Monthly Archives: February 2015

Pioneer Village

Driving about 50 miles east from Arapahoe, through an alternating landscape of fields and small towns, we came to the small town of Minden, Nebraska. Like all other small towns in this region, it is marked by grain elevators and railroad tracks. However Minden is also home to Pioneer Village, an indoor-outdoor museum that has been named “Best Pioneer History Collection” for several years running.

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If you couldn’t tell from my lengthy description of the Living History Farms in Iowa, I love places like this. That said, I love anywhere that allows me to interact with life, past or present, from a working farm to a historic home to a Revolutionary War reenactment. So I was delighted with this place.

Pioneer Village represents the vision and life work of Harold Warp. It claims to be the largest private collection of Americana—and I have no reason to doubt that. The complex is home to 50,000 artifacts that cover the full spectrum of the region’s settlement and development, all lovingly restored and carefully grouped by function and era. There is also a splendid art gallery. All this is housed in more than two dozen buildings, many of which are, themselves, historic artifacts. It offered a splendid opportunity to see things I’d only read about or seen in photographs – and the next few posts will show more details.

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Don’t know if you’re planning a trip across Nebraska, but if you are, I’d recommend this as a way to get “up close and personal” with a lot of the history of the Great Plains.  http://www.pioneervillage.org/

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February on the Farm

Back in January, I introduced the “Life of a Farmer” series, which was created by the Peterson Farm Brothers. This series takes viewers through a year on the Peterson farm, one month at a time, reminding us all that there is more to farming than just planting and harvesting. Eldest brother Greg Peterson is the narrator. I was sufficiently impressed with Greg’s passion for communicating the reality of farming to the non-farming world that I got in touch, and he became one of the many people whose experience and knowledge populate my book, Midwest Maize.

Here is February’s episode.

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Barbed Wire

There’s an old poem that begins, “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For the want of a horse, the rider was lost.” And so on—the point of the poem being that little things can make a big difference.

A bit of twisted barbed wire on Cathy’s farm reminded me that one of the little things that made a big difference on the prairies and Great Plains, when they were first being settled, was barbed wire. Fencing was fairly easy in the east, as trees were abundant, but out on the treeless plains, it often cost more to build fences than to buy the land. Plain wire fences had been attempted, but cattle easily broke through simply by leaning on them.

As with most inventions, lots of people were working on a solution, but one person came up with the idea that gained traction. In 1873, Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, IL, designed a simple, sharp, wire barb that was locked into a double-stranded wire. Glidden applied for a patent, which was issued in 1874. The acceptance was swift and international, and the impact was huge. On the Great Plains, it ended the era of the open range. Barbed wire also soon found other applications, besides farming, and by the end of the 1800s, it was widely used by the military worldwide.

Amazing what a difference a little twist of wire can make.

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The View from the Bluffs

From the high bluffs that overlook the Republican River, we had a view of a broad stretch of land that was not merely picturesque but that also summed up both history and present reality for the Great Plains, and indeed for much of the rural Midwest: farms, grain elevators, trains, and water for transportation and irrigation.

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The sky was hazy with heat and dust. The wind was hot, insistent, and more than a little haunting. The sound of it coming across the prairie evoked for me tales of pioneers, early settlers, and drovers moving across the land.

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Farming is Not for Sissies

One of the things most non-farmers don’t think about is how dangerous huge amounts of corn can be. Most realize that farming is hard work, but it can also be dangerous work. Bins and silos filled with grain are among the elements that contribute to making farming one of the most dangerous jobs in the world—second only to coal mining. Corn flows like water, sucks you down like quicksand, and is so heavy that, if you sink in as deep as your chest, you’ll probably suffocate, because the weight is too great for you to keep breathing. So far, there is no alternative to getting into the bin when there is a problem, so farmers have to be careful—and brave. For non-farmers, it’s important to remember that growing a lot of corn is not without its dangers.

There are a lot of videos on YouTube about safety programs, rescues, deaths, and dangers associated with grain bins. Here’s one on safety that also illustrates how things go wrong.

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Finding Space for All the Corn

In recent decades, advances in agriculture have led to steadily increasing yields. Demand for corn continues to increase, but since field corn is all harvested at about the same time, it needs to be kept somewhere until it’s needed, whether for the animals that eat it or the processors that turn it into whatever is needed, from biofuels to cornmeal. Or, if prices are too low, kept until prices rise to a level where the farmer makes enough money to pay his bills.

Here are two possible solutions: really big grain bins or airtight polyethylene tubes or bags. I saw both as I toured the area around Arapahoe. There was a third that I didn’t see, because it only appears as it is filled: a giant bin that “inflates” as corn is pumped in. It is one of the largest corn storage units in the world. Jane pointed out the spot where it would “grow” as corn continued to come in. Considering how large the metal bins were, it’s almost hard to imagine how big the new structure will be when filled.

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The storage tubes are essentially “emergency” storage, when the crops overwhelm the ability to move them all to other storage facilities or processors. They are not just used for corn, and they are not just used in the United States. They give farmers worldwide the ability to store more in a good year, so it’s there when the inevitable bad year occurs. In a world where demand is growing but land is often vanishing, being able to store grain, soybeans, and other crops on the same land that grew them can make a huge difference in making certain nothing goes to waste.

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And here’s a tube not yet filled, just to show that it really is corn—classic yellow Corn Belt dent corn.

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Not Just Corn

Rivers are easily identified in dryer areas by trees and scrub that grow along their banks, especially here on the Great Plains. The Great Plains are pretty much defined by not having trees, because the almost constant wind and regular brush fires kept trees from growing even before this land was converted to farms. But the trees would grow near rivers, where adequate water made holding on easier.

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While corn had become the favorite grain of the early colonists, newcomers spreading across the prairie in the mid 1800s wanted wheat. Wheat was what rich people ate. Wheat needed good soil to grow well. In Europe, the poor lived on marginal lands, where rye, oats, and millet would survive, but not wheat. So wheat became part of the mix on the Great Plains. It never came close to competing with corn, as far as acreage and importance, but still it has a significant presence. The gold of the ripening wheat is beautiful, especially in the wind, which makes it ripple like the sea.

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Other crops in the area include milo (grain sorghum), hay, and alfalfa. But still, corn is king. (And if you’d like to know more about sorghum, I did a post on it on my World’s Fare site: https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/sorghum/.)

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