Decatur, harvest time: that giant sucking sound

Driving home yesterday from a meeting in Springfield, I decided to take a detour through Decatur. I haven’t been there since the mid 1990s when it was known as the “War Zone.”

The smell is unmistakable. If you have ever brewed beer at home, its something like the smell of wort cooking. Combine that with the smell of wet cat food, and throw in something that burns the nose a little.

I didn’t have a camera with me, so I’ll go back soon. You can see the plants looming on the horizon from I-72. I exited on IL-48 and followed the trucks down Brush College Road past Richland Community College and on to the massive Archer Daniels Midland facility (see Decatur on Wikimapia). The soybean fields grow right up to the fence. Probably 50 trucks were lined up waiting to dump their beans. As you travel on south, you pass under a pipeline that heads to the west. ADM built it during the lockout at A.E. Staley to deliver product to their supposed competitor, and help break the union.

After you drive under the pipeline and some tracks, you pass the well-groomed ADM research facility. Then turning right on you travel west on a parkway that becomes “Eldorado Street.” Cresting a hill you can see a tall office building with a 1930s look. It’s the old Staley headquarters, now owned by Tate & Lyle, a UK based multinational that supplies the world with sweets. I can’t remember if the black chain link fence topped with barbed wire was there in the pre Tate and Lyle days. Staley was famous as a community-minded employer, and the grounds look more like a park. Did the fence go up during the lockout?

The smell is getting stronger as you turn right on 22nd Street and go up over the plant and the rail yard. Corn sweetener. The ex-Staley facility is huge, spreading out along the rail yard. It’s a jumble of tubes, conveyer belts, pipes, and smoketacks. I remember marching over this road during the lockout. Definitely looking like “dark satanic mills.”

I turned around in the parking lot of a diner and headed back over the viaduct, then east on Eldorado (IL-105) toward Monticello. As you leave the town behind, crossing Lake Decatur–no doubt the source of cheap power and water–you are quickly back in the countryside. But now somehow the beauty of the harvest time colors is drained away. It isn’t that this is news to me, but seeing ADM and Staley again brings home the fact that the agriculture of this whole region is geared toward a very, very industrial process.

Ross Perot famously warned that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” as U.S. jobs were pulled to Mexico. Here in central Illinois, on the first day of fall weather, I hear a different sucking sound. The sound of beans and corn scraped from the land and into the wet mills of Decatur. And from the grounds of ADM and Tate & Lyle go forth the veggie burgers, the ethanol, and the high fructose corn sweetener that feed, drive, and flavor the world.

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