Corn Commentary

Go Grist! Journalist Looks Beyond Media Hype to Find True Story of U.S. Farming

Kudos to Grist for taking a real look at agriculture in Iowa. As the primary season starts, candidates will visit the state and many outlets may off-handedly deride the stances they express on the issues important to farmers. But Liz Core, a Grist journalist, took the time to visit the state and talk to farmers about the issues that they face. What she found is a much deeper, more nuanced understanding of Iowa’s farm families.

“Iowa commodity growers are often demonized for what and how they grow, and monocultures and ethanol aren’t exactly healthy for the planet. But all of the farming families I talked to expressed a deep respect for the land and the desire to take good care of it for the next generation. If we want to understand how and why our agriculture system is the way it is, we’d be wise to approach all farmers with an open mind.”

To read the full article, click here.

Core goes on to introduce three of the farm families she met during her time in Iowa, including CommonGround volunteer Julie Kenney. Showing the real people and exploring their honest concerns, she provides a balanced picture of both agriculture and the impact public policies have upon farmers.

When you take the time to look beyond the sound bites and have an open conversation, a much more interesting story emerges. Through programs such as CommonGround and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the men and women who grow our food start a dialogue with those who buy it to foster this sort of honest, two-way dialogue. Reach out and you might find the same thing that Core did – on or off the farm, most of us want the same things for our families and our country.

Soil Health Hinges on Farmers

The first year of the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), introduced at the 2014 Commodity Classic, enrolled 20 farmers in six states to be demonstration sites for the effort and by the end of five years they expect to have 100. These farmers have agreed to basically be the “guinea pigs” to help other farmers learn from their experiments and innovations.

shps15-smithOne of those farmers is Tim Smith of Iowa who was one of the demonstration farmers on a panel at the Soil Health Summit in St. Louis last week. “I can see the soil conservation benefits and I can see the nutrient reduction benefits, but I think the soil health benefits are what’s going to help sell it to other farmers,” said Smith. His conservation efforts earned him the first National Corn Growers Association Good Steward award presented at last year’s Commodity Classic.

Smith believes that improving soil health is critical and just the right thing to do. “In the last 150 our average top soil (in Iowa) has gone from 14 inches down to eight inches,” he said. “We can’t continue that because it will run out if we don’t start taking care of it … any soil loss is not tolerable.” Listen to my interview with Tim here: Interview with Tim Smith, SHP farmer from Iowa

shps15-ncga-rossThe National Corn Growers Association is the administrator for the Soil Health Partnership and Corn Board member Kevin Ross believes it’s a very worthwhile initiative for farmers and all involved.

“I’m really pleased with the direction it’s heading,” said Ross during the summit last week. “It’s really good to see these groups on the same page with a common goal and that’s soil health.”

Ross, who is a farmer from Minden, Iowa, says he thinks of soil as a living, breathing thing that needs care to maintain and improve its health. “It’s just like your personal health, you have to manage it and correct things if there’s an issue,” he said. Interview with Iowa corn grower Kevin Ross, NCGA Corn Board

2015 Soil Health Summit Photo Album

First Soil Health Partnership Summit Held

shps15-welcomeThe Soil Health Partnership (SHP) was officially launched at last year’s Commodity Classic so it will just be one year old in another month. But Nick Goeser with the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) says the concept had a relatively long gestation period.

“The idea for the Soil Health Partnership started in 2011, so within three years we came to the point where we could launch it and it’s been great,” Goeser said during the first Soil Health Summit in St. Louis on Thursday which included farmers, agronomists, and organizations involved in the effort.

shps15-goeserThe farmers at the summit are among the 20 in six states that have made a five year commitment to the project. “The farmers are early adopters and innovators in the area of conservation management,” Goeser explained. “They agree to enroll a 20 to 80 acre field on their farm and allow us to collect soil samples to update our recommendations to farmers.” In addition, the demonstration farmers agree to host field days as part of the project.

NCGA is the administrating organization in the SHP, which was set up with funding from Monsanto and The Walton Foundation, but in the last year the partnership received a Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA-NRCS that has provided additional funds.

