Surely we are into the Great Era of Unintended Results. A most recent example: the folks who helped bring us 300-400 bushel corn per acre thought they were saving the world even though, worldwide, people are starving to death as fast as ever. The plant breeders would not have believed, nor would anyone else, that someday their souped-up corn would be the reason a highway would have to be closed temporarily. I wasn’t traveling Interstate 75 near Dayton, Ohio when a heavy spring downpour precipitated (how’s that for a pun) this startling event. But I believe it because a few weeks later a similar rain here in our county coated some country roads with enough cornstalks that the county workers had to clean them off. So now we not only must contend with blizzards closing roads with snow but spring storms closing them with cornstalks.
I can hear readers say, well, you dumb writer, the cause was the rain not the cornstalks. When you get four or five inches of rain in an hour, all bets are off. But road builders take into account hundred year storm records in their designs so blaming it all on climate change is not the whole answer. There are extenuating circumstances. First of all, farmers are planting 35,000 to 40,000 corn plants per acre where just twenty years ago 25,000 was considered plenty and twenty years before that you could lose or make just as much actual profit with 18,000 plants per acre. Secondly, good soil conservation now requires that those stalks get spread out over the ground to reduce winter erosion, not buried by moldboard plowing. So inevitably, we have a farm flotsam problem rearing its ugly head over the roads. As I understand the deal on Interstate 75, the stalks first plugged the culverts in the road ditches, causing the water to flood up over the road. Even after the water went down and the road was open again, cornstalks hung from the bordering guard rails.
In many cases here in our county, part of the problem, if you don’t want to blame it all on the weather or the corn, is that road ditches are becoming a thing of the past. Many of them have been filled in because who needs ditches anyway especially now when semi-trucks line the roadside along corn fields during harvest time, handy for the combines to unload their harvested cargo. But in hindsight, it appears that those old ditches made handy reservoirs to catch the water and cornstalks floating off the fields. Now the flotsam can just ooze out on the road whether there’s a Democratic climate change cloudburst or an all night traditional Republican drizzle.
Also some farmers will plow as close to the county roads as the county engineer will allow and sometimes closer, so that the grass strip along the road grows narrower with each passing year. Even a milder shower can send the water out onto the road. Carrying some of those 35,000 cornstalks per acre with it is inevitable.
I’ve written before about how these cornstalks, now bred for greater strength, possess a woody texture to them that is actually wearing out farm equipment faster than anyone foresaw. Tire manufacturers are building special tires to cope with the situation. And while the stalks can be used to make cellulosic ethanol, harvesting them is almost too costly to make it practical.
I have an idea to turn this problem into pure gold, at least in those millions of acres of corn next to rivers and streams. These fields could easily be contoured so that after corn harvest, heavy rains would carry the stalks to the waterways and hence downstream to strategically placed ethanol refineries. We could harvest and transport the stalks with hardly any cost at all, just like we floated logs down the rivers in the good old days. Sure beats floating them down the highways and byways.