it's going to be a hassle, figuring out how to reimburse the estate without carving up the countryside. If the Hillmans want to continue working the land, they'll have to come up with a quarter to a half a million dollars for those piddly 60 acres.
And that won't be easy.
The Hillmans senior consider a year in which they make $25,000 a good one. The only way they got up the money to pay for the 80 acres that Scott lives on is by leveraging Marge's equity on her share of the Mooberry inheritance. In other words, Marge's share of her father's land has appreciated so much in value that the Hillmans can borrow against it to go deeper into debt to buy more land to expand their operation to, presumably, gain some advantages of scale. This makes slightly more sense when you realize that when income tax time rolls around, the more money you make, the more advantageous it is for you to be in debt, because interest payments are deductible. Thus, the bigger your farm, the more the government will pay for you to get even larger. And the more you owe the bank, the better off you are.
(If you think this is Catch-22, don't get into a conversation with Glenn Hillman about why he keeps his sows for only two breeding cycles. It has nothing to do with biology. It's because of his reading of the law on capital gains. Accelerated depreciation comes in here somewhere, too.)
So much for Glenn's 200 acres. Of Scott's 200 acres, we've accounted for the 80 that Glenn owns. Another 40 is also part of the maternal ancestral inheritance.
The other 80 he farms for the bank.
"A lady owned it and she died," Scott explains, "and the bank downtown is handling the estate and I'm their tenant. I farm it on a fifty-fifty basis. They pay half of everything except fuel. We have to pay for the fuel.
"There were literally hundreds of guys trying for the land. Everybody just goes crazy for land around here. Young guys, old guys, everybody. I'm surprised I got those eighty acres. But I guess I was from around here, and on top of that I had all that money borrowed from that bank."
"All that money" refers to the loan he got for many more thousands of dollars than Scott has years of age. It went to buy some basic equipment for him to get started as a farmer. He owns half of the combine with his dad, for example, and had to put up a collection of confinement-feeding buildings for his hogs.
(Glenn Hillman used to let his hogs roam free over about 20 acres, but at $4000 an acre, he can't afford to let land sit by and be idly rooted by contemplative porkers. The land is in corn, so now the hogs are in concrete confinement buildings. Land is so dear around here that a right of way between a highway and some railroad tracks-barely two tractor sweeps wide, and obstructed by telephone poles, at that - is leased from the railroad by 4-H-ers and planted. It's the only way for the kids to work any land. In fact, even planting fencepost to fencepost is meaningless these days. Since most animals are now locked up, the fences aren't necessary anymore, and they've been taken down to free a few more feet of land for plowing.) Scott's doing okay, paying off his big equipment loan. "You can make hogs pay out all right," he says, while noting offhandedly that he's not paying his father any rent on the land. "You can't pay the loan on the land," he explains patiently. "You don't make that much."
He's just saying that of all the little wieners his ninety sows and three boars produce this year, about a thousand of them will survive cold, heat, porcine cannibalism, stomach upsets, scours, and fluctuating market conditions to reach 220 pounds. At 220 pounds, the pigs will each have eaten about twelve bushels, or almost 700 pounds of corn, plus about 100 pounds of soymeal protein supplement, some minerals, some antibiotics, and whatever else animal science and their own ornery intelligence have let them get at, and they will be made into bacon. If Scott gets forty cents a pound for his pigs, he'll consider himself blessed, and that will be his entire return on his education, his labor, his equipment, his fuel, and his land.
As he points out, if he and his father, who produces about fifteen hundred hogs per year, weren't in pork, they'd be dead. If they were raising corn just for the grain market, they'd need 700 or 800 acres. Each. In order to support a family.
Which gets us back to Richard, young Richard, the John Deere mechanic who's waiting for his turn at the land. He's living in a farmhouse not far from his father and Scott, but the geometric furrows that surround the house, carved by a tractor that came as close to the farmyard's trees as it dared, were not made by him. He wanted to farm this land, but when the old man who owned it retired, he rented it to an older, established neighbor whom he'd been dealing with for decades.