Listen to Nick explain more about the SHP in this interview: Interview with Nick Goeser, NCGA Soil Health and Sustainability Manager

2015 Soil Health Summit Photo Album

Learning About Conservation in the Everglades

Normally, the Conservation Technology and Information Center stays pretty close to the Midwest for its annual Conservation in Action tour, but this year they headed way south into the Florida Everglades to get a look at some very different types of crops.

ctic-14-ncgaOn the tour was CTIC board member and National Corn Growers Association Soil Health and Sustainability Manager Nick Goeser, who was amazed by the sugarcane planting and harvesting he saw. “It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s different (compared to corn) but the level of mechanization is very similar, the level of farm management, the precision involved – it’s amazing.”

Farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) have implemented some very successful best management practices to protect the important ecosystem that provides the water supply for much of the state. “A lot of the management issues are similar,” said Goeser. “We learned they had about a 55% reduction in phosphorus, which is huge.”

Goeser says what farmers have been able to accomplish in the EAA can serve as a conservation case study for farmers in other parts of the country.

2014 CTIC Conservation in Action Tour Photo Album

Listen to my interview with Nick here and watch some of the sugarcane harvest in the video below: Interview with Nick Goeser, NCGA

Taking Proactive Water Quality Steps

Following closely on the heels of the toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie that shut down water supplies in Toledo Ohio, Michigan’s livestock and crop producers recently announced proactive steps on water quality issues.

“Michigan agriculture is proactive and part of the solution when it comes to water quality issues in the Western Basin of Lake Erie and surrounding areas,” said Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, who announced steps in a long-term effort to ensure Michigan’s continued leadership on water quality issues.

mi-cornJim Zook, executive director of the Michigan Corn Growers Association, says technology plays a major role in providing solutions to water issues and Michigan is a leader in the use of precision agriculture technology, which helps producers optimize fertilizer use.

“Even just a few years ago, the technology just wasn’t where it is today,” said Zook. “Growers didn’t have the precision agriculture tools that are in use across the state to pinpoint fertilizer applications. Michigan’s corn producers have embraced new technology, and they’re using it to be part of the solution on water quality issues.”

Listen to Byrum, Zook and other Michigan ag leaders talk about proactive steps they are taking on water quality issues: Michigan Agriculture Groups Discuss Water Quality

Save the Corn Farmers?

Google “save the rainforest” and watch all the organizations that pop up; everything from the World Rainforest Fund to Kids Saving the Rainforest.  I don’t have a problem with that because rainforests are a critical cog in the blue planet’s eco-system.

Rainforests provide incredible biodiversity and through the process of photosynthesis they also provide the duel function of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it to life-sustaining oxygen. Then I realized most the American public has a rudimentary understanding of  the importance of the Amazon on another continent but has little understanding of the contributions our corn crop makes just from the process of simply growing.  It was the accompany image that got me thinking.

grawk-earth-photosynthesis-crop-660x410The image from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center represents satellite measurements of plant fluorescence.  It represents a compilation of data collected over a four year period. During photosynthesis, the chlorophyll in healthy plants absorbs light to be converted into energy, but it also emits a little bit of light that’s not visible to the human eye. Scientists have now figured out how to use that fluorescent glow to measure the productivity of plants in a given region.

What it reflects is a startling revelation even to a corn-o-phile like me. Using existing data from satellites designed for entirely different purposes, such as ozone monitoring, NASA scientists were able to show that during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwestern U.S. has more photosynthetic activity than anywhere else on the planet, including the Amazon rainforest. Nearly all of this can be attributed to agriculture, and much of it to corn.

So, feeding people aside, providing cleaner ethanol fuel aside, corn takes bad things out of the air much like a tree and gives us oxygen to breathe.  So I want to start a new organization called Save the Corn….or maybe that should be corn farmers?  

