Weeds: Driving down the capillaries of the nation’s food supply

Roads play a large role in the American psyche. After love, probably more songs have been written about roads than anything else. Bless the Broken…, Red Dirt…, Long and Winding…, Thunder… and hundreds of others. Hitting the road is the common American therapy.

Ours is a nation blessed with breadth and wealth. The combination means we have a network of roads from sea to sea. The Interstate Highway System is one of the great achievements of our nation. But I want to talk about the poorer cousin of those multiple-lane expanses: the gravel road.

Every summer I spend time inspecting fields for the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association. That can take me roughly a hundred miles in any direction from home. Typically I use a highway, then county roads to get me close. In most cases I end up on a gravel road; that’s where the fields are.

You hear them called dirt roads, and in some parts of the country that may be accurate. But around here, the top layer is gravel. They are also called township roads. There are a few county roads that are not paved, but most gravel roads fall under the purview of the township. The township is that most local form of governance.

I live on blacktop. I’m spoiled that way. There is quick, smooth driving either way I turn out my driveway. But my part time job gives me miles of dusty driving.

As I tool around southern Minnesota, I’m amazed how this part of the continent has been turned into one-mile square sections, most bordered by gravel roads. The sections are part of 36 square-mile townships. It’s as if someone laid giant grid paper over the Earth. Inside the one-mile sections are 160-acre quarter-sections. Most fields’ size is divisible by 40.

This was all sloughy prairie once. Those thousands of miles of roads were built up without GPS and the heavy equipment we have today. We can assume a lot of backbreaking work by men and horses was part of laying out this grid. How does one even begin carving things into 5,280-foot increments a hundred years ago?

When using my stash of plat books to find a route to a field, I instinctively favor tarred roads. Gravel roads are generally slower going. They are also tougher on whatever vehicle I have. Loose sand and tiny rocks chink away at the exterior. Dust coats the outside, and inside if the vehicle is not perfectly sealed.

Sometimes it’s a matter of weighing time, distance, and convenience. “Let’s see, I can go up and over three miles on tar and then down two on gravel. Or I can run straight four miles on gravel.”

A clear advantage to gravel roads is the light traffic. Sometimes no traffic. I can park in a field approach, check my notes, walk the field, and write my report, which takes about an hour, and often not see another vehicle. That is quite pleasant compared to crossing the highway by our house to get the mail and feeling like I’ve stepped onto a NASCAR track.

If you are parked on a gravel road, you draw attention, at least what attention there is to be drawn out there. Dogs on nearby farm sites notice you and bark. Humans on those farms are likely suspicious. If someone happens by, it is not uncommon for them to stop and ask if I need help. And when I tell them what I’m doing, for that to turn into a conversation about the state of the crops/weather/markets. Old Guys especially like to visit.

You’re on the edge of civilization on gravel roads. There isn’t really anyone patrolling out there. When some teenage boy goes barreling down the road in a cloud of dust at a speed that is wholly unsafe, he’s unlikely to be pulled over. Loose gravel, ruts in the road, farm equipment, even animals are all good reasons to drive cautiously.

Most intersections are unmarked out in gravel road country. Especially when the corn is high, these are blind intersections. It is not uncommon to find crosses affixed to a pole, indication that something tragic happened here once. Even though I don’t know the story behind that cross, I whisper a small prayer.

There are well-kept farm sites everywhere. But the further you get off tar, the more likely you are to encounter “interesting” places. Unused pastures might be given to weeds. Generations of rusting machinery might be along the edge of the grove. Old granaries and barns might be left to fight a losing battle against the elements.

Then there are places that are wholly abandoned. When I walk the field around one of these, they seem as if ag museums. The people are gone, but the skeleton of a farm remains. The scale is often small. One finds modern hog barns on gravel roads the size of several football fields. On abandoned farms, the barns were meant to house animals by the dozens, not thousands.

There is always a little sadness to these places left to the encroaching grove, the birds, and the wind. This was some family’s dream, a place of busyness and toil and probably some play. Now it awaits the bulldozer and back hoe. Every time crop prices shoot up, a few more get buried.

I am out on the gravel roads in the daylight, but these roads serve a certain clientele after dark. Evidence of that is random beer cans strewn about. The current beers of choice are Busch Light and Keystone Light. It is good to see our rural youth are conscious about keeping their weight down. Back in my day, Old Milwaukee was the standard. If we would have ever done such a thing. Which of course we have forgotten.

Gravel roads have historically been home to other secretive behaviors. “Parking” used to be a step in courting between young men and women. I am removed from those years, so have no idea if that is still practiced. Now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if Pam might like to go parking this weekend? We could take the ’77 pickup, find some music on the AM radio, and pretend we’re 17. Do they still make Old Milwaukee?

Dirt roads don’t get a lot of traffic, and they don’t get attention by those driving on the interstate. But a whole lot of our nation’s food supply comes from them. If the highways are the veins and arteries of America, these unpaved roads are the capillaries. Small, but vital.