Beardstown, Illinois, is a relatively small town with a current population of around six-thousand that is located on the Illinois River, south of Peoria. It was founded in the early 19th century by Thomas Beard on land known as Indian Mound Village, a name suggestive of the indigenous inhabitants that have been all but eradicated from any visible history. The river has played a huge role in how this land has been shaped, facilitating the movement of earth, wildlife, people, and ideas. Today, the river’s importance to the town is still visible, if muted, but there are other vectors of change that have superseded it. What follows is a set of stories about some of the contemporary conditions of Beardstown in the form of a glossary. These terms came to define many of our experiences there and provide one entry into the complex set of relationships that bind the town to the midwestern region and to the larger world.
Three GPS-equipped John Deere 9660 STS combine harvesters were in the field collecting tiny kernels of corn like blue whales harvesting plankton in the Pacific Ocean. Only the whale would have had to engineer the sea to contain dense, homogenized rows of plankton to be as efficient as the farmer-combine. That, and the whale wouldn’t actually eat the plankton, but would ship it off to other whales far away to process into derivatives and “value-added” products. Or maybe feed it to other animals that they would later eat, transferring the calories into other forms of consumable flesh.
A single grain of corn is around a centimeter in size. But no one measures the size of corn in kernels. It’s measured by the bushel, pound, ton, acre, hectare, mile, kilometer, dollar, yen, yuan, peso, and euro. If you’re a specialist, it’s measured by the twenty-foot-equivalent-unit. This field, planted and harvested by Dudley Farms, Inc. is about seven-thousand acres of hybrid corn. It’s taken away in one-thousand--bushel units, carried by eighteen wheelers from the field to an elevator in nearby Pleasant Plains,IL. From the logically named “dump pit” the corn is then moved in smaller units, riding in tiny, but rapidly moving, buckets up and into drying and storing compartments.
A Discovery Channel documentary on corn has called the U.S. corn harvests the “Superbowl” of farming in recognition of the scale and magnitude of the effort. It’s also an apt analogy given the fierce competition and branding involved.
We met the Dudleys (two brothers, Matt and Steve) one day while they were harvesting. They explained a little bit about the role of land and real estate in commodity farming. They also provided some anecdotes about their interactions in the global trade for corn and beans. We discussed things like “identity preservation” and the need to keep different kinds of corn separate, as Europe and Japan don’t import genetically modified corn from the US.
Their farm, they told us, is small by current commodity crop standards. Land in this part of the country, Central Illinois, can go for more than eight-thousand dollars per acre. This land is leased, not owned, a fairly common practice for even large farmers. Steve Dudley explained that buying and renting farmland is an extremely competitive part of the business, as local farmers compete with each other to buy up scarce land as it becomes available. And they’re not just competing with each other. Speculative investors, buyers who plan to eventually sell or lease the land for profit, represented twenty-one percent of land purchases in 2008, according to the IL Society of Professional Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.
As we document these conversations and their harvesting operations, the Dudleys explain their familiarity with being photographed and questioned. “The Japanese businessmen who visit to check out the crops take lots of pictures,” Steve tells us. It didn’t seem that he was just repeating the stereotype of camera-wielding Japanese tourists. Japan imported almost thirteen-million metric tons of corn in 2009. Forty-million metric tons of U.S. corn was delivered to the ports of other nations that year, adding up to a financial weight of over nine-billion USD. Where does this corn enter the network that ends in the EU, Mexico or Japan? Steve points west on Illinois State Road 125, towards Beardstown.
In Google Earth, a barely perceptible flick of the wrist can get one from a combine in the Dudleys’ cornfield to one of two river terminals in Beardstown. On the road, they are a mere fifteen miles apart. Corporate giant Cargill owns the terminals and a regional grain cooperative, Clarkson Grain. Just north, in Frederick, is another large terminal facility owned by Archer Daniels Midland. Sitting on the wall built to protect Beardstown from an overflowing river, one can watch farm equipment, corn, wheat, soybeans, coal, scrap metal, and empty containers move to and from their domestic and international destinations at the pace of a few miles per hour.
