In my very first article for Grist a year and a half ago, I declared with confidence that “If you’re going to talk about poverty, food, and the environment in the United States, you might as well start in the Corn Belt.”

Trouble is, I had never actually been in corn country, at least not in sentient memory.

All of that changed Tuesday, when I landed in Des Moines on assignment for Grist. Here are some of my first impressions.

* Iowa, at least the part I’ve seen so far, is not as rigorously and brutally flat as I’d always assumed. In the mental image I’d formed, an even growth of corn stretched over the landscape, flat and tight as a sheet over a hotel bed.

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While the corn is certainly there — i.e, everywhere — the land is actually contoured. The landscape may not quite qualify as “rolling,” but it undeniably ripples a bit.

To be honest, I expected to become a bit undone by the Iowa landscape, to feel alienated, disoriented, one small human surrounded to all horizons by billions and billions of identical plants. Yet the contours give the landscape just enough contrast to be interesting and, yes, beautiful — in that monochrome way the sea is beautiful.

* I’m staying in a farmhouse converted into a B&B in Prairie City, a tiny farm village 30 miles east of Des Moines. I got in after dark on Tuesday. The next morning, I woke up and rushed outside to take in the cornography.

Damn. Not ten yards from the house, a cornfield looms, one that stretches thousands of acres in all directions. There’s an old saying: A good corn crop should be “knee-high by the fourth of July.” Well, it’s late July, and the corn is towering well above my head.

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The couple who run the B&B are retired farmers. My first night, the wife was explaining to me how high the corn had gotten. Her husband stands at least 6 feet tall. “He was out in the cornfield yesterday just to see how the crop was doing, and he looked like a tiny little fella out there,” she told me. The husband told me the current crop is ripening faster than any he’s seen in his life.

Some parts of the Corn Belt are facing drought conditions, but prospects for 2007 look good. There should be plenty of product to satisfy ethanol producers, CAFO operators, and high-fructose corn syrup makers.

It’s amazing that so much effort and land are devoted to such dubious uses.

* I checked out the soil beneath the corn: rich and black, as expected. The plants are so tightly packed together that you can barely get your hand between them to separate them — a triumph of science. Only special hybridized breeds of corn can thrive in such close quarters, and only soil heavily spiked with synthetic fertilizer could possibly support them.

There’s plenty of litter from previous harvests decaying on the ground: old cobs and leaves and stalks. That stuff will break down and become soil itself: it’s about all the land gets in terms of organic matter to replace the humus consumed by the intensive planting.

It’s mind-boggling that people with real power are talking quite seriously about harvesting even that “waste” and turning it into fuel for our cars. What, if and when cellulosic ethanol finally comes online, will become of that rich, black soil — one of the greatest stores of soil fertility on earth? Should we really burn through the Midwest’s topsoil to keep our cars on the road?

* How did this happen, this vast duo-crop (corn and soy) that lies like a dead hand over the nation’s prime farmland?

I went out to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames yesterday, and talked to Rich Pirog and Fred Fred Kirschenmann. Rich showed me this impressive graph demonstrating the collapse in crop diversity on Iowa’s farms since 1920. What happened?

I’m reading A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a reworking of King Lear set on an Iowa farm in the ’80s. The narrator describes the mentality of her father, a proud old farmer contemplating retirement:

What is a farmer? A farmer is a man who feeds the world.

What is a farmer’s first duty? To grow more food.

What’s a farmer’s second duty? To buy more land.

What are the signs of a good farm? Clean fields, neatly painted buildings, breakfast at six, no debts, no standing water.

How will you know a good farmer when you meet him? He will ask you no favors.

At another point, the old man says this: “There isn’t any room for the old methods anymore. Farmers who embrace the new methods will prosper, but those who don’t are already stumbling around.”

By “old methods,” he means mixed cropping, handwork, fussing over one’s animals. By “new methods,” he means monocropping, chemicals, giant machines, confining your animals in feedlots.

I’m stunned by this weird cobbling together of old Protestant virtue (no debt, no favors asked) and this zeal for the new and the latest.

I suppose it’s what Max Weber was getting at in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

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