Long lines of concrete towers watch over the rumbling slow trains that pass through Minneapolis. The power of these Flour City granaries is imposing yet inchoate. Rationally, I understand this power, and I recognize its smell – it is the same industrial political power exhibited in the giant Monsanto and Dow chemical plants of my east-coast childhood (the plants that stretched too far along the highway to be able to hold your breath long enough to pass by). I also recognize this power as a social scientist: this is the power of the green revolution – modernity’s hope of feeding the multitudes – judging agrarian lifestyles and livelihoods to be bleak and obsolete, pointing the past along a developmentalist trajectory toward a glorious capitalist metropolitan future. But knowing this power is not the same as stepping into the spell cast in the long shadows of these giant concrete skyward-reaching grain bins.
In Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, William Cronon’s acclaimed account of the making of the Midwest, grain elevators play a crucial role in the story of the successful commodification of agriculture. Recounting how individual farmers’ grain harvests – with the qualities of specific fields, weather, genetics, and tending, tagged and followed as lumpen sacks from farm through the production chain – became transformed into a golden stream of uniform, graded commodities, Cronon paints grain elevators as the beacon of the capitalization of production agriculture. One slip of paper for a ton of grade1 spring wheat is just like any other such slip. This radical fungibility of crops rent the complex webs of society and environment in which they were previously embedded and released the energy of the speculative capital that poured into what became futures markets, the Chicago Board of Trade, and eventually even the derivatives markets that so recently foundered on mortgage securities. As we have learned with mortgage securities, we may yet learn that – in the same grade or not – all grains and other foodstuffs may not be equal.
On the drive that moved me to the Midwest, I stopped in Chicago, halfway to the Flour City. Standing in the silence of the preserved trading room of the old wheat exchange, I listened for echoes of the collision we are witnessing between cataclysmically different paradigms of agri-food power. If the grain elevators represent the freeing efficiency of the market loosed in the grainbelt, they also represent the massive consolidation of power that capital has enabled. And the recent efflorescences of interest in alternative food and agriculture have trained new questions on the old money and power of the agribusiness establishment, casting into the deep shadows of the elevators and the trading floor questions about health, wealth, environment, hunger, democracy, and corruption. As I stared up at the board where the price of wheat and corn set the futures of millions of displaced or displacing farmers, I projected the day’s headlines up on the board: on one side we see that the year’s dramatic economic volatility has exacerbated the hunger the elevators’ green revolution was going to erase; on the other we see that agribusiness giants like Cargill and ADM have used their strong position to reap from the same volatility unprecedented profits for the stockholders whose vast capital is manifest in the solidity of those elevators and the grandeur of the preserved trading room.
ADM elevators stand sentry over my daily path between my home and the university where I work – the same university that trained Norman Borlaug, the ‘father’ of the green revolution – and also over the path between my home and the community garden plot I have just planted for the first time today. The 80-plex granary has been labeled in giant letters – by graffitists, or perhaps a demolition crew, it’s not clear – one giant white letter on each elevator shaft: “UNITED CRUSHERS.” Through not-fully-leafed out trees, I can see the United Crushers elevators from my home desk, from the transitway, and from the University. From each place, the phrase takes on different connotations. From the distance of the General Mills classroom and the Cargill Center and Borlaug Hall, United Crushers evokes the manufacturing grandeur of the giant feed mills; from my desk, the omnipresence and scale of the elevators inspire wonder at the scope of what my east-coast imagination still sees as an astonishing sweeping gesture of transformation of the prairie; from the transitway that runs through the granary, though, the United Crushers label signals the elevators’ demise.
I know that urban elevators are still used across the Midwest. Grain cars roll past the community garden constantly. Fascinated, I have stood my bike against the crumbling concrete at night. In the dim light from the small square windows in the gables of the house-like conveyor structures perched atop the elevators, I have listened to the giant hiss and slither of pouring grain. But “build-to-suit” signs mark the granary properties, and as their neighborhoods gentrify, their imposing industrial shadows seem shabby with weeds and dust. Against the backdrop of my decades-long ranting about agribusiness (early in our marriage, my husband requested a one-a-day limit for Monsanto bad news stories), the sorrow I feel at the demise of these hulking bins brings me up short. It compels me to walk my bike into the imposing shadows to explore what possible redemption the elevators might beg as, even now, they buttress commodity support programs like the farm bill. As farmers work to restore and create new agroecologies, it is against this grand power that they struggle to redefine the agri-food mainstream.
So I stand in the rumble of the railyards and measure the power and weight of grain agriculture against the romance of local vegetable farming pervading even the Flour City. Perhaps the contrary nature of agriculturalists is rubbing off on me, but as much as I rationally see the benefits of the vegetable perspective and the unaccounted costs of monoculture annual row cropping, I am also captive to the less appreciated romance of the modernization of agriculture. Coming from a region where the edifices of food processing have become luxury residences for the urban hip, pushing even farther from everyday imagination the disparities between healthy (if pricey) local food and the subsidized feedstocks that pass through these elevators, I can see what’s at stake as starkly as if it were written in bullet points under “United Crushers.” While proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are shipped long distances to be refined elsewhere and local farmers can’t afford processing, the romance of authenticity and soil has further pushed aside the aspirations of equitable prosperity that grew alongside – but have perhaps been strangled by – the capitalist visions of the green revolution.
I do not believe the market or a new green revolution will ever address hunger or most of the other perils of commodified agriculture. But I do think we must project our visions of an equitable and healthy food system up on the harsh concrete facades of elevators that symbolize the bastions of agri- food power. The vibrant, cheerful colors and organic shapes of locally and sustainably grown produce and the peopled din of the farmers’ market may fade on that surface, making the glorious, modern, heavenwards reach of the elevators look dead and sterile. The CSA boxes, even a whole city’s worth of them – all the drop-off piles stacked up together – look tiny in the long shadows. But the work that holds these different visions of food and agriculture juxtaposed may require us to call into question our beliefs in their incompatibility, and in so doing, begin to open more conversations that enable us to engage the power structure of United Crushers even as we redefine a middle ground agriculture that manifests health and equity within the complex webs of society and environment, neither as an ornament for wealthy tables nor as a pariah eyesore to be pushed out of sight, out of mind, and out of the redeveloping margins of the Flour City.
Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.