This older farmer needed more land, more land to pay for his machinery, the machinery that keeps on coming bigger and more expensive in order that one man can till more and more land.
Economists call that productivity, but for Richard it means he'll have to keep working at his job in town instead of working in the fields. Not only can't he afford to own any land; there isn't even any land to tenant. It's all spoken for by the established growers, and when one retires, he moves into town, rents his house to youngsters like Richard, and leases his land to his friends. His farm, in effect, disappears, gone to economic imperatives.
The only hope that Richard has to get his hand in is for his father to retire and rent the land to his son, and that's a mildly ghoulish wait. Glenn is talking retirement, but the talk doesn't seem to carry much enthusiasm with it.
And on top of all this, all the Hillmans' efforts to continue their family's heritage of working the land doesn't speak to the rights of Bob, Carol, and Jane, the three kids who have made other life arrangements. How will they get their fair share of their inheritance when their parents pass on? If they sell the land to get the money that is coming to them, the price will be so high that their siblings who want to farm won't be able to afford it.
And this is not just a private concern. All over the Breadbasket, especially in urban industrial contexts, people genuflect in the direction of values they believe are taught by the family farm. Rarely are they articulate about what they mean, but as people stumble toward an explanation of what they value in their friends and neighbors around here, the words are always "open," "friendly," "hardworking," "there when you need them," "down to earth." And these are virtues that are perceived as being linked to fresh memories of rural life. On the farm, you can't call in sick or go on strike or demand time and a half. By the same token, as long as you never expect people to look out for you when you're down on your luck, you can frequently assume that they will. The question is, how long can these values survive, estranged from their roots? One generation? Two? No one dares guess.
This "we're all in it together" ethic extends itself socially and politically. Socially, there are pervasive - some would say stifling - pressures not to flaunt wealth, or to ascribe success to "luck." Corporate officers note how few scions become playboys.
Suits come in brown, not gray or blue. Politically, there is still a constituency for bringing the other guy along economically (as long as he isn't too different from you). For example, the only significant difference between the U.S. and Canadian portions of the Breadbasket is in their brands of collectivism.
In the Breadbasket, the Depression, which was seen as the creation of eastern vested interests, led to an eruption of what was called "prairie socialism." The urge was to band together to face the banking, railroad, and industrial powers. In the States, this move was largely channeled into Populism, and its legacy today is maverick politicians like Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern of South Dakota, who lost so spectacularly to Richard Nixon in 1972. (North Dakota still has a state bank; Minnesota, a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.) Practically, this movement led to the New Deal farm policies of dedicating federal tax dollars to guarantees, subsidies, and credit reform. But perhaps one of the most enduring monuments to the period are the great cooperatives, such as Farmers Union. Farmers Union sells a man his seeds, fertilizer, machinery, and fuel, and then buys his crop. It is considered a great free-enterprise institution because every farmer owns a share. But the intent of a co-op is to insulate its members from rapacious private interests. It is meant to re-distribute Easterners' income, not its members'. Co-ops have come to wield so much rapacious economic clout of their own that, often as not, the goal is met. Yet it is hardly rugged individualism.
In the northern Breadbasket, it is a cliché that people from Manitoba have far more in common with Americans to the south than they do with people in Ontario, their industrial sister province to the east. Minneapolis is being redeveloped with Canadian money. (The head of the American consulate in Winnipeg speaks with awe of Canadians in his parts driving three hours south to Grand Forks, North Dakota, for a winter vacation. They check into a motel and have a sauna. All the Canadians say they like American service. You don't have to ask for a second or third cup of coffee in the restaurant, and you don't get charged for it. It is not clear to the consular officer why this is worth a three-hour drive in winter, but, then, when I talked to him he was new to his post.)
But this is not to say that the Breadbasket is a seamless web, politically. In Canada, the Depression was met with an enduring and straightforward socialism. In Saskatchewan, for example, the government is still openly socialist. By the same token, the Canadian Wheat Board, a monopoly, which controls every aspect of the grain market from the moment a farmer's capitalist combine cuts a stalk, is socialist.
