In a country that finds beauty in its heartland’s amber waves of grain, investigative reporting by NPR and other publications on a series of deadly accidents at grain silos hits the solar plexus hard. In the most recent incident, two teenage workers—one fourteen, one nineteen—suffocated to death after they fell through a crust of dried corn and were buried in a sinkhole of grain. A third worker, a close friend of the other two, survived six hours in the bin because a co-worker threw him a bucket as he went down. He put it over his head and was able to breathe while he waited to be dug out. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. As NPR shows, too often safety regulations such as requiring workers to wear harnesses while they walk on top of the grain are ignored by companies due to lax enforcement, low penalties, and few criminal prosecutions. This has made such accidents a depressingly regular occurrence—179 deaths since 1984. One in four victims has been under eighteen years old. In addition, explosions at grain elevators caused by the combustion of grain dust have claimed more lives making employment at such places the most dangerous occupation in Kansas.
In the early twentieth-century, pioneering director D.W. Griffith made a short film titled A Corner in Wheat that comes to a dramatic climax with a man drowned by grain. In a spectacular triumph of cross-cutting, Griffith assembled a three part story about poor wheat farmers sowing their crops, impoverished city dwellers unable to afford bread, and Wall Street speculators cornering the market in wheat. The editing implies the moral: that the speculator is profiting from the powerlessness of the farmer and the bread customer. In the film’s signature scene, the wheat king and his friends decide to end their celebratory banquet with a visit to a grain elevator to see the source of their riches. The elevator operator motions the wealthy revelers away from the edge of the grain bin as the chute spills wheat down into it. Just then, the wheat king’s secretary arrives to deliver a telegram informing him that he has gained a monopoly over the world wheat market. As he jumps for joy, he loses his balance and plunges over the edge into the bin of wheat where wheat pours down on him. He is suffocated by the very source of his wealth and power.
The United States is the world’s largest grain producer. In the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph Dart of Buffalo, New York developed the modern grain elevator to take advantage of economies of scale by storing vast quantities of grain in bulk and loading it directly into railroad cars or ship hulls. Such innovations transformed the international trade in grain by tying it to modern systems of transportation and finance. Grain elevators came to dot the plains of the nation’s interior. Nearly every agricultural community had its own. They were the largest buildings on the horizon and came to be part of the region’s visual iconography. In their time, they were symbols of modernity that impressed European architects with their sheer size and functionality. Many have since fallen into disuse as they have been replaced by fewer, larger, and more modern storage facilities. The older buildings now inspire nostalgia for a rural past that seemed simpler.
This is the paradox of American agriculture. It remains one of the nation’s core industries even as the number of Americans directly involved in it has relentlessly shrunk. The inefficiencies of the once extensive system of small-scale family farms have led to their replacement by larger and larger ones. While undoubtedly more productive, an entire way of life has withered away. These days, agricultural workers are more likely to be low paid employees than land owners or operators. And however efficient, the ability to produce and stockpile mountains of corn, wheat and soybeans have long raised questions about the morality of speculating in futures for basic food supplies. On the one hand, the profit motive provides an incentive for storing food when it’s plentiful so that it is available when it becomes scarce. This helps keep people fed. On the other hand, speculating in food also has the potential for corruption.
Griffith’s depiction of the wheat speculator drowned by his own greed was so powerful that later filmmakers employed it to make similar comments on struggles between good and evil. In 1931, Danish director Carl Dreyer had an evil doctor who was in league with the undead Vampyr of the film’s title suffocated by flour at the town mill. In 1985, Peter Weir made Witness a city-versus-country drama starring Harrison Ford as a jaded Philadelphia cop who has to go into hiding in Pennsylvania farm country to protect a young Amish boy who witnessed a murder. When the corrupt city cops show up at the farm to kill Ford, he survives in part by luring one—the original murderer—into the silo and then opening the chute to crush him in grain. In both cases, the goodness and bounty of agricultural production are what balance the moral debt owed to society by the evil doers.
Away from the silver screen, it has been workers who have suffered and died in grain handling accidents. In 1993, Ron Hayes lost his son Patrick when sixty tons of grain fell on him in a Florida silo. In the years since then, he and his wife have founded The F.I.G.H.T. (Families In Grief Hold Together) Project to assist other families who have lost loved ones due to preventable workplace accidents. Too little has changed since then. In the late 1890s, Mary Elizabeth Lease, better known as Mother Jones, a labor activist and Populist, supposedly told farmers who were oppressed by bankers to “raise less corn and more hell.” The United States is not likely to cut back on its corn production, but raising hell is still an option.