East of town, maybe a mile or so from the Illinois River, sits United Food and Commercial Workers Local 431, the union office for Cargill’s workforce of approximately two-thousand people. We wanted to ask union representative, Duke Walters, about the work done at the plant. When we called him to set up the meeting, he suggested that we might also want to talk to some representatives from Cargill. Upon arrival, we found two company reps waiting with Walters. They were wearing short-sleeved, cotton polo shirts sporting Cargill’s logo tucked into khaki slacks. They immediately started in with questions for us:
So, why do you want to talk to us?
How does this have anything to do with art?
We explained that we were trying to create images of Beardstown that reflected its complex relationship with the larger world, and that this was difficult because of the prevailing depictions of rural places as isolated and inherently not cosmopolitan. After seeming to succeed in convincing them of our purpose, we proceeded with our questions, but it became immediately apparent that Walters would be a mostly silent participant in the exchange. This was a job for the public relations department.
In between well-rehearsed statements on the company’s ethical treatment of the eighteen-thousand hogs it slaughters daily and its progressive stewardship of the Illinois River (into which the company dumps three-million pounds of toxic waste annually), the reps did manage to give us something resembling answers to our basic questions. Where do the five-million-six-hundred-thousand eight ounce servings of pork go once they leave the plant every day? While not being able to speak to many of the details involved in the movement of their goods, they could say this: the small plant in rural Illinois ships to Mexico, Russia, China, Japan and that it collaborates directly with outlets like Applebee’s® and Wendy’s® to produce specially-tailored products like the Baconator® hamburger. We also learned that cuts of pork are actually taken from Beardstown to Tokyo fresh. “Fresh” as in “not frozen,” but vacuum sealed before being sent by refrigerated trucks to ports on the West Coast, maybe Portland or Long Beach, where they are sent by ship to ports in Japan. Less than thirty days after a hog is killed, pork from that hog is put on a shelf in a store in Tokyo. In the world of logistics, this reality is called the “cold chain.” The cold chain is one of the places where the distances between the site of production and the site of consumption are visible.
In 2002, over one-thousand-two-hundred-billion dollars of food was moved by four-hundred-thousand refrigerated containers (known in the industry as “reefers”). Why not move the sites of production closer to that of consumption? Surely, even for a company like Cargill, the costs of transport are vast. In other words, why does the cold chain exist? Here in the Midwest, our ground grows grain (corn and soy), and lots of it. While the transport of grain makes up another chain of economic flows, a large part of regionally grown grain stays in the area. Considering the costs of labor and transportation, it is actually cheaper, for large and small producers alike, to raise animals in the Midwest because this is where the grain is. Last year, an exported metric ton of meat earned more than fifteen times the same volume of exported corn and soy combined. Meat can be viewed as grain in another, equally mobile, yet more valuable form. Thus, Cargill reps cued us in to the “warm chain” (our term, not theirs), where hogs from nearby feeding lots in five different states are raised until they reach six months or two-hundred-seventy pounds before being brought to Beardstown. Upon arrival, they are gassed and cut into pieces, the parts traveling through the plant’s conveyor belts and onto reefers where they enter the cold chain.
For the better part of the last century, Rushville and Beardstown, Illinois, were Sundown Towns--places that, often violently, excluded African Americans and non-whites. As previously all-white communities, neither town developed the historically prescribed and segregated “black,” “brown” or otherwise ethnically defined neighborhoods common to most racially diverse American cities. Urban zoning protocols that supported the segregation of cities were never put in place there. In a drive around Beardstown, activist and urban planner, Faranak Miraftab, pointed out the results: ethnically and economically mixed neighborhoods with apartments, trailers and single-family dwellings situated side-by-side. Africans, Caribbeans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, long-time white residents, and Mexicans are neighbors. To our untrained eyes, the town just looked varied--to Faranak, they signaled something more remarkable.