Binging on Earth Day Irony

dead dolphinOk, I admit I love irony. So I had to chuckle a little bit as everyone was getting fired up about the arrival of another Earth Day. The irony lies in the fact that this momentous occasion occurs two days after the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

To refresh your memory this was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, estimated to be up to 31% larger in volume than the previously largest, the Ixtoc I oil spill. Following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a sea-floor oil gusher flowed for 87 days, until it was capped on 15 July 2010. The US Government estimated the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels.

That’s 210 million gallons of oil and we don’t even want to talk about the 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals they call dispersants which were either to:

  • Hide BP’s Faux Pas and remove it from public display
  • or allow nature to recover faster

The irony gets tastier if you are my age because I am old enough, ok more than old enough, to have celebrated the first Earth Day and remember how this whole affirmation of Mother Terra Firma began. It started 44 years ago after a US Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, witnessed the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda.

Well the Earth Day recognition has lasted but the public consciousness and the leadership of our elected officials lacks a little staying power. Today, the oil industry continues to be one of the largest polluters in the world. And because of their deep pockets and political influence they have been allowed to blithely go about their business with little or no consequences.

The BP spill offers a great case in point. Big oil responded initially and spent money for clean-up efforts and they put on a contrite face while the cameras were on. But take a closer look today at their efforts in court to dodge any more clean-up costs and the fines that were imposed. They say their job is done even as the number of dead dolphin washing up on beaches topped 900 last week. Kemp sea turtle have been nearly ravaged into extinction in Gulf waters.

And to add insult to injury petroleum interests are now spending millions to mislead the public. Big oil is poisoning the system as well as the environment. They are doing everything they can to keep a death grip on the liquid transportation fuel market.

That’s why today—Earth Day — you should take few minutes to educate yourself regarding the sheer audacity of oil. It’s as simple as going to to shine a spotlight on the oil companies’ dirty tricks and dishonest attacks. Americans deserve to know how oil companies have rigged the system to make us pay more at the pump—sending their profits up while our air and water quality goes down.

Forbes Fuzzy Math

Forbes proved that by carefully presenting numbers in a persuasively plotted manner one can confuse a reader this weekend in its story “It’s Final – Corn Ethanol Is Of No Use”. Referencing the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group reports released at the end of last month, energy writer James Conca conca-cocted a seemingly sensible argument. Unfortunately, he used slanted stats to obfuscate the truth and, with the skill of a math-magician, create an illusion instead of a solid story.

In his argument, Conca cleverly hides reality through the use of percentages. Comparing the total percent of the corn crop used to feed people and livestock in 2000 (90 percent) to the broken out figures for livestock and food and beverage feed in 2013 (45 percent and 15 percent respectively). He clearly intends to shock by using the smallest possible numbers for 2013 instead of using a more mentally honest direct comparison.

But this is only the beginning of the show. Much of the story happens off the stage.

Behind the curtain, Conca hides the hard numbers that would show his sleight of hand for what it actually is. In 2000, the United States produced only 9.9 billion bushels of corn. In 2013, U.S. farmers grew a record 13.9 billion bushels. Percentages working as they do, a larger percentage of a smaller crop can (and often does) equal a smaller percentage of a larger.

Usage for starch held steady. Sweetener, cereal and food usage rose.

Corn used for livestock feed rose too. In 2000, 5.2 billion bushels of U.S. corn went to livestock feed. In 2013, 4.3 billion bushels went directly to the livestock feed market with the equivalent of an additional 1.1 billion bushels going to feed use as distillers dried grains and corn gluten feed. That is a total of 5.4 billion bushels of corn in 2013.

Overlooking real magic, Conca fails to mention how ethanol co-product DDGs help maximize the potential of each kernel of corn by creating both feed and fuel from it.

While he puts on a complicated, carefully choreographed performance, Conca’s performance falls flat as a piece of unbiased journalism. Instead of shining the spotlight on the real fallacies, he follows the other righteously indignant frauds into a fog of reactionary rhetoric that obscures the bright role biofuels play in building an honestly better future.

The Future’s so Bright…

classic14-martin-shadesMartin’s got to wear shades.

That was National Corn Growers Association president Martin Barbre looking like a rock star at the final Corn Congress session of Commodity Classic. Not by choice, he actually broke his regular glasses the night before and had to wear his prescription shades to read.

