Living in Society

Corn Planting and a Haboob

Iowa haboob on May 12, 2022. Photo Credit – KCCI – TV8

I tapped the brakes as we drove home from Des Moines on Monday, May 9. A farmer was discing a field and wind blew large clouds of dust from behind him across Interstate 80. It obscured the view, rendering driving unsafe.

Losing valuable topsoil might be cause for concern, except that corn and soybeans are grown mostly by application of commercial fertilizer and insecticides to ground with hybrid seeds. Tilling the ground where seeds, fertilizer, water and bugs meet, to create a suitable growing medium, matters more than actual topsoil in Iowa. High winds blowing topsoil away doesn’t seem to matter much to today’s Iowa farmers.

A network of farming hums in pre-dawn hours this time of year. Beginning well before sunrise, farmers call each other from kitchens and barns to discuss and decide what they will do that day. If they prize their individualism and freedom, they also speak and act more or less uniformly about crop decisions. There is a fixed ideology of modern agriculture involving corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle. Long delayed this year, this week’s decision was to get corn in the ground.

On Wednesday, May 11, Eleanor Hildebrandt posted an article, “Iowa’s prime corn yields likely gone.”

At the beginning of the second week of May, Iowa farmers were two weeks behind the average planting schedule to the past five years. It was the slowest planting pace in nearly a decade. Only 14 percent of seed corn was in the ground on Sunday, as April weather made it particularly difficult to plant potentially successful seedlings. Research on corn yield from Iowa State University shows the most successful corn crops are planted before middle May.

Iowa’s prime corn yields likely gone by Eleanor Hildebrandt, May 11, 2022

Experts don’t believe the 2022 corn crop will break any records.

It has been a windy week. While no news source is discussing the relationship between the 2022 corn planting season and a somewhat unique weather phenomenon called a haboob, it seems clear that hundreds of farmers plowing, discing, and planting corn loosened thousands of acres of topsoil. When combined with high winds, topsoil blew away in gigantic clouds like those in the image above.

When weather outlets began using the word “haboob,” I immediately thought of Desert One and the failed 1980 attempt during the Carter administration to rescue 52 American hostages from the Iranian embassy. The helicopters unexpectedly encountered haboobs in the desert, which disrupted their flight plans toward Desert One, a staging area. The Atlantic tells the story of the haboobs during the operation here.

Photo Credit – National Weather Service.

The other image that came to mind after reading “haboob,” was of Farm Security Agency photographs of Kansas dust storms in 1935. These storms were attributable to the sod busters who broke up the prairie and farmed the land to exhaustion after the Homestead Act of 1862. These iconic images are a part of our history.

The disconnect of yesterday’s haboob from the large scale farming that made it possible is a sad statement about the nature of our news media and its influence over how we view our lives. Television viewers and radio listeners marvel at the use of a “different” and “peculiar” word to describe the weather phenomenon rather than discuss the causes of this loss of topsoil. At some point the loss of topsoil will matter more than it seemingly does. Yet we have dumbed down the way we take in information, and seem prepared to swallow anything as long as it doesn’t upset the equilibrium of how we currently understand the world.

Don’t get me started on education, though. On Thursday, May 12, there was a League of Women Voters candidate forum in Tiffin where four of six Republican Iowa House District 91 primary candidates spoke about education. This is from the Iowa City Press Citizen.

Education and what is taught in schools to children quickly became one of the main topics of the night as candidates were asked by audience members about the teaching of critical race theory and gender and sexual orientation in schools. Most of the candidates argued against teaching both, often making transphobic remarks in addition to their answers.

GOP District 91 debate includes education, conspiracy theories by George Shillcock, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 14, 2022.

Maybe my expectations are too high for Iowa.