The story of how this formerly all-white town became the home of residents from around the globe has many chapters, including industry restructuring, international trade agreements, the U.S. Farm Bill, the U.S. State Department’s Diversity Visa Lottery program, the travails of migration, and the struggles of newcomers to make a place home. Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing describes such realities through the metaphor of friction:
It is these vicissitudes I am calling friction. Friction makes global connection powerful and effective. Meanwhile, without even trying, friction gets in the way of the smooth operation of global power. Difference can disrupt, causing everyday malfunctions as well as unexpected cataclysms. Friction refuses the lie that global power operates as a well-oiled machine...
Perhaps, from the perspective of Cargill, Beardstown and Rushville residents are the grease, lubricating production for large revenues in their “meat solutions” division. But from the perspective of everyday life in the two towns, friction represents the complicated negotiations regarding language, culture, and ideas of identity. Indeed, the forces of friction have unequivocally divested these towns of their status as “white only,” and may well change the way a multinational corporation like Cargill operates. In lieu of paying full taxes on its business, Cargill donates to cultural events and spaces like the annual Africa Day and Mexican Independence Day celebrations, as well as a large soccer field utilized primarily by Latina/o and African immigrants. This support is certainly part of a community relations and employee management strategy. It is important, however, not to assume that Cargill controls what happens in such spaces. Indeed, the unfolding of these rural, transnational spaces constitutes new articulations of community and new forms of struggle. As Tsing notes, a “teleology” of anthropology or meat packing alone can’t explain the changes seen in these Midwest towns.
Anna Tsing. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connections. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Faranak Miraftab. “Emergent Transnational Spaces: Meat, Sweat and Global (Re)Production in the Heartland”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 36: 1204-1222. 2012.
Our old neighborhood used to have a barbecue every year. We would buy a pig from a local farmer; one household picked up the pig the night before and, with fifty pounds of ice, kept the carcass chilled on the kitchen floor until roasting began the next morning. At the last roast, we met Angie, whose friend, Jon, once worked on the slaughterhouse floor of Oscar Mayer, and later, Cargill in Beardstown. A few months after our neighborhood shindig, we contacted Jon and asked him about life as a meat packer.
In 1968, the job at Oscar Meyer was a good one. After serving in the military, at the age of twenty-one, Jon got a job on the slaughtering floor at two-dollars-twenty-five-cents per hour. Oscar Meyer was a family owned business, with AFL-CIO Local 431(Amalgamated Meat Cutters) working as unionized labor. In the 1980s, Jon explained, new technologies forever changed the industry; selectively bred hogs ensured standardized sizes and new, automated tools cut, sliced and diced the animal at an ever faster pace. The push to get more “pieces out” created more jobs. People were added to the line, but the speed and repetition of any one job created more injuries. The union negotiated a “piece-pound” standard, in which time studies calculated the amount of work that could be done in a given time. If the worker could produce more pieces/pounds per hour than the standard, he could earn more in wages. Piece-pound was a cross between hourly wages and piecework wages, and yielded a decent middle class living for the all-white, mostly male workforce. Jon describes one of the most lucrative, and dangerous positions on the line as ‘head dropping’, which is exactly what it sounds like.
The 1980s and 90s were turbulent times for unions, and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters were no exception. Oscar Meyer sold off many parts of the business. General Foods bought out the slaughterhouse, while Oscar Meyer owned only the end product. In an era of high interest rates, Jon said that ownership of the slaughterhouse changed hands several times, with corporate giants like Philip Morris buying companies like his to invest workers’ pensions. After many union concessions, and slaughterhouse closures around the Midwest, the Oscar Meyer/General Foods slaughterhouse closed in 1986. Everyone was fired and, six months later, some were rehired under the new ownership of Cargill Meat Solutions. Today, Cargill slaughters eighteen-thousand pigs a day, six days a week, in Beardstown. In 2002, Jon--an “older” worker--was asked to train younger workers to do his job. He saw the writing on the wall, and moved to another meat processing company in Missouri. He said the production is much smaller, but he is happy with the work.
