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Defending the Land

With extreme weather, fickle global markets, and escalating technology, grain farming in Southern Illinois is as much about gauging risks as planting seeds.

Photographs by Matt Marcinkowski

Harvest

Garrett Hawkins climbs into the combine’s glass-fronted cab, angled down to give him a wide, tight view of the crops. His big palm covers the combine’s throttle. Slowly, the header comes up, its metal cones like sharpened pencils pointing straight ahead. He aims them between gangly rows of corn and eases forward. The rhythm begins: a buzz and scrape as the plucked cobs cross the thresher, a maraca shake as the kernels drop to a sifting pan, a whoosh as the fan blasts the dried shucks out the back.

Garrett and his dad bought this fancy new $350,000 combine last year, and they’re crossing their fingers. It has a satellite-operated computer that maps the field as Garrett drives, color-coding areas by their yield. “See?” he says, nodding to the screen at his right, which looks like it’s painting itself as he drives. “Green’s good: 163 bushels or more.” Come winter, he’ll test the soil, then overlay the two maps to see where a low yield might indicate low levels of nitrogen or phosphorus. In the spring, as he drives the field, the combine will tell him exactly how much fertilizer to release at each spot.

Garrett’s father, Ellery Hawkins, bought his first acres of farmland in the Illinois river bottoms, back in the spring of 1967. He married that fall, and he and Adele had four daughters before Garrett came along. Not one of the girls ever had a whit of interest in farming. But Garrett even looks the part, with straight white teeth, a square jaw, deep dimples, and wavy, dark blond hair. He apologizes for his torn jeans, and when I point out that they’re stylish (the trend’s over, but why belabor the point?) he shakes his head slowly: “Yeah, isn’t that something? People buy jeans nowadays all cut up.”

He presses numbers into the keypad on his right, increasing the threshing speed. “The kernel has to be only 15 percent moisture to be taken to market, so it won’t get moldy in storage. But we start harvesting earlier than that, in case the weather turns bad. Once the crop’s in, we dry it with a big fan and a burner.”

A rain of kernels falls behind us, the level in the rear window rising until it’s a solid wall of corn. “Think of a huge soda can spinning really fast, with teeth on it,” he offers. “That’s what’s shelling the corn off the cob.”

He squints at the sky and revs the throttle. “There’s a monsoon coming tomorrow,” he says grimly. He and his dad will work until 10 tonight, the combine’s headlights slicing a path through utter blackness. Their fields are dotted across the river bottoms and bluffs outside Valmeyer, with no streetlights or passing cars to break the darkness.

There will be plenty of traffic come morning, though; Monroe County is turning suburban. Garrett especially loves it when somebody builds a house on land next to a field his dad has farmed for 40 years, then comes unglued because the combine spits a few corncobs onto their manicured lawn.

“People don’t necessarily understand how much work it takes to get their food from field to table,” he says heavily. “On a Saturday morning, when they’re out trying to run their errands and they meet a farmer on a tractor, and they’re saying some curse words—trust me, if we didn’t have to be on the road, we wouldn’t be there.

“And the way people drive these winding roads!” He shakes his head in amazement. “When you are in a tractor combine you can see a lot better. I will purposely be in the middle of the road on a curve, because if they are behind me and can’t pass, they are safe. People are in a hurry to go nowhere, really.”

Garrett is 29 and single. His second serious relationship just ended—“a local girl from Columbia”—and you can read the eagerness in his cornflower-blue eyes. He’s easy with women—his four sisters bossed and babied him—and feels ready to marry and start a family. But when he meets somebody in St. Louis, invariably she asks what he does for a living, and he tells her, and she says, “Oh.”

“I guess they have the stereotype that farmers smell like pigs,” he shrugs, “or it’s not near as exciting an occupation as doctor or lawyer. And say it’s a Friday night, and it’s finally dry enough to get the crop in, somebody who thinks they have to go out every Friday night…

“It’s not that all girls are superficial,” he adds hastily. “They just don’t understand it. So their natural reaction is to be appalled.”

He bends and picks up a handful of kernels that have spilled on the field. Then he opens his fingers slightly and lets them waft down to the ground again.

“I love farming,” he says with sudden fierceness. “You’re outside. You’re your own boss. And there’s a lot of pride in it: You’re feeding people.”

