The man walked with his head down, the farmer reported, as if he were scanning the ground. After considering the man's race, the farmer thought about his clothes—khakis, dress shoes, a short-sleeve collared shirt. And he'd been dropped off by a gray SUV, which had then driven away. Why the hell did the car leave?
The farmer knew that after the detasseling process, a few stray inbred ears—what in the industry were called escapes—often lingered on the ground. Thinking that something suspicious might be at hand, he called his wife, who worked as a police officer one town over, and she called Polk County dispatch, which sent out the alert that blared over Bollman's radio. At some point in this telephone chain, the stranger's business-casual outfit became a suit, and his race became his defining attribute.
As Bollman and the farmer stood outside the farmhouse talking, the gray SUV the farmer had seen dropping the man off zoomed past.
"Well," the farmer said. "There it is."
• • •
THE OTHER DEPUTIES were still talking with the man in the field, so Bollman got back behind the wheel of his patrol car and sped off to pursue the SUV. Flicking on his lights, he soon fell in behind the vehicle. He could see the backs of two heads. The lights worked; a quarter mile or so from the house, the SUV pulled over to the side of the road. The two men remained still as Bollman approached the driver's window.
Bollman asked the men for identification. The driver was Robert Mo, a man identified on his license as Hailong Mo. He was forty-two and lived in Boca Raton, Florida. His head was shaved, and he had broad cheeks that tapered to an undefined jaw. His companion was an older man with taut lips that shifted into a nervous grin. He was identified on his Chinese passport as Li Shaoming. The man from the field was named Wang Lei.
Robert Mo did the talking, and he was utterly polite.
He explained that his two companions were visiting from China, where they researched agronomy. The men were driving across the Midwest looking at crops.
That they would come to Iowa made sense. Corn was big business, both for the state and for the world. Corn is in the animal feed that fattens cows and chickens, and in the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens ketchup, soda, and salad dressing. Over 90 percent of the starch and 56 percent of the sweeteners in the American diet come from corn. Fifty-six is also the percentage of a McDonald's chicken nugget that is corn. For many years the fungus that produces penicillin was grown in a corn by-product, and many cosmetics contain corn. Altogether, the crop covers ninety-three million acres in the United States, a swath nearly the size of California. And Iowa, which produces more corn than any other state, is the center of the industry.
Bollman wondered, though, how much could you actually learn by just looking at a field? To Robert Mo he said, "Have you been up to Iowa State and talked to them at the university?"
It was a fair question. Iowa State was a big land grant university with a strong agriculture program, a sort of mecca for the study of corn. At football games in Ames, it was not unusual to see a man in a corncob costume leading cheers. It also received millions of dollars in grants from Monsanto for endowed professorships, large-scale research projects, and graduate student fellowships, so for people looking to learn about Monsanto seed, it was not a bad choice.
But Mo's answer was vague.
Soon Bollman's colleagues showed up with Wang Lei in the back of their patrol car. Bollman returned to his vehicle to run a basic background check. It came up clean on all three men.
He let the men off with a warning. "If you're going to be on somebody's property, you need to let them know," he said.
Before the men sped off, one of the other deputies recommended speaking with some local farmers with extensive crop knowledge. Maybe one of them could help the Chinese visitors with their agronomy research, he suggested. In Iowa, people were nice almost to a fault, especially when it came to an interest in corn.
After the men left, Bollman turned to the friendly deputy. "You know, you don't necessarily need to be telling him that," he said. "About farms to visit."
"Oh, these guys are OK," his colleague replied.
"Something doesn't seem right here," Bollman insisted. "Why haven't they gone up to Iowa State?"
Later that day, the memory of the incident began to bug him. He filed a report, just in case. He filled in the lines at the top of the form, leaving other identifiers blank:
Type of Suspicious Activity: TRESPASSING IN FARM FIELD
Name: HAILONG MO