In the Winter of 2011, we drove South of New Orleans, on Louisiana Highway 23. To our West, were miles of small farms, fruit orchards and homes that varied from McMansions to decrepit trailers. To our East, a levee blocked our view of the Mississippi River. The seemingly endless earthen mound snakes (Alan Lomax once called it the “great green serpent”) along the road--each mile that the river flows, so too does the levee. We were looking for access to a floating terminal built by Cargill. It once had the name “K-2”, recalling the peak in the Karakoram Range between present day Pakistan and China--the second highest mountain on Earth. The association conjured an image of something awe-inspiring, massive, and certainly added to the feeling of adventure as we drove past the border of our mental map. From this terminal, many metric tons of Midwest corn would be prepared for the long journey to Japan, Russia, China, and Mexico to be made into corn chips, beer, and animal feed, among other things.
Cargill opened K-2 in 1981 as a facility to transfer US-grown commodity grains from river barges to ocean-going vessels. It’s an odd facility; built on top of a three-hundred-thirty by seventy-five foot barge, it has no engines or other significant means of autonomous locomotion. It was anchored near the town of Convent (parish seat of St. James Parish).
In 2005, Associated Terminals, a prominent operator of marine cargo facilities on the Mississippi River, acquired K-2 and renamed it the Myrtle Grove Midstream Terminal (or MGMT), following its relocation to Myrtle Grove. Before arriving in Louisiana, we had been in contact with Bill, the Terminal Manager at MGMT about filming the operations there. We described our interests in water-based transport of bulk grain, and Bill seemed enthusiastic about getting us on board. After several positive email exchanges and phone conversations, communication from anyone at Associated Terminals, including Bill, suddenly, and unexpectedly, stopped. Similar halts in communication had happened with other, related corporations, like Cargill. We weren’t surprised and had decided to make the trip anyway.
As we drove through the landscape of the Mississippi Delta following the snaking, earthen wall, the industrial nature of this space hit us with a surprising force. What the historian Ari Kelman has described as “Nature’s Highway to Market” became real and almost measurable. It became something more than an abstraction that existed in logistics reports and spreadsheets. Sprawling oil refineries, mountains of coal, helicopter parking lots, moored barges and hulking ships weighted down with multi-colored containers were monuments to the uneven collaboration of industry and the River.
Finally, we came to our mile marker. We climbed the levee to catch a better look at a strange structure with large cranes. Our view of it was blocked by weedy trees, but there was the MGMT, the point of exit for midwestern grain. We spotted a dock up-river from the terminal marked with signage for Turn Services LLC, a company that ferries workers to and from the floating terminal. Again, we were initially greeted by an enthusiastic manager ready to let us aboard a boat with a crew to and from MGMT. Within twenty four hours our request was suddenly denied.
As we continued to explore “Nature’s Highway,” we found an impressive grain elevator and terminal operated by CHS, Inc. near Myrtle Grove, but on the opposite side of the River. From the road we saw a wall of huge concrete silos standing in front of the levee, a series of connecting elevators, and catwalks that move grain to and from storage, over the levee and onto ocean going vessels. The sounds were loud, the air was dusty, we were clearly on private property, so we walked into the small office building to ask permission and find out more. It was a modernist space of buffed linoleum tile and floor-to-ceiling glass walls and doors, air conditioned and in good shape. Within twenty minutes time we were in a manager’s office-- a friendly, but serious man in his late 50s or early sixties. He told us that CHS operates three-hundred-fifty-five days per year, transferring seven million tons of grain from barges to storage to ocean-going vessel. It takes thirty-six hours to load each tanker with fifty to sixty thousand acres of grain. He showed us promotional photographs of the facility, images that render scale in significant ways: tiny people and large machines in even larger ship hulls and surrounded by millions of bushels of corn. We were not granted official access to tour the facility, but, the manager said, the levee is public land, so we could watch from there. Between the massive silos and the river terminal we looked for something recognizable--a barge, corn, the sound of moving elevators. We spotted a small figure--a single man on the platform of the terminal, guided a spout of pouring corn as big around as an ancient redwood. At moments, he disappeared in clouds of pulverized corn and dust. Rains and sediments from the center of North America are now accompanied by a steady stream of grain, steel and chemicals as they make their way to the sea on Nature’s Highway.
