GREEN RIDGE, Mo. Sam Jones has been a grain buyer in this small town for nearly four decades, but he wears an expression of concern as he watches farmers arrive at the local grain elevator here to sell their crops. “If I had the money right now, which I don’t,” he says with a knowing look, “I’d be buying up all the croutons I could find.”
Croutons–sauteed or rebaked bread that is seasoned, cut into cubes and added to salads to provide texture and flavor–are a reliable cash crop in the Midwest, where school children have historically been excused from class during spring planting and fall harvest times. “It’s a way of life,” says Marilee Dunham, whose husband Darrell puts their five sons and two daughters to work in early June “de-tasselling” crouton plants to enhance fertilization. “It teaches the kids about the rhythms of nature and the seasons, and the role of the Caesar salad in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.”
But some fear the salad days of croutons are ending, with demand for biodiesel fuels eating up available acreage. “It’s sad,” says Wayne Durrell, Mayor of Green Ridge, whose seven year-old daughter Kylie was selected as Little Miss Crouton during the town’s annual Crouton Festival last summer. “To see a way of life wither away and die all because a bunch of goo-goo liberals want to feel good about what they put in the gas tanks of their hybrids.”
As with all changes in economic trends, this one produces both winners and losers. While biodiesel producers benefit from government-sponsored tax breaks, small towns such as Green Ridge find their traditions threatened by agribusiness giants that buy up land at distressed prices and convert them to open-air factories, where a former independent farmer often finds himself tilling a field he once owned for a distant–-and faceless–-corporate crouton enterprise.
“I’ll do what I have to in order to feed my family,” says Wendell Baker, Jr., whose family has raised croutons for three generations but who is now a contract employee for a commodities producer headquartered in Chicago. “But the pride we used to feel when we walked by the salad bar at Wendy’s is gone.”