Ellery and Garrett manage to finish harvesting all but one field of corn before the monsoon comes. It rains 4 inches on October 30,
pushing the month’s total to 13.2 inches and making October 2009 one of the wettest Octobers in history. It’s a disaster for farmers, who need dry fields to bring in what was predicted, just a month earlier, to be a record soybean crop and a near-record corn crop.

The minute the ground’s dry enough that their wheels won’t sink, the Hawkinses start in on soybeans. Then it rains again.

On November 9, they finally get back out. Rain is forecast for the next day, and Garrett, Ellery, and Adele have all come down with colds, but they’ve got to work while they can.

Garrett drives deep into a forested area, across a narrow stone bridge, up a hill, and over grass where trees have been bushwhacked. “This is God’s country back here,” he says, chuckling. Finally he reaches a hilly little field they call the Indian Patch. Its soil is gumbo—the consistency of modeling clay, tough tilling and tough pulling—and a friend once told them, “You should give this ground back to the Indians!”

Garrett climbs into the combine, which now looks entirely different, its pointy cones replaced by knives that cut the crop. A reel—like a metal rolling pin with spikes—circles to bring it in, almost like fingers combing the field.

The soybeans have gone from spring’s bright, saturated green to summer’s gold, and now they’re brown and dry, ready for harvesting. “The seed has to get hard,” Garrett explains. “You want only 14 percent moisture. You can tell just by biting into a couple: If they are hard, they are dry.”

He rolls the combine over a lone clump of shattercane, a voracious weed that covered the field when they first started farming up here. The new combine’s leaving less crop out in the field, he points out. “But we won’t know about the grid mapping until we get everything soil-tested this winter.”

His cellphone rings, and the display says “Dad.” Garrett listens for a minute, then says, “Oh, I figured you would.” When he hangs up, he’s grinning. “I knew he was going to do that! He figured I was going to get full, so he tried to drive the truck out so I could unload and keep going, and he got stuck!

“A lot of people unload on the go,” he adds. “They’ll have a tractor and a wagon, and as they’re combining, they will be unloading. But it takes a lot of manpower, and that’s something we don’t have.”

Before Monsanto engineered its Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready crops, Ellery hired field hands to help hack away weeds. People loved working for the Hawkinses, a neighbor recalls, because at the end of the day, Adele—who chopped weeds right alongside them—came in and made everybody dinner: meatloaf or fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, and cherry, peach, or custard-cream pies.

“Now, we do just about everything ourselves,” Garrett says, “even at harvest.” A sense of urgency drives them through fall: “When the crop’s out in the field, it’s not safe. Last year, the windstorm blew a bunch of our corn down. We lost a lot of money, and it was a nightmare combining it. Once you have it in your possession and in the bin, it’s safe. It’s not vulnerable to Mother Nature anymore.”

Somehow, Ellery gets their 1977 tandem truck unmired and shows up just as the combine tops out. Then the little field’s peace shatters, as a rattling torrent of beans comes off the combine chute into the top of the truck. Dust clouds the air.

When Ellery gets back from one of their nine grain bins, they unhook all of the combine’s hydraulic and electrical connections. Ellery climbs up into the cab and tosses Garrett the header’s rubber cover, then gently lowers the header onto the tandem truck’s trailer and reverses the combine away from it. They move to the next field.

“Most of our stuff gets shipped on down to the Gulf and overseas,” Garrett says. “China, Japan, Europe, wherever. Feeds, oils, ink, industrial uses. Field corn for flours or animal feed.”

They finish harvesting soybeans the Sunday before Thanksgiving. By now, it’s obvious they won’t be sowing any winter wheat. “Hardly anybody did,” Garrett says, “because of the wetness and delayed harvest season.” He brightens. “The Chinese are buying soybeans like crazy, though.”

To celebrate the end of harvest, Garrett and his parents go out for supper. They like little mom-and-pop places, not chains, but two of their favorites have closed. They drive down to Red Bud to eat at Dave & Joyce’s Country Kitchen.

Garrett grew up playing softball and football and farm-kid pranks, going on hayrides and stuffing people’s mailboxes with straw. His graduating class at Valmeyer High School was 30 kids. “Nobody else went into farming,” he says sadly. “One good buddy’s a schoolteacher, a couple guys are engineers, another friend is a college professor…”

Garrett, on the other hand, was so eager to start farming, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to college. When he finally enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he made the 3-hour drive home every autumn weekend to help with the harvest. “On I-57 and I-70, it’s all cornfields,” he says. “I couldn’t get home fast enough.