In the Canadian Breadbasket, every wheat farmer gets the same price per bushel for his grain as his neighbor, each year. There is no agricultural roulette, as there is in the States. To the south of the arbitrary surveyor's line known as the 49th parallel, every farmer tries to deliver his crop at precisely the right time to catch a fluctuation of a few cents on the commodities market. In Canada, that's considered a sucker's game, in which the little guy, playing the market without the inside dope of governments and trading giants, is doomed to lose. In the United States, the Wheat Board is considered a bureaucratic morass, unable to move fast enough to catch the trend. The "little guys" in this game, they point out, are million-dollar growers.
The argument goes round and round, but the reality is that the whole Breadbasket ultimately is a mixed public-private system, from which the multinational grain traders, like Cargill and Continental, buy and profit. Admittedly, the systems started from two different points, but socially, these institutions don't make a whole lot of difference. The repartee at the coffee shop on opposite sides of the border may differ, but it's not as if any farmer anywhere in the Breadbasket is getting wealthy on grain sales.
Which is not to say that no one in the nation of the Breadbasket is talking about anyone becoming rich as a sheik. Lined up against rank upon rank of high-priced academicians, economists, and diplomats, there is the occasional "ignorant farmer," who, with CARGILL 941 baseball cap in hand (Cargill 941 is a brand of hybrid seed), asks, stubbornly, "Explain to me again why we can't form a cartel?"
I have to admit that no matter how often it is explained to me, I, like the farmers, am too ignorant to grasp fully the reasons that are given against the Breadbasket forming a grain cartel and dramatically hiking grain prices. The most succinct answer I have received that I understand is the one that goes: "A cartel is like a gun. If you intend to draw it, be prepared to shoot it, and if you shoot it, shoot to kill."
That is, if you can't stomach the idea of a lot of innocent people in, say, Calcutta, starving to death while our elevators burst with grain, don't talk about a cartel. Although the target of a cartel may well be an OPEC, inevitably it's somebody else who'll get hurt first. And in the meantime, other people - both those who don't like to see the poor starve, and those who can control basic resources like bauxite or copper - will be retaliating.
That, I understand. We may be too charitable a continent to play hardball with food.
Similarly, it may be possible that the United States has exploited its neighbors for so long that it is impossible for a North American Breadbasket common market to come together. It could be that, no matter how much Regina has to say to Omaha, Washington and Ottawa will never get together.
Be that as it may, let me quote Warren C. Robinson, a Penn State economics professor, about grain cartels:
Objection. There are too many wheat-producing countries to make a cartel workable.
Reply. In fact, there are far fewer wheat-exporting countries of any consequence than oil-exporting ones. Over 50 percent of wheat exports in recent years were supplied by four countries: the United States, Australia, Canada and Argentina. The U.S. alone represents some 40 percent.
Objection. Wheat can be replaced by many other food grains and cereals in human consumption.
Reply. True, and so can petroleum be replaced as a source of energy. But the substitution of rice or potatoes or some other source of carbohydrates in family diets would be difficult for many nations. [The U.S. is also in a strong export position in corn, soybeans, and rice.]
Objection. High wheat prices will encourage other nations to increase supply for their own domestic use and also for export.
Reply. Certainly, almost any country can produce wheat, but the dominance of the grain trade by a handful of countries is based on historical-geographical advantage. The price must rise considerably before it is possible for Saudi Arabia, for example, to become an efficient wheat producer.
Objection. An international price-fixing agreement would cause U.S. food prices to rise, also.
Reply. Not necessarily. The government could calculate anticipated U.S. domestic needs and undertake to export only the "surplus." A two-price system requires only that the government act as the sole exporter of wheat. [The way the Canadian Wheat Board already does.]
Objection. The OPEC nations import a minor fraction of the world grain trade.
Reply. The OPEC nations as a bloc account for about half the world's wheat imports.
Objection. Such blatant self-interest in foreign economic policy will invite retaliation and open economic warfare.
