I had a bad feeling it was coming. I’ve watched beautiful fields of sweet corn stand unharvested in Southwestern Minnesota. It’s a story from the prairie that isn’t often told. A few weeks ago I saw a farmer plowing his field under. It was some of the most beautiful sweet corn I’ve seen in 20 years.
I stopped to take a picture of this incredibly sad thing. When I got out of my car the farmer began to wave from the field and yell at me. I thought he was angry, but then I heard the sadness in his voice as I moved closer. “Take what you need!” he yelled.
He was a stranger doing something that the farm boy in me knew would be terrible. He was wrecking a beautiful field full of food that people here and in other parts of the world would love to eat.
I don’t know what got into me, but I went out to talk to him. When I got to the cab and looked up, I was surprised to see tears in the older farmer’s eyes. The tears kept flowing as he explained what he was doing and why. He kept saying, “Take what you need!” I learned in a later conversation that he had called a local food shelf and encouraged them to send people out to take corn before the field was destroyed. He thought I was someone from the food shelf.
I thought the destruction was a result of such a big harvest that the sweet corn company didn’t need this field. But he told me about an issue with fungus in the field. Even though the percentage was low, this loss was necessary. Twice he returned to how he wished there was some way to distribute food around this world and how sad it made him to destroy his crop. There will be unharvested sweet corn in our area because of disease and the size of the crop this fall.
I grieved with him and told him I would share this sad story. There will be others doing this hard thing in the days to come. Great crops of vegetables and other field crops can overwhelm the ability of the local food processing plants to handle the harvest that will only stay good for so long, like sweet corn.
We have trouble moving food to where it’s needed. There are no systems of moving un-needed corn to other places. Even if you could move the field, it would deflate the market for folks who are trying to make a living selling sweet corn as truck farmers. In our area the same thing will be true about sugar beets. The crop will be too large to use all of it. Life on the prairie has its own challenges and beauties.
As a child, when we had a great crop, the prices of our grain would drop and we would have a hard year. I’m concerned for farmers this fall. Prices are down.
I wonder why God nudged me to stop and why this interaction happened. As I’ve shared this story, many have told me it was a gift to the farmer. It was encouraging for him to have his lament heard as he plowed under a field for the third time in his lifetime—something he reports gets harder every time. Yet, I found it to be one of the more holy moments of the 12 years that I have been a bishop. It was a reminder that God hears our laments. It was a reminder that God stops us at times for more important work than our to-do list for the day. I trust God sends people to support us even when we don’t notice.
I won’t forget the farmer’s sad eyes. My tears flowed down my cheek as I walked back to my car. I lament that the farmer had to plow under his field. We both could imagine places where the food might have been used to make a difference. Someday, dear God, someday.