“I did wish I could’ve been in a fraternity,” he admits, wistful for half a second. “But during the week, I wished I was going out to the combine instead of going to class.”

Now, he’s got all the combine time he wants. “We get up as early as we can, repair whatever needs fixing, grab some cereal or a donut.” No eggs? No biscuits and gravy? “Oh, that takes time. In the busy season, you are just grabbing something and running out the door.”

After three months of 14-hour days and maddening lulls, time and weather end the harvest—finished or not—and winter sets in. Suddenly there’s nothing to do—except dig ditches, use the Bobcat to drag fallen trees off the fields, repair machinery, research new technologies, catch up on back issues of seven different ag magazines, haul grain, watch the world markets, and decide what price to hold out for.

Weather delayed and compromised the 2009 bumper crop, which should keep prices high, they reason. But remember 2008? “It came out that they think it’s not going to be as high an average yield, so you figure prices are going to go up,” Ellery recalls, “and they went down. And when farmers up north finally got to start harvesting, they thought the price would go down because of more supply, and it didn’t.”

The other wild card is South America. Brazil is a world leader in soybeans, so its spring harvest can skew fall price predictions. “We look at the markets every day,” Ellery says. “A lot of times, they don’t make any sense.”

Normally, December would be the time to do deep tillage, chopping and burying the residue of the crops so insects can’t burrow and nest in it. “Our soils are heavy, a lot of clay, so tillage really aerates the soil, gives it time for Mother Nature to work on it over the winter,” Garrett explains. “And it helps the water permeability.”

Which is great in theory—but it keeps raining, and the ground stays soaked, then freezes solid. There will be no tilling this December. No soil testing, either, to compare maps with the fancy new combine’s computer. Mother Nature’s feeling ornery.
 

Winter

It’s a bleary, gray day, and Adele, Ellery, and Garrett are sitting around their dining-room table drinking icy Cokes and, unusually, chatting. Turns out their business is called Peep-Hawk Farms because Ellery learned farming from his Uncle Peep (surname Peeper).

“My dad worked for the Gulf pipeline,” he says. “I just—I just wanted to be a farmer.”

Adele smiles. “When he was 4 or 5, and couldn’t even talk well, he’d say, ‘I want to be a charmer!’”

“I remember, in the summers, my aunt taking lunch out to my uncle in the wheat fields, and the smell of the wheat,” Ellery says, his voice distant. “And in spring, when you till the soil, the freshness of it. Garrett will scoop up a handful and just smell it.” He pauses. “Garrett grew up on a farm,” he says, sounding a little jealous. “He was fully immersed in it.”

“I can’t see any other place where it’s better to grow up,” Garrett says. “You have so much more conception about life. What a dollar is. Never to take things for granted. And that if you work hard, typically the Lord’s going to reward you.”

The Hawkinses talk a lot about Mother Nature and God, and they make a strong distinction between the two. Garrett, who struggles with the theology his father takes on faith, sometimes even senses a power struggle. “You don’t know who’s got more control, Mother Nature or the Lord,” he says, shaking his head over recent droughts and deluges.

“Mother Nature takes care of the weather,” Ellery says firmly. “God’s got bigger things to worry about.”
 
Ellery started farming with Uncle Peep in the early 1960s, then went into the Marines: “I started a little college, but different circumstances just led me to get more involved in this.”

“He didn’t like to study,” Adele inserts dryly.

They went to school together, but they didn’t start courting until they “met out,” she says. “At the bowling alley,” Ellery inserts. (Their conversations are like a jazz set; they all manage to elaborate on each other’s thoughts without interrupting.) “I guess it was true love,” Adele continues, “because oh man. The farm he bought didn’t have indoor plumbing. We got a trailer, and nine years and three kids later, we said, ‘Whoa. We’ve gotta do something else.’”

They paid “way too much” for a piece of land that opened up between Uncle Peep’s farm and theirs and built a pretty house. Nineteen years later, the Great Flood of ’93 swept through the first floor and left it a shambles.

“My uncle wound up passing away the week before the levee broke,” Ellery recalls. “My aunt lost him, and then she lost her house. She said to us that night, ‘Well, we’ve always got your house.’ And the next day our house flooded.”

They moved in with Adele’s sister in Waterloo. “We thought, ‘Well, we’ll be getting back down,’” Ellery says. “After two or three weeks, we realized, ‘Ain’t gonna happen.’ We lost our whole crop.”