Reply. Perhaps. But is it not equally possible that OPEC and other nations may come to see the United States as an adversary which has finally learned the new rules and must be taken seriously again?
That's the end of the professor's Q & A. There are a few questions that I could add:
Objection. Aren't most nations hostile to North America less dependent on imported grain than we are on petroleum?
Reply. Yes. The United States is up to 50 percent dependent on imported oil, and nations vulnerable to a grain cartel are perhaps only 15 percent dependent on imports. Yet it only takes a 3 or 4 percent disruption of petroleum imports to rock North America.
Objection. Doesn't a great deal of grain go to the feeding of meat animals? Wouldn't a decline in grain shipments lead to folk eating more bread and less steak?
Reply. Tell it to the Polish and the Egyptians. Relatively minor belt-tightening, in the literal sense of the phrase, has led to riots and strikes, even under the most austere regimes.
Objection. Couldn't importing nations, like the Soviets, simply devote more resources to the growing of grain?
Reply. The Soviet Union has spent decades and billions of rubles trying to become self-sufficient in food. It was a major humiliation for them to turn to the West for grain. It was only because they were forced to improve the quantity of meat in the diet of the average man that they are in this market at all. If U.S. grain embargoes are ineffective, it is for the same reason that the Saudis cannot pull off an oil embargo of a country single-handedly. You need a cartel to make embargoes work. This should not obscure the point that there is less slack in the Soviet demand for sausage than there is in the American demand for gasoline.
The road that takes you east out of Sioux City, Iowa, past the stockyards, which claim to be the final destination of more hogs than anywhere else in the world, and almost as many steers, is Gordon Drive. And Gordon Drive is one of this continent's foremost culinary triumphs.
On Gordon Drive, early one December eve, was a Bonanza Sirloin Pit with a sign on which crawled letters, like those on the electric news board in New York's Times Square. On this sign the message was: REMEMBER, IT WASN'T THE DINOSAURS THAT SURVIVED, IT WAS THE LIZARDS. MAKE YOUR CHRISTMAS RESERVATIONS NOW.
Now I know this is true, because I committed at least four misdemeanors, if not felonies, in my car until I was sure I had written the message down right. I'd done enough traveling by then to know that there were folk in certain extremities of this continent who were so limited as perhaps not to believe that the Bonanza Sirloin Pit in Sioux City was taking reservations for Christmas. But what did they know? They probably couldn't tell the difference between an iguana and a Tyrannosaurus rex.
I'd been warned by students of authentic North American eats that I was in for a treat when I came to the Breadbasket. This was the land, I'd been told, for which the 1957 Chevrolet and warm summer nights were invented. Nowhere, my tutors had assured me, could one indulge in a ten-course meal-on-the-move as on the Plains. But nothing prepared me for the gastronomic marvel that is Gordon Drive.
It wasn't just the Bonanza Sirloin Pit. Nor was it simply the proximate location of:
Hardee's char-broiled burgers.
Kentucky Fried Chicken Sunday special four course meal $1.99.
Arby's featuring Arby's roast beef sandwich Rockwell Christmas glasses coming.
Seven-Eleven try our sausage and biscuit sandwich.
Pizza Hut all you can eat $2.39 pizza, pasta, salad bar, Monday thru Friday.
The Palmer House food fuel boat washing.
Godfather's Pizza take one home to feed your mob! Taco pizzas now here!
Wendy's old-fashioned hamburgers give Wendy's gift certificates.
Burger King home of the Whopper.
Nor was it the abundant competition from bastions of local enterprise such as Bogner's prime rib, seafood, steaks, lunch, breakfast, cocktails.
I have to admit the idea of day-old Twinkies at the Wonder Bakery Thrift Shop almost brought me to my knees.
But what finally rendered me prostrate was the grain elevators, which towered over all, like the beer cans of a leviathan with a taste for fries. Painted on each of the silos was one letter, looming through the night. Put them all together, and they spelled F-E-E-D.
I found it humbling to be in the presence of an agricultural civilization that obviously cared so deeply about its supper.
