Great care has been taken. The corn seeds are in the ground, more than 400 acres of the blackest earth imaginable, and Bill Fugate can only wait and pray, both of which he will do in goodly amounts.
If the rain and sun are right, if nature is gentle and if all else goes as it is supposed to, Fugate will raise enough corn this year to produce 4,500 hogs. If he's really lucky, there will be some corn left over to sell.
In a good year, Fugate will raise 45,000 bushels of corn, which isn't a lot when you consider that American farmers last year, even with the severe drought, produced about 6.6 billion bushels.
Their corn has much to do with the way we live. About two-thirds of the crop was fed to cattle and hogs and poultry. That put meat, eggs and milk on the table. About 2.5 billion bushels more went overseas, making a hefty contribution to the balance of payments. The rest of the crop became flour, syrup, cereal, starch, beer and liquor, pet foods, fuel for engines and hundreds of other industrial products.
William (Bill) Fugate, 39, a ruddy, cheery farmer with a master's degree, is the first link in this intricate chain of food and industry. Out here in fertile central Illinois, the nearly 700 acres he and relatives farm make him somewhat larger than average but not as big as the biggest.
The other side of this is the Fugate is prototypical of the new generation of well-educated, sophisticated men who till one of America's greatest resources, the immensely rich black soil from the Mississippi River.
The mythology a smug America likes to perpetuate is that farmers are oafish working stiffs, hayseeds with sunburned necks who farm because they don't know any better. The reality is that men like Fugate, running these big farms, are skilled managers with expertise in science, economics, engineering and agronomy. They have to be; amateurs don't survive.
To stay abreast of his work, Fugate reads three daily newspapers and a stack of technical publications. He closely follows world weather, political and economic shifts and is acutely aware of farm politics in Washington. He talks high finance with the same ease he discusses hybrid-seed developments or harmful practices in soil cultivation.
This is essential because, by any estimate, the Fugate family's Thrushwood Farms is a major business, made more complex by its two-sided nature as a grain producer and pork producer and its sensitivity to political and economic glitches.
This flat land in the heart of the midwestern Corn Belt, where Fugate plants his corn and soybeans and tends his hogs, is as good a place as any to see and feel the beginning of the farm process.
Livingston County is one of the more productive areas in the Iowa-Illinois corn-growing stronghold. These two states last year raised an estimated 2.5 billion bushels -- more than a third of the U.S. crop, more than China and the Soviet Union combined. No other country came even close to matching the Iowa-Illinois output.
Fugates have been farming this land since the middle of the last century, buying a little more when they could and passing it on, renting as much as they needed to keep the operation going. Bill's son Eric, 15, is the fifth generation working some of the same land.
Today the operation is overseen by Bill Fugate, but it is still very much a family enterprise. His wife, Kay, who studied home ecomonics and did corn research at the University of Illinois, keeps the garden and helps with the books. His father, Howard, owns most of the land and helps at planting and harvest time. Bill's brother-in-law, Ray Hankes, 34, who has a doctorate in meat science, masterminds the hog production.
Together, they are farming 690 acres and feeding their corn and soybeans to hogs that leave Thrushwood Farms at a rate of 4,500 a year. The 1980 drought zapped their corn crop, cutting yield to 42 bushels per acre (a year earlier, the yield was 145). As a result, their self-sufficiency ended and they are now buying corn on the market at the going rates, although a federal disaster program will pay some of their extra costs.
Because of that subsidy, the price of somebody's pork chop and ham did not go up. And that brings up an interesting point.
The Reagan administration wants to end that program and Fugate is a mite sensitive about it. "I laugh at the doles lines," he said, "but here I am getting this government aid. It's there and we will use it. Last I heard, 43 people had qualified for it in this county. That will be the difference between us making it this year or not making it."
Farmers are good at painting their survival chances in drastic terms and Fugate is no exception, even though he administers a small empire worth about $4 million in land, equipment and livestock.
The Fugates, like many other farmers, insist that they run close to the margins of profitability, an assertion that one may accept or not. "This year, we won't make more than a Fairbury school teacher, which is to say about $12,000 to $13,000," Fugate said. But things are eased somewhat by the family's operation of a small meat-processing plant, where a few of their hogs end up, across the state in Galesburg; by breeder hog sales, and by a small seed-corn dealership.