They found an apartment up in Columbia and started driving back and forth, handpicking debris off their fields. “Everything that floats was out there,” Adele says. “Fluorescent light bulbs, bottles, barrels, old refrigerators…”

“The water didn’t go down until late in October,” Garrett recalls.

“Of course, we kind of enjoyed it,” his dad chimes in. “We moved to the apartment, and we got real citified.”

“Orderin’ pizza,” drawls Garrett, who was in seventh grade at the time. “And we had cable!”

“We were like on vacation,” Ellery says.

When the waters finally receded, they decided to pick up their house and move it to higher ground. “We woke up in the same house and looked out the window and saw the bluffs,” Ellery recalls, remembering how cozy and strange that felt.

Now they farm the land in front of their home, which is nestled back against the bluffs, and quite a few other plots around the county. These days, the common wisdom is that you have to inherit land to farm, because it’s just so expensive to piece it all together the way Ellery did.
Garrett will be able to expand, but he’ll have a base of—just how many acres is Peep-Hawk now?

“Oh, we’re pretty small,” Ellery says cautiously.

“I’d say medium,” Adele corrects cheerfully. She does the bookkeeping.

“You look at the U.S. ag census, the average farm size is still only 600 acres,” says Garrett. “I’d say for our area, we are—” He breaks off. “I don’t want to say how many acres,” he explains. “We’re not braggy people. We don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, they have too much.’”

“I used to raise hogs,” Ellery says suddenly. “People would say, ‘How many do you have?’ Well, when I go to take care of them, I’ve got too damn many, and when I go to sell them, I don’t have near enough.”

Ellery sits on the board of directors of the local ag co-op, Gateway FS, and he’s also president of the Monroe County Farm Bureau and a trustee of Valmeyer’s volunteer fire department. Garrett puts out fires and pries victims out of car wrecks. On his rarely used MySpace page, he introduces himself as “a southern Illinois farm boy.” Under “Heroes,” he writes, “My dad. I wish I could be him, but I know I never will.”

What does he admire, specifically? “I don’t know, everything. His hard work ethic and, I don’t know, just—” Garrett drums his fingers on the table. “His ability to reason and get through anything he encounters.”

Ellery announces that what he admires about his son is “the Internet!” They all laugh. They use an old farm-data computer to get global market summaries, weather, and world news, because it’s so simple (Garrett grins over at his dad) to operate.

“We always pride ourselves or brag on ourselves, because we can be mad at each other, cussin’ and hollerin’, but five minutes later, we are best buddies again,” Garrett remarks.

“He will probably disagree with this,” Ellery says, “but I try to give him a lot of room.”

Adele smiles. “He says, ‘When Dad thinks it’s his idea, we can do it!’”

“And sometimes it comes down to Mom’s boss and this is how it’s going to be and just shut up,” Garrett teases.

“Like when you want to buy something,” she agrees.

“Or we’ll be arguing,” Garrett says, “and she’ll say, ‘You two fools just be patient.’”

On January 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final crop report lists record highs (13.2 billion bushels of corn, 3.36 billion bushels of soybeans, both with the highest-ever yield per acre). The report also warns that Brazil will harvest its own record high, 65 million tons of soybeans, come spring.

The report just kills their prices.

“We should’ve sold it all,” Ellery groans. “We were batting along at $4 for corn, holding out to maximize profits, and it went down to $3.50 a bushel. It could still spike, though…” How long will they hold on to their crop?

“As long as our bank account lets us! You just have to make sure it’s protected from bugs and won’t spoil.”

Ellery shrugs and goes out to try to at least shred the cornstalks still in the fields. But they’re frozen hard, and he doesn’t want to tear up the tractor.

By February, Garrett’s a little stir-crazy. He starts thinking maybe he’ll go to the great big farm show (the National Farm Machinery Show) in Louisville, Ky. He has friends who go almost every year, and he’s never been.

“I think about it every year,” he laughs later. “I just never go.”

“We get National Geographic, me and Dad,” he adds. “In some ways, we’re kind of dorky. But someday I’d love to see those places—Australia, Africa...” Last summer, he did something unprecedented: took a vacation to Las Vegas. “My ex-girlfriend had family out there,” he explains bashfully, and when he tries to describe Vegas, clichés tumble forth: “Anything you want, it’s there. The place never stops. You see all walks of life. You see things there you won’t see anywhere else.”

He says he gambled a little: spent $15.

