Keeping 'Em Down On the Farm

IT is 9 o'clock on a Thursday morning. On a DC-10 bound from Boston to Chicago, a businessman is talking on the Airfone, checking with his office back home. "I'm somewhere over the Midwest," he explains, in the slightly dismissive tones of an Easterner who cannot quite take this part of the country seriously.

In this case, "somewhere over the Midwest" is northern Indiana. Thirty thousand feet below, a striking Mondrian-style grid of square and rectangular fields is shaded in greens and browns. Soon the plane will land at O'Hare. For the businessman and many other passengers hurrying into the city, the beauty of this rural landscape will become only a fleeting memory.

Too bad. Because this time of year in particular, the Midwest is a place to drive through slowly, rather than simply fly over quickly. August is the season of plenty, of harvest and celebration. Corn stands tall and tasseled in the field. Soybeans carpet the black soil with a rich green cover. And all month, state fairs pay tribute to the bounty of the land and the value of rural life.

Here in Rockford, a city 90 miles northwest of Chicago, sponsors of a weekend "corn boil" add to the festivities by turning a grassy field into an open-air restaurant. For $3.50, visitors are served hot dogs, chips, dessert, beverages, and all the fresh-picked corn they can eat. Similarly, across the state line in Union Grove, Wis., a banner suspended across the main street announces a weekend "Corn and Brat[wurst] Fest," honoring both the area's agricultural base and its German heritage.

These fairs and celebrations mask, at least temporarily, the declining profits and vanishing farms that have become too common in the heartland. The Agriculture Department reports that farmers spent more to grow their crops in July but earned less for them. And a weekend visitor who remembers when farms dominated the landscape between O'Hare and Rockford can only look with dismay at the creeping exurban sprawl. Every year more cornfields are plowed under, buried forever beneath glass and steel office par ks and treeless subdivisions. A sign at the edge of one field reads: "160 acres. Ideal for subdivision." A few miles beyond, another sign advertises: "28 acres - will subdivide."

This growth is consistent with new Census Bureau findings. More than three-quarters of Americans live in metropolitan areas, although they are settling farther out in the suburbs and commuting longer. In Rockford, for instance, what used to be a pleasurable event - an occasional trip to Chicago - has become a daily fact of life for some residents. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of people moving into parts of Winnebago and Boone counties commute to Chicago or its northwestern suburbs. Drawn by lower housin g costs and the amenities of less congested living, they spend at least two or three hours a day on the road.

It is a high price to pay, and in the end, those who pay it are inclined to want the best of both worlds. The city mice who would be country mice bring urban tastes home every night to the rural end of their commute. In addition to the bandstand on the village green, they are likely to want a first-run movie house, or at least a first-class video store. And somewhere between the roadside stands stocked with fresh vegetables, a takeout pizza operation claims high priority.

City slickers seeking country peace bring their restlessness with them. "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" the Tin Pan Alley song asked after American soldiers discovered Europe during World War I. The other question is: How are you going to keep Paree - or the late 20th-century equivalents - from changing farm country when cosmopolitan invaders wither the greenery even as they embrace it?

Are farms, as a presence in most Americans' lives, destined to become dude farms, Disneyland farms where children are taken so they can see their first cow, their first cornstalk? Businessmen with phones at 30,000 feet are looking down on a shrinking patchwork of greens and browns whether they realize it or not. To those of us who have loved farms, real farms, in our childhood, the loss, now that it is happening, seems more significant and poignant than we could have dreamed.

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