Friday, September 4, 2015

Death in the Food Factory

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 57
Erika Hayasaki, Drowned by Corn

On the piping-hot morning of July 28, 2010, four young boys climbed inside Bin Number 9 at a western Illinois grain depot to keep the produce moving on high-speed conveyors. They didn't know that OSHA regulations required them to wear safety harnesses when inside a bin, or that management was forbidden to run the conveyors with someone inside, or that the job, defined as legally dangerous, was strictly off-limits to workers under sixteen, as two of them were. They just needed the summer work.

When fifteen-year-old Wyatt Whitebread became trapped in the grainary's downward suction, two friends, Alex "Paco" Pacas and Will Piper, dove in to save him, becoming trapped alongside him. Engulfed in grain and immobilized by its weight, the boys suffered a trauma called "compression drowning," when surrounding weight makes inhaling impossible. Whitebread and Pacas died submerged in loose corn; the effort to rescue Piper took over seven hours and dozens of volunteers. But Piper's journey was just beginning.

Journalist Erika Hayasaki combines George Pyle's factual detail withNick Reding's narrative panache to craft a story of how industrialized, mechanized agriculture squeezes the life from small American towns. This squeezing isn't usually as literal as these boys suffered, though that's becoming increasingly common. But as big-city economic forces strip small towns of meaningful work, forcing teenagers into dangerous jobs under untrained supervisors, Will Piper's odyssey has become painfully familiar.

The deaths in Bin Number 9 were completely avoidable, and left indelible marks on their already impoverished town. But Will Piper, already smoking weed to cope with intractable boredom, found himself plagued with nightmares and survivor's guilt, which compounded his already-present problems. He couldn't hold jobs, dealt drugs to pay bills, and tumbled into disastrous relationships, both sexual and otherwise. After his brief flirtation with small-town heroism, his frequent run-ins with the law made him into a pariah.

A mannequin demonstrates the correct way to avoid dying in a grain bin. From the
Department of Agriculture blog essay You Can Die in a Grain Bin in Less Than 60 Seconds

Industrialized agriculture incubates the perfect storm of forces to witness how complicated and fractious American life has become today. Everyone needs to eat, but we’ve pushed the process of food creation onto others. We’ve made the means of human survival into low-paid peon work. Meanwhile, the plentiful work and now rural living costs have attracted racial minorities into farming areas once spotlessly white—though much actual work remains strictly segregated by sex.

Alienated from his community, seeing his work devalued, Piper became the embodiment of everything scientists agree causes addiction. Life became a self-feeding spiral of shame and avoidance. Without portable job skills, Piper drifted, the epitome of rural disaffection in a culture which openly disparages its own agrarian roots. Will Piper, not Norman Rockwell, represents the real forces and mores driving rural America’s bleak, underpaid hardscrabble lifestyle today.

This almost-book-length essay's official description implies Hayasaki will deal with the social and economic forces that spur underage kids to accept difficult, dangerous work for shameful wages in America's agrarian communities. This is deceptive; in fact, Hayasaki focuses on the long-term consequences Will Piper suffered for surviving. Rather than assessing the overall circumstances coloring rural communities, Hayasaki prefers Piper's character-driven story. This isn't about the disaster; it's about the survivor.

Which is fine. Though I wish Hayasaki addressed the context that made the Bin Number 9 disaster occur, other authors have done so already. Read alongside Pyle and Reding, cited above, Hayasaki's account lays bare the pain plaguing the hearts of contemporary small towns. Though I fear Hayasaki's account is possibly incomplete without the context these other authors provide, committed readers may find this personal tragedy enough to get them reading about the larger social catastrophe.

Too often, the poverty and loss of local control stemming from industrialized agriculture go unaddressed, most especially in those communities hardest hit. Because farmers aren't unified, it's difficult to challenge the monolithic corporations that would rather hire underaged teen workers than deal directly with farmers. Because everybody fears rocking the boat, big festering wounds lurk at the heart of many small American communities. And it risks getting worse before it gets better.

Hayasaki's account may help America begin addressing this painful gulf. If it gets big-city buyers communicating with the small-town farmers who produce the corn they eat, wear, and burn every day, perhaps we've made some incremental progress. Hayasaki's storytelling makes the Bin Number 9 disaster and its aftermath zing with compressed emotional impact. If she doesn't say everything about small town circumstances, she certainly gives the problem a human face.

And that may not be everything America needs, but it's a good solid start.

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