Yet to farm, he gambles thousands every day.
 

Spring

By the end of March, the apricot trees outside of the Hawkins house look like they’re wearing lace veils. “Spring’s exciting,” Garrett says, “because you finally get to get out and do some fieldwork, and things are growing, everything’s greening up. It’s like everything is born again.”

He and his father aren’t so worried about missing the soil test. “Our soil tends to be pretty fertile,” Ellery explains. “It’s made up of deposits washed up over the eons from the rest of the world.” They are worried about the deep tillage they couldn’t manage in winter, though. They hook a tiller behind their tractor, and it drags knives through the hard ground.

“It’s not as good as doing it in December,” Garrett mutters, “because it doesn’t have all winter to mellow out with freezes and thaws. You wind up with bigger clods of dirt, because it hasn’t had time to weather down.” They follow with light tillage, smoothing the ground like a mother combing her child’s hair.

Finally, in April, they start planting corn. First they put anhydrous ammonia deep into the earth, so its gases don’t escape. “It has a very strong odor, and you have to be careful handling it,” Garrett warns. “You don’t want to breathe it. And if a hose breaks and you get it on your skin, it’s like extremely fast frostbite. It burns you, like dry ice.”

They follow with dry urea, another form of nitrogen, closer to the surface. Then they take their new twin-row corn planter for a spin. Instead of planting single rows 30 inches apart, it plants two rows close, then leaves a 22-inch aisle. The crop’s denser, and the plants are staggered, so they have more room to grow.

“The big company, John Deere, hasn’t done this yet,” Ellery worries aloud. “I hope we can get a yield increase on it.”

“The company that makes it says 10 to 14 bushels per acre more, on average,” Garrett reminds him. Yet when I ask them to write down their predictions, Garrett scrawls “7 more per acre,” and his dad guesses “8.”

They’re just getting rolling when the rains start. It’s two weeks of frustration, repairing equipment in the shed, before they can resume planting.

“On a good day, we can get 100 acres planted,” Garrett says. “It takes 14 full working days for each crop.”

They have to plant their refuge corn, too. The Environmental Protection Agency requires any farmer who plants Monsanto-licensed, insect-resistant seeds to plant 20 percent of the fields with regular seed (meaning more hassle, more weeds, and perhaps lower yields), so insects don’t develop resistance.

Twenty percent is quite a swath of farmland: According to figures from Monsanto and the USDA, Monsanto-licensed seeds now generate 94 percent of the U.S. soybean crop and 82 percent of the corn. But last November, The New York Times reported that an estimated 25 percent of farmers have stopped complying with the EPA’s refuge requirement.

“What I hear, our fertilizer salesman thinks by and large people maybe don’t do it perfectly, but they try,” Ellery says.

“We do it,” Garrett says. “But within the next year or two, Monsanto will have the refuge mixed in with their corn anyway [Refuge in a Bag]. And since they are changing the formula of the seed more frequently, the bugs aren’t getting as immune.”

If the Hawkinses’ relationship with Mother Nature is love-hate, their relationship with Monsanto is a cautious embrace. Back when Monsanto started suing farmers who tried to save their seeds, it seemed that farmers would resent the corporate tactics and band together. Instead, the opposition to genetically engineered seeds came mainly from urban liberals and Europeans. Most farmers see Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and genetically-engineered Roundup Ready seeds as saving their way of life, and philosophical points about interfering with nature’s balance just don’t weigh as much as higher yields and fewer weeds.

“I don’t even want to get into this organic versus the way we farm question,” Ellery says wearily. “If we went back to the old way, our yields would just be terrible.”

Garrett nods. “Right now, everybody’s wanting to be organic, so they think farmers are the devil. That we don’t take care of the land, that we are hard on animals, all this kind of crap. And in reality, we make our living from the land, so we take care of it pretty good.

“I don’t know what these people think,” he continues, building steam. “They want a cow to be totally in an open area by himself or something. I think there’s people out there who honestly think that if everybody grew their own food, there’d be enough. What they don’t realize is, the U.S. is by far the cheapest country to eat. If we farmed the old way, food prices would be outrageous.

“And before”—he’s not done—“the only fertilizer was manure. There’s not nearly enough manure to spread on millions and millions of acres. Besides, manure’s not consistent. You might get 25 percent nitrogen in one spot and 50 percent the next, or 5 percent. All our fertilizer is is nitrogen that’s processed into a different formulation. People are always worried about runoff and groundwater. But if we are putting on more accurate amounts…”

“If we farmed organic, we’d have nothing but weeds,” Ellery inserts, his tone final. He spent decades slashing a machete in July’s steamy heat.