Ari Kelman. A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Everyday at one in the afternoon our local radio station hosts an hour-long show called “The Ag Report”. A portion of the show is dedicated to the stock and futures numbers of beans, corn, pork bellies, ethanol, and grain commodities. Another ten minutes is dedicated to worldwide weather forecasts. If you aren’t familiar with the global trade of commodity crops, listening to the show is like learning a new language; you might recognize a few of the words, but not the overall context. For a little more than one-hundred years, the corn belt landscape has been tinkered with, in small, yet precise measures to produce the commodities on the Ag Report.
For example, the land has been engineered to dry faster after rain and snow. In 1850, the year the federal Swamp Land Act passed, the Midwest was soggy. Regions around lakes and rivers had large floodplains and deep marshes. The Swamp Land Act was designed to boost development west and south of the New England states by helping states and counties drain the land for agricultural production. Once the land was drained, the price and yield per acre increased.
Though drainage materials have changed over the last one-hundred years, drainage techniques have not. In the first half of the 20th century, drainage was created by laying tiles--short sections of terra-cotta pipe, fit end to end, un-sealed. Placed in rows throughout a field and just a few feet under the soil’s surface, water would seep into the pipes, draining in to ditches and nearby streams. In order to coordinate contiguous drainage, taxing bodies called “Drainage Districts” were formed. They were able to leverage the capital for such massive projects and ensure county-wide drainage. Over fifty-million acres of U.S. cropland is currently drained, but now the pipes are old and need to be replaced. To the tune of five-hundred-seventy dollars per acre, farmers often hire agricultural Tiling Services to lay plastic perforated pipes for drainage. Drainage contractors will assess the topography and soil type, combined with the type of crop grown, to figure the depth the pipes will be buried. To verify the results of such tiling, farmers employ “yield mapping” using GPS technologies to report the yield and quality produced on each acre of land. Newer GPS units print real-time maps in the cab of the farmer’s combine as he/she harvests.
Engineered tiling, GMO seed, chemically enriched soil, state of the art equipment, and satellite powered mapping all reassure U.S. and global markets. While this version of high-tech farming ruptures mid-20th century pastoral images, there is still one sublime element in the scene: the weather. The Ag Report often reminds listeners of that one thing the farmer can’t control. For now, the century-old practice of tiling suffices.
Driving around Central Illinois, it’s hard not to be overcome by a strong sense of horizontality. A lateral force pulls us toward our destination, pressed through the space that exists between the ground and the sky. Scenes of the pastoral are very present here; this area is seasonally quilted with corn and soybean fields, and dotted by farmhouses, grain elevators, and the occasional solitary church. “The land” appears as a soft, flat surface upon which things grow and move, a life-sized slide show of real and fictitious pasts. But, of course, vertical realities intersect with this horizontal perception of existence. There are other images, not yet painted into a Grant Wood-esque rendition of the Midwest. These realities present a different set of consequences and expectations. They can be found in the workings and history of the largest employer in Beardstown, Cargill Meat Solutions.
