I look down the row

far as I can see

King Corn, King Corn

starin’ right back at me – Greg Brown, Iowa-born folk singer

Before long, our visit to Ft. Collins, Colorado, was coming to an end. It was a quiet vacation punctuated with daily hikes in mountainous foothills and setting our lawn chairs in shallow rocky streams while folks lazily tubed past in the deeper sections. Sunscreen and hats are a must along with frequent hydration. The desert-climate temperature peaked at 97 degrees.

The dry heat reminded me of the saying, “It ain’t the heat; it’s the gol-durn humidity,” in reference to the type of heat experienced in the Midwest. The arid conditions in Ft. Collins made 97 degrees surprisingly tolerable.

There were elements of the visit that made our goodbye particularly bittersweet. Wendy and I know we’ll want to return in December, but don’t know if we’ll be able to. With Wendy working in the public-school system, timing would be everything. There’s so much uncertainty on many fronts that planning is difficult.

We left Ft. Collins to head east toward Interstate 80. The eastern portion of Colorado is a far cry from the mountainous images one associates the state with. Before long we entered the vast Pawnee National Grassland. The grassland is in an especially depopulated area of the Great Plains. It saw limited cultivation in the early 20th century but was withdrawn from farming after the Dust Bowl. Now and then a lone pump jack worked seeking oil like a giant prehistoric bird along the horizon.

Our first destination on the 16-hour ride home was a state park in Grand Island, Nebraska. I set the cruise control and settled in behind a Peterbilt pulling a flatbed of sweet Walla Walla onions from Washington State. Pandemic or not, riding on Interstate 80 reminded me that the lanes of commerce roll on. Semis were everywhere and double-buggy Fed Ex trucks owned the road. A cornucopia of “stuff” was rolling to a store near you.

Author Willa Cather wrote three novels about the early settlers taming the harsh unknown land of Nebraska. Perhaps the most profound quote from a character in her famous 1918 novel, “My Antonia,” was in reference to the early days of growing corn on Nebraska’s unfamiliar soils. The character speaking was young Jimmy Shimerda.

“It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather’s to see that the small cornfields would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerda’s cornfields, but the world’s cornfields,” he said. “That their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace and war.”

Think about it friend. Willa Cather, who was born in 1873, was spot on. We now live in an agricultural world centered around corn. In our crop insurance, our infrastructure and our agronomic research corn plays a huge role. Visit the cereal aisle in a grocery with its myriad of processed corn packaged into colorful boxes. Corn is King. It’s everywhere in the Cornhusker State. Nearly 70 percent of the crop is irrigated from the Ogallala Aquifer, and from reservoirs that collect water from snow melt and rains as far away as the Rockies

The only thing missing on our ride through Nebraska was auto-steer as I pulled our camper on a straight shot to Grand Island. Our reserved spot beneath a fluttering Cottonwood tree was a welcome sight at Mormon Island State Recreation Area. We slept beneath that Cottonwood and the wide Nebraska sky while the highway whined with night riders.

We’d heard about the derecho while in Ft. Collins. Derecho translated from Spanish means direct. I know about straight-line winds. One took down my dairy barn and silo in 1997. When the barn went down a lightning rod was flung from the side of the barn and landed like a harpoon stuck into the ground near the front door of our house.

We knew the derecho was bad when the RV park near Webster City, Iowa, contacted us to inform us they were without electricity and water. We canceled our reservation and went further north to a state park in Mason City, Iowa. Along the way heading north on Interstate 35 we began to see flattened corn fields. A steel grain bin laid twisted in the middle of a soybean field. A friend provided me with a photo of flattened corn near Ames, Iowa. The damage was very real. Almost 11 million acres of corn were affected; the real economic impact is yet to be determined. After a night in Mason City we made the final leg of the journey to the woodlot.

The photo gallery for this story tells the tale of how important it was for Wendy and me to make this trip. This December will be a special month for our family. Between now and then we’ll be sending good vibes to our daughter and son-in-law daily, and touching base often through Zoom gatherings.

Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.