“There wouldn’t even be enough manual labor to do it,” Garrett adds. “Agricultural mechanization is right up there with inventing the airplane and putting a man on the moon.”
 

Summer

In May, when the sun’s warmed the ground, the Hawkinses plant soybeans. “These we don’t have to fertilize,” Garrett says, “because they absorb their own nitrogen from the air.” They don’t harvest their own soybean seed, because it’s against the law to save Roundup Ready seeds—until the patent runs out in 2014.

“Trust me, Monsanto’s already recouped their profits from that patent,” Garrett says. “Now they are trying to make the soybean better and more efficient, so you will want to buy it new anyway.”

He understands the business model. What he doesn’t understand is why people get so agitated about Roundup.

“It’s so safe and easy to handle!” he exclaims. “I spray, and the weed absorbs that mist. It gets real excited, and then blah [he mimes wilting]. What we had to use years ago were powders; you had to mix them in your tank, and you might inhale them. Roundup’s a liquid, it easily mixes with water, and you’re not going to have any herbicide residue in the food or the soil.”

The Swedes would disagree; they’ve found residue persisting for up to two years in their forest soils. And already, 10 Roundup-resistant weed species have sprung up across the U.S.

But the Hawkinses think the benefits still outweigh the risks. “Nowadays, with government regulations and all the strict standards the chemical companies have to follow, we don’t worry,” Garrett says. “I’ve got my faith in Monsanto, or any chemical company, that they are going to do what is right, because they have to for their own profitability.”

Garrett slides into a chair at the Corner Pub in Valmeyer and orders a soda. “My folks drink Coke all the time,” he says, “but I actually like Dr Pepper.”

Corn is back up to $3.75. “It came back to about $3.80, then got down as low as $3.30,” he says. “Right now it’s back, because a crop report came out, and this year’s crop is not looking as good as they thought.”

Do they still have grain they’re holding back? “Yeah, we do. Right or wrong!”

He’s more worried about drought than profit margins: The crops are roasting. On July 9, it rained more than 2 inches, and it felt like a blessing. But by July 11, the ground was parched again, and the corn’s leaves were spiked straight up in a valiant attempt to conserve water.

Now, when the Hawkinses shush each other for the weather forecast and the weathercaster starts the usual chitchat, even gentle Adele snaps, “Don’t worry about the ballgame, worry about our crops!”

In late July, violent storms alternate with heat warnings. Garrett’s already planning for harvest, wondering how the new corn
planter worked.

“I’m actually dating a girl now,” he confides. “We met at Mardi Gras. She’s pure city girl, lives on Manchester. I was telling her about the planter, and she didn’t realize the scale of it, and then she saw it and said, ‘Oh. my. God.’ It’s bigger than her house!”

By August, the fields are looking good; those bursts of rain saved them. “There are some people hurtin’, though,” Ellery says; violent storms damaged crops in Minnesota and Iowa, and dry heat burned crops in the central plains and the Mississippi River Delta.

“Seems like the weather extremes are pretty wild these last few years,” Ellery remarks. “But right now, it looks good—unless Mother Nature turns on us.”

They’re already looking ahead to spring, hoping seed prices, which skyrocketed at the beginning of the recession, will head back down. The U.S. Department of Justice continues its antitrust investigation into Monsanto’s business practices; the corporation has turned over millions of documents already, and everybody’s waiting to see what happens when Roundup Ready soybean seeds go off patent. Over the summer, China’s cheap herbicide ate a chunk out of Monsanto’s revenues, but the company’s also come out with a new herbicide itself, Warrant, to tackle Roundup-resistant soybean weeds.

And Ellery and Garrett are working steadily and methodically to prepare for harvest.

“We do the same thing every year, but every year is different,” Ellery remarks.

Totally different,” Garrett emphasizes.

“What works this year may not work next year. You make an educated guess,” Ellery continues.

Second-guessing all of these variables, all the while subject to Mother Nature’s whims—does it build character?

“Well, it makes you appreciate things a whole lot more,” Garrett says slowly. “You don’t take things for granted. You know that with the flip of a coin, things could go exactly the opposite way, and everything you worked so hard for could vanish in the blink of an eye.

“And I guess that makes it kind of exciting, too.”

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