Cargill Meat Solutions, known locally by the name Excel, is one division of Cargill Incorporated, a company that journalist and writer Brewster Kneen has called an “invisible giant.” Cargill started as a single grain storage “flat house” in Iowa in 1865, but within twenty years the company handled over 1.6 million bushels, quickly moving into a prominent position in the growing global business of the grain trade. From its early days, Cargill’s owners were involved in various aspects of national and international commerce--railroads, communications, lumber, salt, and shipbuilding. Before the middle of the 20th century, the company was operating in South America and Europe and in 1957 began using an IBM 6560 computer to manage its global production and pricing mechanisms. While Cargill can be viewed as an extension of international commerce in the colonial age--think of the East India Company or the Hudson’s Bay Company--it must also be understood as operating in a very different geopolitical and economic world from earlier colonial trading companies. What distinguishes enterprises like Cargill from modern corporations is its size, status as a non-publicly traded company, and its involvement in the production of vastly different (but deeply connected) products. Just a small sample of Cargill’s affiliated businesses illustrate the company’s many tentacles: Always Tender® (meats), Sunny Fresh Foods® (eggs), Diamond Crystal® Salt, Gerkens® Cacao, ClearLane® Deicer, North Star Steel, CarVal Investors. The process of consolidation and management of every aspect of a business practiced by Cargill is known as “vertical integration” in the language of economists. Cargill, in fact, no longer considers itself a grain company, or any kind of material production company, for that matter. It’s now in the business of “customer solutions.”
To better grasp the form and scale of these activities, we have attempted to learn from the spaces where such activities are present on the ground. We tried to visit a Cargill elevator in Gilman, IL. Sarah entered a small building next to the city-block sized grain storage facility there and was immediately struck by the number of control boards and screens displaying data. The single IBM computer of 1957 has evolved into a massive, globally connected system of real-time inputs, outputs, and comparative analyses. Brewster Kneen explains the way that Cargill sees the world:
To source, transport and deliver bulk commodities globally requires a rather special view of the world, a view one can really only adequately get from outer space, from a satellite.
Cargill’s perspective, according to Kneen, is one that enables the company to look down on the globe and see cropland, transportation networks, markets, and barriers to their success in exploiting those things. In its 2008 annual report, Cargill resolves two competing views of the world:
From a single seed in a farmer’s field to a dinner table halfway across the globe, Cargill brings ideas together to help satisfy the world’s needs.
The material singularity of a single seed is within the company’s sight, but is only meaningful when accumulated into the bulk commodities that can satisfy the needs of a world composed of waiting dinner tables. Cargill doesn’t simply inhabit the horizontal surface with us; it shapes that surface to its benefit, from a vantage point positioned above everything that has been vertically integrated beneath it.
Brewster Kneen. Invisible Giant. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1995.
It is all too easy to see the demographic and economic changes occurring in Beardstown, and much of the Midwest, as a fundamental shift or break from the past, as many sociologists, journalists, and economists have noted. But when has that past ever been stable? In the 19th century, the river brought white settlers, intensive agriculture, and industry. As settled land became municipal territory, settlers-turned-citizens defended their racial and economic boundaries through sundown town practices and labor union organizing. By the beginning of the 21st century, the forces of capital have largely dismantled both of these boundaries in the quest for ever-increasing profits. The area’s old and new residents are left to forge relationships in whatever spaces are available, and hope the big employer doesn’t leave them behind.
Districts created in the 1900s helped raise taxes for cropland drainage. More recently new areas, called “Enterprise Zones,” have been defined to alleviate the tax ‘burden’ of corporations. The “Enterprise Zone” in which Cargill is located is a state defined territory that grants it special economic privileges. Such zones use the power of the state to exempt corporations from the responsibilities of citizenship while giving them all the benefits. Cargill helped create a precarious world for Beardstown and its residents, and then used that precariousness to demand even more power from the State to further shape the world.
The industrial nature of the cornfields we drive through on our way to Beardstown is hidden in plain sight, unrecognizable through our lenses of nostalgia and false memories. The values determining the future of places like Beardstown are also obscured by seemingly unquestionable realities -- the need for jobs, economic competition, and consumer demand. It’s impossible to see these realities as reflecting the interests of most of the town’s people, whether old-timers or newly arrived. Looking through the dense walls of corn, and over the wall that hides the river, we try to imagine what other Beardstowns are possible. In fact, we can see some of them taking shape in cross-cultural relationships formed in spite of, rather than thanks to, the contributions of Cargill.