Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century/The Heart of the Cornbelt: An Illustrated History of Corn Farming in McLean County

Article excerpt

Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century. By R. Douglas Hurt. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2002. Pp. xiii, 192. Bib., index. Cloth, $24.95.).

The Heart of the Cornbelt: An Illustrated History of Corn Farming in McLean County. By William D. Walters, Jr. (Bloomington: McLean County Historical Society, 1997 Pp. viii, 132. Illus., bib., index. Cloth, $25.00).

Farmers in Iowa and Illinois produced nearly one-third of the nation's entire corn crop in the late twentieth century, and farmers in McLean County, a large county in central Illinois, produced the highest corn (and soybean) yields in the last decade of that century. The county set a corn yield record of 163 bushels per acre in 1992, well above the national average of circa 125 bushels per acre. Several factors account for the extensive specialization including lots of flat fertile soil, available hybrid and high yield varieties, equipment that revolutionized cultivation and harvesting, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and available transportation and marketing networks. These twentieth century innovations in production allow just over 1,600 farmers to cultivate 750,000 total acres in 1995, most of which they devoted to corn and soybeans - a classic overproduction scenario.

In The Heart of the Cornbelt William D. Walters, Jr. explains how corn came to dominate McLean County agriculture. The book evolved from a project undertaken by the McLean County Historical Society (MCHS) to assess the major cash crop in the county. Walters starts with evidence of native American corn production, discusses the importance of corn to antebellum settlers, and then considers the ways that hybridization revolutionized crop production. Isaac Funk arrived in the county in 1824 and he and his family accumulated 25,000 acres. His son, Lafayette, and grandson, Eugene, became progressive agriculturalists, and Eugene developed Funk's 90-Day Corn at the turn of the century, a product that increased yields in a county where farmers already produced more than twice the national average of bushels per acre. Walters does not critically analyze the process, but simply recounts the developments using a variety of primary sources including photographs and ephemera from the MCHS collection along with farmer interviews. he integrates the evolution of crop culture to changes in the built environment, but he tends to show surviving houses and barns built by the more progressive farmers and devotes little energy to the laborers who had to harvest all that corn before mechanization displaced them. …