Sunday, October 14, 2007

If You Build It, They Will Come

In Iowa, where Corn is King, a Midwestern Renaissance is upon us, and it will save the nation.

In the movie, "Field Of Dreams," there was a memorable line, "If you build it, they will come." and there was a haunting image of a baseball diamond carved out of an Iowa cornfield.

The field is still there, located outside of Dubuque, where the movie was filmed. The house in the photo was and still is a private residence, but the family that lives there has continued to welcome hundreds of tourists every year.

I was last in Dubuque in the winter of 1996, one of many trips I have made to that Mississippi River town, where red-brick buildings that pre-date the Civil War still line the waterfront.

Corn is shipped in barge loads, down the river, down to New Orleans, outbound on ships to a hungry world, but it begins here, in Iowa.

What we are seeing today is another beginning, because they are building something new in Iowa, not a Field of Dreams, but 28 corn-fed ethanol plants scattered all over the state.

Here's from the Economist: "YOU might think that the opening of a new ethanol facility in Nevada, Iowa—a town of 6,700 in the centre of the state—would be of interest mainly to the local farmers who supply the corn that the factory turns to car fuel. You would be wrong. Investors in the refinery include the person who delivers fuel to it, a couple of local parts-suppliers for John Deere (a big farm-equipment company) and the local school-bus driver, among 900 or so other small investors. Like many others in the corn belt, the Nevada refinery is seen as a way for the whole rural community to thrive by exploiting America's new craving for ethanol and the corn (maize) that is being used to make it."

Local people own it. Sure, Archer Daniel Midland and other huge agri-businesses own some refineries, but most of them are owned by small farmers and their neighbors.

Corn is at a record price. And people throughout rural Iowa are making some good money now. There is no more deserving group in America.

And if they are smart, they will grow these small towns in a diversified way, first taking the left-over corn mash from the ethanol distillery and using it to feed cattle, then collecting the manure from the cattle feed lots and producing more fuel, and then establishing slaughter facilities for the ripened cattle, and gaining dairy products from the dairy cows also feeding near the corn-fuel plant.

And enough money is flowing into those rural towns right now, that every farmer in the state will be buying a new pickup. But if they are smart, they will make long-term decisions that benefit their communities -- like funding a new public library, or building a swimming pool at the high school, or building parks and sweet meadows for tourists.

Remember that the Corn Belt, that broad band across the middle of America, going from Nebraska, across Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and to Ohio -- coincides with the manufacturing center of our country, and what used to be our most powerful economic generator -- John Deere plants in Iowa, Caterpillar plants in Illinois, and a broad swath of steel mills from Chicago to Pittsburg.

And that is all known now as the Rust Belt, as our economy changed to a service orientation, and the power of this region diminished.

But it rises again, thanks to the mighty power of corn and ethanol. Ethanol, a subsidized and imperfect solution to energy problems, is serving as a catalyst for economic and cultural growth in the Midwest.

For too long this country has been dominated by trendy air-heads from California, entwined with neurotic academics from the Boston-Washington Corridor, and bitterly fought by intransigent, thick-skulled Southerners and all this time, these past 20 and 30 years, the Midwest has remained self-effacing, saying "We're not much," in a courteous tone.

But it's changing now, the climate has changed, the impetus is arising in the center of the country, and the people of the Midwest will now speak up Up, and they will now make more sense, and speak with more truth and more kindness, and more certainty.

This is going to be good. It all begins with Corn, and if they build it in Iowa, the rest of us will come to them, if not in person, then in spirit, with eyes and ears opened, to discuss solutions to America's problems, and the Renaissance in Iowa will save the nation.

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