But, Martin really does think the future is bright for corn farmers and agriculture in general, especially now that we finally have a finished farm bill and NCGA has reached a new membership record of 40,287 as of the end of February.

Two initiatives Martin is especially excited about right now are the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF) and the Soil Health Partnership.

“There’s no doubt that GMOs have become a hot button issue in recent years,” he said of the CFSAF, which advocates a federal solution that would establish standards for the safety and labeling of food and beverage products made with genetically modified ingredients. “We’re just getting the coalition together and getting a game plan together and when we do we’ll start moving forward.”

The Soil Health Partnership has the support of Monsanto and the Walton Family Foundation and relies on a science advisory council made up of government and university experts as well as environmental groups. “These are just examples of the coalitions we’ve been able to work on.”

Martin is even optimistic about the number one policy issue facing NCGA this year – protecting the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). “We’re proud of the grassroots action we saw on the part of our nation’s corn farmers” to get thousands of comments in to the EPA on the proposal and thousands of calls to the White House. “We don’t know when the decision will come down or what it will be but we know we’ve done our part and we’ll continue to keep pressure on the administration.”

Martin talked about these issues and others in the following audio segments:

Interview with Martin Barbre, NCGA president
NCGA president on the Classic stage
NCGA Press Conference with Martin Barbre

2014 Commodity Classic Photos

2014 Resolution: Put Environment Back in EPA

oil spillI am rapidly getting in the holiday spirit but before I get to relaxed and magnanimous I have to send one final love letter to my friends in the petroleum industry. So with thoughts of sugar plums dancing in my head here goes:

In doing my regular reading today I came across three separate stories that if looked at individually are disturbing. The first touts fracking as the main driver in a U.S. energy revolution.

“America is in the midst of a game-changing energy revolution. This potential has been unlocked by innovations in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that have made America the world’s top energy producer,” John Felmy, the American Petroleum Institute’s chief economist said. said.

No argument there but let’s drop the other shoe or pair of shoes if you will. I keep asking the same questions regarding fracking; at what cost? What are the environmental consequences of this intrusive, earth rending form of energy extraction? How long will the boom last?

More and more experts are saying enjoy our current respite of available energy because it won’t last. And now the US Coast Guard is looking into the possibility of allowing fracking waste to be barged along American rivers. Granted if they have to ship it this is likely the best way (or at least safest and most economical way), but isn’t it enough that international oil has slimed our oceans on a consistent basis for decades. Now they want to put these toxic substances on our rivers and risk our fresh water too?

Thus, the second article and issue; Every year petroleum finds itself wrapped up in a string of environmental misadventures, and many take place in remote locations and out of the glare of public scrutiny diminishing the attention but not the damage done. From pipeline spills in Arkansas to explosions in Qingdao, China petroleum is the gift that keeps on giving.

Sure they get fined, but amounts that amount to pocket change for Big Oil. On the rare occasion they really get their hand slapped, such as the with the Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, they put on a good show for the media and as time passes they fight in court to get those penalties reduced.

The third leg of this nauseating oil epic is the ongoing efforts by the Obama Administration (hey, it’s your Environmental Protection Agency so you better own it) proposal to hamstring the only economically viable and environmentally responsible alternative to oil….ethanol.

For 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a 1.4 billion gallon reduction in how much corn ethanol will be required under the Renewable Fuel Standard, the federal law that helps get domestic, renewable, cleaner-burning corn ethanol blended in the nation’s fuel supply.

“It is unfortunate that the Obama administration has caved in to Big Oil rather than stand up for rural America and the environment,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey at a Protect the RFS rally on November 22, 2013. “The renewable fuels standard needs to be protected as it has helped hold down prices at the pump, created thousands of jobs in rural Iowa, and benefited the environment. The President should be focused on jobs and the economy rather than looking for ways to hurt rural America.” Read more here.

It’s still not too late to do something about this. So if you support renewable ethanol and want to put the environment back in EPA send a note. Oh, and Merry Christmas.

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