This is heady business, distinguishing an "old-fashioned" hamburger from a "Whopper," and when it comes to the glories of Breadbasket food, I must admit that my observations are merely those of the dedicated amateur. However, I would like to take for my text the distinctions between Gates and Sons Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Missouri, and Arthur Bryant's, five blocks east, down Brooklyn Street.
I recognize that far more distinguished chops than mine have been taken at this subject. It was Arthur Bryant who, after all, casually stepped outside his restaurant one day to find it surrounded by flashing police lights and Secret Service limousines. The movers and shakers of Kansas City had decided that it was important for the president of the United States to get a decent meal. "If I known you was coming," Bryant reportedly told Jimmy Carter, "I would have baked a cake."
And I know that this is not simply a regional debate. The prevailing New York view, for example, is that Arthur Bryant's is the last word in barbecue.
In that, I'm afraid, New York has it wrong. There's no question that Arthur Bryant's has the meat. But Gates's has got the sauce. "Got the sauce, got the sauce, got the SAUCE," in the words of my senior Kansas City barbecue adviser.
This is a difficult observation to refute.
Granted, Gates's lacks ambiance.
Gates's ceiling is a bright red, as are the seats of the chairs supported by stainless-steel tubes. The spanking clean banquettes are also red, with buttons fastening the stuffing to the back. There are live cacti in clay pots along the window.
After every order that's shouted to the chef is drawled out, long and loud, the word "pulleeze." As in, "Draw, pulleeze." A "draw" is a beer taken from a tap. Exhaust fans, sucking gases redolent of animal fat, are so efficient at Gates's that it's hard to tell the place from a McDonald's by smell. In fact, if you ask the folk at Gates's what a "beef and a half is," they'll look at you as strangely as if you'd asked about the origins of a Big Mac. A "beef" is a sandwich with fourteen machined slices of meat. A "beef and a half" has twenty-one slices. (As does the ham and a half, and the combo [beef and ham] and a half.)
On the wall near the entrance, approximately two feet wide by three feet high, is the distinguished portrait of Mr. Gates, the founder. His portrait is illuminated by a wagon-wheel chandelier. Mr. Gates is a black man with a blue suit, at three-quarters profile. In his own way he looks a little like Colonel Sanders.
The only thing that saves Gates's - which now has six locations - from sterility, in fact, is the stainless-steel shrine to the thin, savory, crimson nectar, served piping hot over everything - shrimp, lamb, sausage, chicken, short ends, long ends, and slabs. The Sauce is so good that it can be bought separately, for people have been known to bring the humble contents of their lunch pail into Gates's, hoping for it to be raised to glory by a laying-on of The Sauce.
Outsiders find it astonishing that Arthur Bryant's, by contrast, can have as much ambiance as it does and not be a violation of the health code. Bryant's is a statement, from its Bubble-Up machine, to its Continental II Stereo-Round Jukebox, to its Gottlieb's Volley Pin-Ball machine, to the clock from Hurst's Diamond Shop.
If you cock your hand, monkey-wrench fashion, with your thumb held parallel to the last two joints of your fingers, opposing digits held wide enough apart to clamp around a size seventeen neck, you're ready to grab a four dollar, Arthur Bryant's combination sandwich. It is three pieces of white bread, separated by an indeterminate number of hand-hewn slices of ham and beef. The chef shared with me the secret of its preparation. "I stop when it look big enough," he explained. He then applies his signature. Clamping the extravagance together so that it will fit on one plate, he leaves his four distinguishing fingernail marks in the top piece of bread. Behind him, on open fires, snaps hot fat. Additional sauce is offered in wine cruets.
The juke box is in excellent voice, ranging from the Delfonics to Wilson Pickett to B. B. King. The clock on the wall showing Central Time has one of the twelve letters of Arthur Bryant's name at each point where traditionally there are numbers. There are also clocks showing Pacific, Mountain, and Eastern Standard Time. They are covered with arcs of grease, as, in fact, is everything in the place. The Pacific clock is broken. The meat is fantastic. As you sit there, belching discreetly, eyes half-lidded in pleasure, considering what miracles can be wrought from mere hickory smoke at the ministrations of a true artist, it is barely thinkable that even greater ecstacy would be attainable if you just had a little of Gates's Sauce.