"We have no large excesses of money, but we are enjoying life, in part because this is a prosperous agricultural area. . . . We always look for that Big Apple and we don't realize it is there for only a fleeting time," Fugate said.
Fugate decided he wanted to farm while he was studying for a master's in animal science at Purdue University. Farming, of course, ran deep in the Fugate blood, but there was more to it.
"I had wanted to do research or be a stock specialist, but then I got the itch to farm. I feel that I am people-oriented. I like to think that I can provide the food that everyone wants to eat if they provide me the means to do that. I am willing to do it, but I want a little profit. I could drive a truck, or serve in Congress, or go to work on Wall Street, so it is not just a way of life we're talking about," he said.
What we're talking about actually is a major business with overhead so huge that the rest of working America is in some other distant and far less worrisome league.
Thrushwood Farms' corn seed this year cost $5,000. Seed for 150 acres of soybeans cost $2,000 Fuel will be about $9,000; fertilizers, $22,000, herbicides and insecticides, $10,000. The consulting veterinarian charges $500 a month. The Farm Bureau bookkeeping service is $800 a year. On top of that will come payments on a debt of $80,000 for the hog operation and $45,000 remaining on a late model harvesting-threshing machine. In all, Fugate figures it will cost $200 an acre to get him through the year.
"We've got to have $3.50 a bushel and at least a 100-bushel corp of corn [per acre] to make ends meet this year," Fugate said on a recent day when corn was selling for $3.32 a bushel. "This year we are working on depreciation -- and on soil depreciation, because we're not putting as much fertilizer on. But I'm optimistic about 1981. My gut feeling is that it will be a decent year."
The planting begins in May -- late April, if the weather is good. But this year in Livingston County and throughout most of the Corn Belt, heavy rains delayed the sowing of corn and soybeans.
The Fugates drop their corn and bean seeds from a huge machine that plants 12 rows at a time. The rain prevented completion of planting until last week, which, in the case of the corn, means that the yield may be reduced by as much as 20 bushesl per acre at harvest. After the fields have begun to turn green, the Fugate will make one more pass with a rotary hoe or cultivator to break up the soil and chop out weeds. From then until harvest, it's a waiting game.
The beans are harvested in mid-September. When that harvest is complete, the corn is brought in and stored and dried on the farm or at the local elevator. Then a certain amount of land will be tilled and fertilized again, to be left until plowing time next spring.
"We're maniacs in the spring and fall," Fugate said. "The tractors begin early in the morning and go until dark or later. Every day of planting after May 10 costs us a bushel of corn per acre in yield. In the fall, when it is dry enough to harvest, every day you wait costs you more money. In the spring and fall we are up at 5 a.m. and working until 10 or 11 p.m. You never have the hours you need."
Meanwhile, as the land is tiled, as the crop is planted and harvested, the hog operation goes on, requiring constant attention. The easiest way to understand this is to consider it a nursery for pigs -- with room, board and medical care. High land costs require the operation to be housed entirely indoors, in long, low sheds especially designed for feeding and farrowing.
Piglets are born every week and their older brothers and sisters, kept and fed for about six months, leave Thrushwood Farms every two weeks weighing about 210 pounds each. The average sow will bear three litters, each with 9 to 12 piglets, before she is sold off to become sausage. The best of Thrushwood's stock stays on the farm for breeding purposes.
The corn and beans grown in the fields surrounding the pig lot form the basis of the diet -- corn for energy, beans for protein. During residency, each hog will eat about 10 bushesl of corn. The grains are stored in large metal bins and fed into grinders that pulverize them into a meal that is heavily fortified with nutrients. An underground network of pipes carries the meal by high pressure to the feeder sheds. Another underground web of tubing carries manure from the sheds, which the Fugates maintain as neatly as a pig farm can be maintained.
The constant population is around 2,200 hogs, with newcomers taking the place of the animals leaving for market.
There is a rhythmic complexity to all of this, but it all boils down to a simple truth. Without corn, the hog, the steer, the laying hen and the frying chicken don't eat. Without Bill Fugate and his brother farmers there is no corn.