Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Frugal Traveler on "The Center Cut": A New Yorker Learns Something about Farming and the Midwest

I have enjoyed immensely following Seth Kugel, the NYT's "Frugal Traveler," the past six weeks as he has made his way through what his summarizing installation calls (in the print edition) America's "Center Cut," from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to western Minnesota.  (I note, by the way, that his journey covers the territory of the federal Eighth Circuit, but with the additions of Kugel's Fifth Circuit kick-off and his brief foray into Kansas).  In his grand wrap up in today's paper, titled (online) "What I Learned Driving Through the Heartland," Kugel's lede has a decidedly agricultural flavor that I cannot resist highlighting here for Ag Law readers:
“The udder on this cow just keeps getting better and better as the day goes on,” remarked Barry Visser, Kandiyohi County Fair dairy cattle judge, over the PA system. A boy led his prizewinning Holstein away as a friendly crowd of western Minnesotans, and one out-of-place New Yorker, looked on from the modest stands. The dairy cow competition was nearing its end; the rabbits, hens and pigs had already had their days of judgment — no udders required — and were unwinding one building down. 
Kugel goes on to explain that, for all his worldliness (here there is shameless place dropping as Kugel establishes his world traveler bonafides by listing the major world regions he has visited), he had a lot to learn about parts of the United States, including how much variety there is from state to state, sometimes even county to county--never mind crossing an international boundary.  Clearly, Kugel's knowledge about farming and farm culture expanded exponentially on this journey.  He writes: 
Vague notions of the region were replaced by what I gleaned from museums and historical markers as well as from residents’ stories of their great-grandparents’ struggles as settlers. The simple question I asked of every farmer I met — How many acres does it take to make a family farm profitable? — launched conversations in which I learned infinitely more than you could by reading articles about farm bills.
* * *

But it was really the county fairs I attended — three in total — that won the Frugal Traveler blue ribbon for favorite activity. I didn’t even know what the 4 H’s in 4-H stood for before this summer (for the record: head, heart, hands, health), let alone that the institution shapes childhoods in much of the country. Later, when I realized that several county fairs are within a two-hour drive of New York City, I felt rather ignorant.
Ignorant, indeed.  Hasn't Kugel been reading his own paper, with its tendency to label "rural" anything north of Westchester?  See examples here and here.  

At a few points, Kugel refers to the people he met and the places he saw as "exotic"--like a small African tribe (the latter are my words, not his).  To observe that this highlights the rural-urban chasm in this country is to state the obvious.  I am also reminded of an interesting cultural studies article I have cited from time to time, Lisa Heldke's "Farming Made Me Stupid."  If Kugel thought that when he started his tour of the Eighth Circuit, he seems to have been disabused of that notion.  Just what I like in a reporter:  an open mind.  

My post about Kugel's visit to my hometown, Jasper, Arkansas--reported at the beginning of August--is here. The pride I felt when I read that story a month ago resurfaced with today's recap, pinpointing on a a map in our nation's premier newspaper of record my little ol' town's position in the universe, along with Kugel's other mostly obscure stops. Too bad the caption in the latter story (print edition) places the "most photographed rock in Arkansas," Hawskbill Crag (a/k/a/ Whitaker Point), in Missouri.  But then, you can only expect so much from a bunch of city slicker cite checkers.  

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