Sunday, December 5, 2010

Red Bud, Illinois: John Howell, Gateway FS Inc.

The rain was pouring down and we were driving around with no interviews scheduled for the day but keeping our eyes open for the spontaneous opportunity. It came in the form of John Howell, a farm consultant at Gateway FS Inc., which is an agricultural chemical company that operates as a cooperative in the area. If you conjure up images of what you think a young Illinois farmer might look like you'd have some version of John Howell: very tall and broad-shouldered, with a quiet but forthright demeanor.

We dropped in just as the rain really broke, and inquired about local farmers we may be introduced to.  The secretary said, "Well we got one right here!  Hey John!  Come meet these people."  He uneasily agreed to let us interview him, occasionally shooting the secretary who had let us in dirty looks.  John  had recently graduated with an agricultural degree and helps on his family's farm besides his day job at FS.  He loves farming and also knows the reality that his family farm can only support so many people so he is grateful and happy to work the FS job in conjunction. One of the main components of his job is to have test plots that analyze the productivity of the fertilizer the company is selling.
John reports that the results are usually positive; crops are more productive and the belief is that they would be in even better shape if they there wasn't a drought happening in Illinois right now (despite the pounding rain at the moment).  He reflects on his grandfather's era, when corn production may have yielded 40-60 bushels per acre.  That volume has dramatically increased in the past century, doubling in just the past 30 years.  John tells us about some tests recently that have been breaking records and that we will see 250+ bushels per acre in the next decade or two (currently we see around 160-180 bushels/acre average).

He realizes that the common opinion of agricultural chemicals is negative in the public eye, especially in urbanized areas.  He calls himself a realist and opines that the world will not be able to feed itself with organic methods considering our population boom.  John makes the point that we either need to stop developing farms so that they can continue to meet the needs of the world (farmland preservation is a hot topic all over the country), or we need to figure out how to grow 300 bushels of corn on an acre that is only producing half that now. Which is what he's doing with his products and research
Many people are familiar with the "organic methods will not feed the world" argument.  Popular media is severely slanted against high-production farming and many Midwestern farmers seem to feel demonized and misunderstood by non-farmers.  They are, in general, experts at their trade, pulling corn or wheat or soybeans from their land every year for much of their lives.  They are keenly aware of the issues that exist around ag, and will always remind you that they do not abuse their land or overuse chemicals for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it's foolish to think that they would seek to destroy their own property, which happens to be their source of income.

As we talked to John I was reminded that farmers are divided about the reality that U.S. (and worldwide) farmland will not be able to sustain our population as it explodes. There are people like Hector Black and Jack Lazor who just want to grow a little healthy food and let the earth rest, and there are those who look into the future and fear what they see there: hungry Americans without the know-how or space to grow their own food. For those who want to prepare for the crisis they see coming, they vigorously try to protect fertile land, and they push it to grow at max capacity so that when a food shortage happens communities will not starve to death.  The jobs we do and the niches we fill are varied, and the complex system of trade and transport that has developed in this nation is complex.  That system gives Midwest farmers a responsibility to feed their own community as well as foreign breadbaskets.  They don't take that responsibility lightly.


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