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24 March, 2008

Wheat Power

Last post began corny and then got a bit wind-baggy.

After leaving corn country, I entered the Wheat Republic. Corn waits in a crib, while wheat rides the elevator into a row of skyscrapers visible from a dozen miles away, places where trains drive up and load up. A place like this. You cannot tell exactly, but those silos are miles away and 3,000 feet tall.

Maybe I exaggerate, but the point is that these kind of things don't just sprout up on every farm. As far west as the Mo-state, I would see farmhouses not so far apart, each with its corn crib, lots with some animals. Late 20th Century farming certainly didn't condone it, but you could imagine making a farm like that into something self-sufficient.

In the vast flat of Kansas, though, they pool the crop. My uncle lived in eastern Colorado wheat country, and like everybody else there, put his grain in the co-op. Farms there are rarely self-sufficient, and maybe it doesn't make sense to be. You and a few other people are out there all winter exposed to arctic winds slowed only by a couple of barbed-wire fences, coyotes making off with your farm cats now and then. And in the summer everybody's crop may fall to drought (or a bad global market), or an unlucky few may get hit by hail; either way, pulling together works better than every man for himself. Same for marketing wheat. Nobody really wants to drive to Kansas to buy just a ton, so everybody congregates grain by the train. And buyers get product from the co-op. Farmers hold or sell their share according to their needs and nerves, but the market is so big and the costs so persistent that nobody really can hold on indefinitely until the prices skyrocket, and most everybody ends up in a similar boat.

The other side of the pooled grain game is that there is social pressure on the supply side. You don't make sure you have combines at harvest time, or you pull up to the elevator with grain that's not dry enough, or you otherwise do something out of line and harm the product, and you don't last. You try to go it alone in the plains, and you will die miserably. People have known that for millenia.

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