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Michael Fields Agricultural Institute logo
At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

Day and Night

Working in our organic cornfields, I am constantly struck by how much life each acre sustains. I’m not talking about the upcoming harvest, I’m referring to the life that is here now. They are overflowing with biodiversity. There are the three sandhill cranes, that fly away each morning as we approach the fields, like clockwork and the family of turkeys that wander about in a comical fashion. Entering our fields and spending much of the daylight hours there, leaves plenty of time for observation, not only of the plants, but of the insect and animal world.

We encounter ants & aphids. Grasshoppers of various varieties and in various forms of their life cycle; from the tiny nymph to the adult, we find their shed exoskeletons on our plants that we are so intently working with. We find tree frogs as green as leaves of corn they are perched on and birds so light they can rest on a single tassel branch without bending them. We find spiders busily building webs and corn root worm beetles that look so innocent in their yellow beetle phase. The bees visit us too, some are honey bees from a resident local hive, others are so tiny you have to look twice to confirm that they actually are a bee. There are the Japanese beetles that I often find devouring some sort of pigweed or lambs quarters (good, I left those there for you on purpose); both plants are edible to humans as well in case of a desperate need for a snack. The mighty cicadas, which sing the song of summer on our hot days, echoing in the hedgerows and trees about us and stopping for a visit on our tall corn plants. We see so many beautiful dragonflies and damselflies, some large and some small, all unique and colorful. We even have a resident garter snake that likes to surprise us every once in a while! And of course, we have mosquitos that like to constantly remind us, that the little things in life are just as important as the big ones.

In contrast, I was recently introduced to the work of, author Craig Childs’ Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of Earth. While writing the book, the author traveled to nine different locations that he considered to be an apocalyptic landscape, a landscape devoid of life in its own way. One of these locations was a conventional cornfield in central Iowa, surrounded by a sea of conventional cornfields. Craig Childs recruited a friend to spend a long weekend in the middle of a 600-acre conventional corn field to see what was living there. In a conventional cornfield, the ground is sprayed, the stalks are sprayed and the corn is bred to kill pests. He found nothing. No birds. No bees. No sounds of the insects. He did find one tiny ant and one miniscule mushroom. Later he found one spider eating one crane fly. There was also one mite and some grasshoppers. And that was it. He crawled and crawled among the conventional cornfield in central Iowa and that was all he found. He used that cornfield as a way to visualize what a mass extinction might look like.

In our organic cornfield, we may have some pests that live there, but we have others that feed upon those pests. We may have some plants that aren’t corn plants, but those plants give insects something else to eat other than our crop. In our busy work day, we don’t have the time to crawl among the plants, but if we did, we would find an entirely different universe from what we observe at eye level. I like to think that with all of this incredible biodiversity, everything keeps itself in check. It is beautiful to hear the birds chatter, to listen to the song of the cicadas, to be surprised by the unexpected and to be surrounded by so much diversity of life.