There are few natural reasons for Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its only God-given advantage to speak of is that it is as far north on the Mississippi as navigation is practical, although that's true only during the months when the river isn't frozen solid, which are not many. If, in the last century, you were to draw a line between the two coastal commercial hubs of New York and San Francisco, attempting to figure where in the midlands to make your fortune, Minneapolis, four hundred miles northwest of Chicago, would not have been the place. In Kansas City, you could see that it would be almost impossible to fail, since Kansas City was bound to be the crossroads of everything. But it would take a miracle to make Minneapolis a center of the arts, education, philanthropy, and wealth. To this day, booster publications note that "air pollution is low because Twin Cities weather is one of frequent air mass change." Which means that the wind howls like a banshee. Never in this century have there been two cold snaps of below-zero temperatures for a nonstop week and a half, the locals boast.
Thus, it is with some amazement that one considers what Minneapolis, with all the physical assets and liabilities of, say, Buffalo, has become.
If the 550 U.S. corporations with sales in excess of $1 billion were distributed among states according to population, Minnesota would have one. Instead, it in fact has twenty-four. They are epitomized by such highly sought-after organizations as 3M, Honeywell, and Investors Diversified Services (IDS).
More theater and concert tickets are sold in Minneapolis-St. Paul than anywhere other than New York City. Beyond that statistic, the place is loaded with real, live, ordinary people who animatedly, and with fresh memories, discuss the last play they went to.
An astonishing 77 percent of the high school graduates go on to higher education, and this from even the most isolated rural area or ethnic neighborhood. The area is a fascinating one for demographers, since it is approximately the sociological continental divide. It is about here that kids stop being fascinated by Boston and New York City, and start becoming mesmerized by Denver and L.A.
Big business here leads the continent in giving away pretax profits to charity. The average contribution is twice the continental average. It is paced by Dayton-Hudson, which gives away five times the continental average. Dayton-Hudson used to be a local department store. It's now become a major retailing chain, spawning division after division, giving away good money as it goes.
Politics are clean. Minnesota's donation to national leadership is generous, Vice-Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale being examples.
Even the winter has been tamed, after a fashion. The tailgate parties in Bloomington before, during, and after the Minnesota Vikings games have become legendary. It is true that the all-time tailgate party was attended by four hundred and was held inside a tractor-trailer. It is not true that the survivors were still being dug out in March. By the same token, snowmobiling has introduced a whole new dimension to the concept of the pub crawl. Bundled up in layer upon layer of twenty-first-century fabric, crowds of twenty-five or thirty couples venture out on snow machines, spending a Sunday in the sun in outrageous temperatures, visiting one schnapps house after another, frequently stopping to tighten a fan belt or take a nip or whatever.
Twentieth-century technology generally has made a big difference in everyday life in Minnesota. Dozens of blocks of downtown Minneapolis are linked by skyways, second-story passages that allow people free movement from shop to shop without fear of the cold. (This is not unlike downtown Houston, which, through underground connections, guards its populace from an equally absurd, if opposite, climate.) Serious, man-high snow-eating machines to keep the roads clear have also dramatically changed transportation. It's actually fairly hard to get snowed in in Minnesota.
So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that when the first, landmark study quantifying quality of life entered the public dialogue, the state that ranked second in amenities, after California, was not only a Breadbasket state, but a northern Breadbasket state: Minnesota.
It may be a coincidence, but Minneapolis is also the home of the Cultural Change Surveillance System. The CCSS, as it is called, is run by General Mills, and it's certainly no accident that General Mills is headquartered in Minneapolis. Like Cargill, Pillsbury, International Multifoods, and others, the wheat tier of the Breadbasket was an obvious home base for a milling-and-marketing outfit.
The Cultural Change Surveillance System was set up by General Mills to make sure it had our number. Says G. Burton Brown, the cautious, scholarly head of the operation: "Everything that's going to happen in the future is going to be a direct outgrowth of something that's happening in the present. Nothing just takes place absolutely without precedent. I think that's virtually a complete little piece of truth right there."
