PRAIRIEBURG, IOWA — Sometimes agriculture defines a place. Kansas means wheat. Florida says oranges. And Iowa ... well, Iowa is corn.
Which is why an off-beat, aw-shucks site known as the "CornCam" has become one of the state's best-known Internet locations. Day in and day out, people log on to watch the corn grow. Literally.
No one's quite sure why.
Now in its second year, the site has attracted people from all over the world - a hint, perhaps, that something as innocent as a stand of corn, rephotographed every few minutes, can strike a chord deep in the human heart.
"I love this site," writes one displaced Iowan, now living in Texas. "My mother sent this to me as a joke, but it just shows how homesick I am."
"I love to take a rest bite during a hectic afternoon to see your peaceful morning sun shining on the corn," adds a British visitor, with more politeness than knowledge about Iowa's harsh climate. "Will you be planting the field for the winter, or is it too cold in Iowa for that?"
School classes have logged on. Visitors have stopped here outside Prairieburg to compare the real field with the picture on the Internet. Pilots have asked for its coordinates so they could fly over it. Last year, one man even threatened to parachute into the corn.
"It's really connecting the public to farmers," says Dan Zinkand, crops editor for Iowa Farmer Today and the person who came up with the idea of sticking a camera in a cornfield.
Even at an Iowa weekly newspaper devoted to farming, however, he had to work to persuade his superiors. "I brought it up, and they just looked at me," he recalls.
Of course, the Internet is full of Web cams that track living things. Australia boasts the Koala's On Cam (www.koala.net/webcam) and the Kangaroocam (yankaroo.camarades. com). Maine offers the underwater Lobster Cam (www.midcoast.com/lobcam).
There's the BatCam, the Roach camera, even the Lochness cam with surface and underwater views, in case you think you can spot Scotland's mysterious monster (see www.earthcam.com).
In agriculture, Monsanto hosts a "weedcam." Iowa Farmer Today also offers the Soybean Cam (on an adjacent field) and the Dairy Cam (at a community college research facility).
But it's CornCam (www.iowafarmer. com/corncam/corn.html) that really draws people in.
When Iowa Farmer Today initiated a tongue-in-cheek poll asking Web visitors whether they'd rather watch corn grow or paint dry, two-thirds opted for the corn.
Why do people watch?
Grain traders, some of them as far away as Japan, are said to check in periodically for financial reasons. Others do it for the novelty.
But mostly, people come to make a connection.
They can read journal entries on the corn's progress by Sharon Greif, whose husband, Jim, planted the crop.
They can look back in time to see the field being planted, view closeups of insect damage to the corn, or read one anothers' comments.
This time of year gets lots of attention because the crop has reached the stage where it can grow several inches in a day.
"Many of them are people who grew up on a farm or in a rural area, so they have a real tie," says Mr. Zinkand.
"Also, there's a real fascination with the miracle of seeds. We have all this technology. We have computers, yield monitors, fertilizers, and pesticides and such. But I think there's something still miraculous about sticking a seed in the ground."
Even after last year's harvest, when the Greifs replaced the CornCam's live shots with pictures of the combine bringing in the crop, people logged in.
"There were hits all winter long, which totally amazed me," says Mrs. Greif. "Corn has a certain nostalgia that goes way back in the US...."
"I LOVE CornCam - please keep it rolling year-round," writes one visitor. "It's a real sanity break from the cyber world I work in, and it always brings a smile. Why? Darned if I know - but it does."
"This site says it all," adds a former resident. "The only thing to do in Iowa [is] watch corn grow; well, that and watch people drive on the shoulder of the road."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor