The heartland is the breadbasket of America. It grows our grain and meat. In my mind, it’s a verdant plain rich with food for all. Imagine then my surprise to learn from Civil Eats that the heartland can’t feed itself because of the coronavirus crisis. How can this be?

Cash crops

Farming is a business like any other. To earn a living, a farm in the heartland needs to produce crops that others will buy. The cash crops are soy, corn, wheat, and cotton. Normally, those crops generate money in the global commodity markets. But the coronavirus crisis is wreaking havoc on buyers, supply chains, and transportation lines. Farmers can’t get their crops to market. No market means no cash for groceries.

So why not eat the crops? Because the best selling cash crops are not intended for human consumption.

Corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the United States (U.S.), accounting for more than 95 percent of total production and use. […] Most of the corn crop provides the main energy ingredient in livestock feed. Corn is also processed into a wide range of food and industrial products including cereal, alcohol, sweeteners, and byproduct feeds.

Corn & Other Feedgrains, United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, last updated 26 Feb 2020
A corn field farm near Hastings, Minnesota. Image source: Wikimedia.

The soy goes into animal protein feed and vegetable oil. Half the wheat is supposed to go abroad and, of course, you can’t eat cotton. As surreal as it sounds, there are now lines at the local food banks and empty shelves at Walmart’s. Some farmers have only enough food for 4 more days. The effects of the coronavirus on the fragile food ecosystem of the United States are not just hitting the East and West coasts but the heartland as well.

Chaos gardens

Farming economics have always been grim. The land needs to be productive regardless of droughts, insects and depleted soil. To return nutrients to the land, farmers rotate crops. A cover crop like alfalfa reduces cotton pests. It improves the soil, too, by fixing nitrogen. Cover crops keep away the weeds and retain water.

Some heartland farmers are discovering new forms of cover crops. Rather than fill his drill planter with ryegrass seeds, Tom Cannon uses as mix of melons, okra, radish, squash and peas. Then he lets nature do her thing. Voila: you have a chaos garden. For the land, a chaos garden achieves the same beneficial effects as a cover crop. The added bonus for the farmer is: you can eat it, too.

It sounds like a lot of fun. You wander through the chaos garden and are free to harvest whatever you can find. We used to be hunters and gatherers. We used to be able to live off the land. Perhaps we can relearn those skills. It reminds me of the way Australian aborigines used to farm: interspersing and rotating crops while engaging in some judicious stick burning to return nutrients to the soil.

my heartland garden
Snail’s eye view of my vegetable garden.
Photo credit: Karen Kao

Precontact indigenous farmers across the Americas once practiced intercropping. They called it milpa and it sounds a lot like the sort of companion planting I try to do in my postage stamp sized vegetable garden. Some plants benefit from proximity to other plants like tomatoes with basil and tarragon with almost anything. Ken Berns, another heartland farmer, promotes milpa planting for the well-balanced diet it produces. Grains and herbs, brassica and nightshade, curcubit and legumes.

In the corn maze

Heartland farmers like Cannon and Berns are donating the seeds to plant your own milpa or chaos garden, as long as the crops go to some public food distribution center like a soup kitchen or a church. For Berns, the idea is to create a circle.

We donate the seed, the farmer donates the ground, and the community donates the labor to glean.

Daphne Miller, Most Farmers in the Great Plains Don’t Grow Fruits and Vegetables. The Pandemic is Changing That. | Civil Eats | 12 May 2020

That community could include local families or the kind of U-pick system we used in Tasmania to buy locally-grown bell peppers. And if you don’t know your zucchini from a zebra, there’s always the local 4-H club to enlist.

Vegetal abundance alone won’t save the heartland. Once you’ve harvested your bushels of corn and squash, you won’t be able to eat it fast enough. You’ll need to save it. But the heartland has apparently also forgotten the fine art of canning and preserving.

Old style heartland
J. C. Leyendecker / Public domain. Image source: Wikimedia

Not that I fault them. I’ve never made it past a jar of preserved lemons. And yet I’ve always imagined the heartland as a Norman Rockwell painting. Where kitchen arts are sacred and meals come out of the family vegetable garden.

I love the idea of a chaos garden though I won’t be planting my own any time soon. It’s taken me years to learn the difference between a weed and a seedling. I don’t have an acre of land to play with either, just a few raised vegetable beds. Probably not enough to feed an entire community. But then again, but why not try?