So what the CCSS has done is set up a collection of monitors with a very eclectic periodical reading list, and every time the word "change" or "new" or some synonym pops up, these folk write a short report. And these reports turn into changes in the way we eat.
What did we do when we saw the women's movement coming? [asked Brown]. Well, the most obvious examples have to do with working women and your convenience products. One of the biggest problems the working woman has is of preparing a good-tasting meal conveniently, with as little advance planning as possible, and the products we've created keep this in mind.
Hamburger Helper really started out with the observation that, working or not, one of the most pervasive problems women have is figuring out another way to serve hamburger so that the family won't get tired of it. Hamburger Helper offers a little variety. Something that is appealing, the family will like it. It's wholesome. Easy. Not much cleanup. Top-of-the-stove kind of thing. Not much time.
Stir and Frost [cake mix] literally started with the sociological development of smaller families, and people wanting less cake, and not wanting to clean up pots and pans. We actually drew a little picture of this product, and see, the pan's in there, and on the side of the box was Step One, Step Two, and Step Three.
I think we called it Little Cake and then another version, All-in-One-Cake, or something like that. And we told them what it would cost, and we put it into our little concept test system. And it came up near the top.
Cheerios are big things among young mothers for keeping kids quiet. You can just put them on the tray there and the kid can pick them up and mush them around and if they fall on the floor so what. The new, college-educated mother likes them because they're very low in sugar. People think that's important now. We've even backed some additives out of some of our foods. Especially some of the colors. We did that in the case of Cheerios. I remember a test in which we compared uncolored Cheerios with the more golden version that we had been marketing up to that time.
The energy problem is taking us toward food you don't have to cook. For example, Pillsbury has no-bake pies. I haven't tried one, but it's probably a graham-cracker crust with a pudding filling. It's a response to the energy crisis. Oh, yeah! Really! I definitely would say so!
We haven't found a way to be particularly helpful to elderly people. That's another one we've studied a number of times. We're certainly aware that they're the segment of the population that is the most rapidly growing, and will be for a long time. Some of the parameters we've examined are digestive, the minerals and things, the special dietary requirements that old people have. The problem is economics, at least partly. I don't know how you solve that problem. Another problem is that it's no fun to eat alone. You don't feel like preparing anything Meals are no fun if you're eating by yourself. We've talked about it at meetings. Could this be the starting point for something? It's pretty hard to find a solution other than to invite somebody over.
But what about Minneapolis? I asked. Is Minneapolis a good place from which to watch North America? Would the company that invented Betty Crocker be different if it were not part of the Breadbasket?
Well [said Brown], take one of the first things we noticed when we first set up the Cultural Change Surveillance System. Organic foods. The interest in organic foods, which had been limited to only a few people for many years, was becoming broader. It wasn't strictly organic foods, but natural foods, and foods that weren't processed, and foods that weren't made by major manufacturers.
And it wasn't just this band of screwballs who had been associated with it in the past. It was an expanding group of academics, nutritionists, even students. A pretty broad base of people. So we thought that there was reason to believe that trend might expand and continue. This was the middle of 'sixty-nine.
I do think that it is probably true that if and when something begins to take hold here in Minneapolis, it proves something. Take granola, for example. Granola was that sort of thing. As far as I know, it started in Colorado. We were aware of the organic foods, natural foods, interest. And we were aware of granola as a specific manifestation of it. But when we began to see granola in some of the stores around here, around the university . . .
Yeah, I think that kind of told us something.
The way these Cultural Change Surveillance System reports have distilled forces of great passion and scope, and focused them on our bellies, may ignite the tempers of the high-minded.
But there's another way of looking at it. To those who have watched with a touch of anxiety the social upheavals of the last few decades, who have viewed with trepidation one convention after another being turned on its head, the CCSS may be reassuring.
It may be comforting to know that no matter what goes down in our society, there are always folk in the Breadbasket who are minding the store.