John Steinbeck described Route 66 as “the mother road, the road of migrants” as jobless workers and tenant farmers who lost their land packed belongings and headed west in old jalopies searching for opportunity in California.
Route 66 was once dubbed America’s Main Street, a 2,448-mile road that snaked through small-town America from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.
Today, it’s a historic byway, supplanted in national economic importance by the interstate highways that connect major urban centers and by river and rail lines.
People in towns along the route have created an aura of heritage tourism to lure travelers off those interstates, with businesses that keep alive memories of bygone days.
Arguably, Route 66 is less critical to the nation’s food and fiber production than are Interstates 80 or 35. Today, the route is most recognized for businesses catering to history and heritage tourism, cafes and shops that keep alive memories of drive-in restaurants and cars with tail fins.
In reality, agriculture remains the backbone of communities along the Mother Road. Farming and ag-related services remain the largest industries along the highway, according to a 2011 study by Rutgers University.
Hop on this road from the Chicago suburbs and you’ll soon cross through some of the best crop land in the country. Eight Illinois counties along the highway produce nearly 15% of the state’s corn and soybean crops.
Moving through Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, the route weaves through cattle country. Some of the nation’s largest stockyards are along the route between Springfield, Mo., and Amarillo, Texas.
Throughout this week, DTN will take a look at just a handful of small towns, farmers and ranchers along Route 66 in Illinois and Missouri. The producers along the route cover a range of operations. DTN will look at a central Illinois organic producer, a conventional corn-and-soybean farmer, horseradish production in Illinois, cattle production in southwest Missouri and the development of small fruit-and-vegetable farmers in Missouri. The stories use the 2012 Ag Census and compare those numbers to farm production during the 1930s and ’40s when Route 66 truly was “the Mother Road.”
In Atlanta, Ill., Dave Bishop enjoys showing off some of the celebrated history of Route 66 in Illinois along with a bit of history about agriculture as well.
Just about 130 miles outside of the Chicago area, downtown Atlanta is an early reminder on the old highway that much of what became Route 66 began as a farm-to-market road.
Bishop, an organic farmer just outside of town, likes to grab lunch downtown at the Palms Grill and Cafe, which has remodeled itself to reflect the way the cafe looked when it originally opened in 1934. The grill is surrounded by museums, thrift shops — a Route 66 staple — and an inexplicable but oddly fitting 19-foot statue of Paul Bunyan holding a giant hot dog.
Atlanta has one of the more unique agricultural attractions in Illinois — the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum. The museum was a working grain elevator until the 1970s, when it fell into disuse. Since the late 1980s, as the town began investing in its heritage. A group of volunteers has restored the Hawes elevator with vintage equipment to its 1904 style of grain deliveries that operated through pulleys and levers.
“You can go in and see how grain handling evolved in central Illinois,” Bishop said. “There has been a real effort to try to salvage what is good about the community instead of letting everything fall down. In Atlanta, we don’t like to let anything go without a fight.”
Much like his hometown, Bishop and his family embraced the past to market to the present. Bishop is the patriarch for Prairi Erth Farms just outside of town. The 400-acre farm was certified as organic in 2004, but has taken off through both the recent trends of local foods and social media.
Organic agriculture may be a growing trend nationally, but not so much in central Illinois. Logan County has 780 farms, but just two are listed as certified organic, according to the 2012 Ag Census. Bishop acknowledges, “We’re the odd people here.”
Yet, much like Atlanta’s need to distinguish itself from other small towns, Bishop decided in the 1970s that to survive as a farmer he had to distinguish himself.
“You remember Earl Butz — ‘Get big or get out’ — all of that? I remember the days when all farms were small organic farms and we were a community then,” he said. Getting big divided people over issues such as expanding rental ground, he said. “So I decided I could get big, I could get out or I could get different.”
The farm, which now includes Bishop, son Hans and Hans’ wife, Katie, now sells a broad array of vegetables at local farmers markets and through Community Supported Agriculture programs by using year-round greenhouses. Prairi Erth also sells corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, alfalfa, beef, pork and eggs.
“We kind of take the diversity thing very seriously,” Bishop said.
“The whole local food movement runs on social media and the ability to effectively use social media,” Dave Bishop said. “With social media, you can maintain that relationship with the customer. That makes local food work.”