Corn Commentary

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 OilRigged.com 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.

In World of Polluters Oil Has No Rivals

oil & $100 billThey call it black gold and Texas Tea but I prefer to call it environmental anathema; that rare combination of disgrace and abomination.  Better that than using the words that I would like to use that got my mouth washed out with soap as a child.

Ok, Thanksgiving is almost upon us so I want to purge a little bile so I will enjoy the day a little more. What better target than Big Oil?

You know, those heavily subsidized global scale polluters who control…I mean contribute to every politician to make sure they have their bases covered. Well after an announcement today, I guess we will see how well their “investment” pays off.

It seems gas and oil are almost singlehandedly responsible for the bulk of all the man-made global warming emissions since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Chevron, Exxon and BP are among the companies most responsible for climate change since dawn of industrial age, according to a new analysis.

The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies, which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, new research suggests.

I have always been a big fan of irony but this week takes the cake.  It seemed bizarre that earlier this week EPA announced their proposal to significantly weaken the Renewable Fuel Standard, reducing the volume of renewable fuels like ethanol for 2014; thus making us even more dependent on oil.

Odd that an agency with “Environment” in their name would turn away from a program that has cut emissions of greenhouse gas by 110 million metric tons, making it one of the most successful programs in the EPA arsenal. This is the equivalent of taking more than 20 million vehicles off the road.

Now it will get even more interesting to see how this same administration that purports to be on a crusade to fight greenhouse gases will deal with Big Oil now that the emperor has no clothes.

 

 

 

Don’t Till for Me Argentina

Argentina may be about 10 years behind the United States in adoption of precision farming technology, but the country is probably 20 years ahead in adoption of no till practices.

That was one of the most interesting bits of information I gleaned about Argentinean farming during the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) 2013 Congress in Argentina last week.

ifaj13-notillThe Argentinean No Till Farmers Association – Aapresid – was created in 1989 with the goal of helping farmers in the country adopt no-tillage practices on their farming operations. “Nowadays, about 80% of our crops are done by no till,” said Martin Descalzo Souto with the organization. That compares with about 35-40% here in the United States.

“It was a very important saving of fuel so it was economically important for the farmer, and they also have an important saving of water,” Souto said, adding there are some areas of the country that can only be planted without tillage.

Aapresid is now taking no-till to the next level by providing a certification program for farmers who keep records of their practices and use crop rotation to reduce chemical use and improve soil. “We are looking at it not just as a practice but as a process,” said Souto.

Adoption of even the most basic precision technology is becoming more prevalent in Argentina, but Souto says they still need agronomists to work with that information for it to become more widespread. Interview with Martin Descalzo Souto, Argentinean No Till Farmers Association

2013 IFAJ Congress Photo Album

Corn Growers Support Conservation in Action

“Without soil, we’re out of business.”

ctic-13-5That is the simple reason why corn growers support cutting edge conservation practices, according to Illinois farmer Dan Cole, a member of the National Corn Growers Association Production & Stewardship Action Team (PSAT) who took part in last week’s Conservation Technology Information Center 2013 Conservation in Action Tour. “PSAT is in charge of water quality and sustainability,” he said. “We also do the corn grower contest, river transportation, but today we’re focused more on soil health.”

“This is cutting edge,” Dan told Chuck Zimmerman during the event. “We went from the mold board plow to the chisel plow, now we’re looking at more sustainable cover crops, no-till, strip till. Everything is to make that organic matter cycle quicker in production agriculture.” Interview with Illinois farmer Dan Cole

ctic-12-wellerConservation is no longer an option for farmers. “It’s really become part of the business plan” for farmers, said USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service acting chief Jason Weller. That’s why it is so critical to get a five year farm bill in place. “It’s really important for us to have that farm bill in place so that our customers, the farmers and ranchers of America, know what the programs are” to put a long term plan in place for land stewardship.

Weller says conservation programs help ensure the wise use of resources and allows farmers to be more successful. “Conservation can help them better manage the soil resources, be more efficient with nutrient application, be more energy efficient, be more water efficient, and ultimately more productive,” he said. Interview with Jason Weller, USDA-NRCS

American Ethanol and NASCAR Make a Splash in USA Today

In an era of compartmentalized media, USA Today holds a unique position. A truly national newspaper with circulation only surpassed by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today reaches Americans across the country every day with bright graphics and its bold layout.

This Friday, American Ethanol and NASCAR celebrated hitting the three million mile mark in a very public way running a full-page announcement on the back cover of the popular daily’s Sports section. Drawing readers in with a visually arresting image showing the American Ethanol flag flying high over the pulse pounding racetrack action, the spread also provided exciting information about what switching to a 15 percent ethanol fuel blend has done for the sport and could do for American drivers off track too.

For two years, every vehicle in every NASCAR race has raced toward victory with E15 in the tank. Through the American Ethanol and NASCAR partnership, the nation’s top drivers, whether they race in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Trucks series, have trusted their tanks to this sustainable, renewable biofuel blend.

What have they found?

Running on a 15 percent ethanol blend has not only reduced their emissions by 20 percent, it has actually increased their horsepower. Ethanol provides the performance NASCAR drivers demand and fuels the pulse quickening action that keeps fans on the edge of their seats.

American Ethanol and NASCAR want to share the great news and celebrate this achievement with NASCAR fans and environmentalists alike. Whether reading USA Today in a hotel lobby or at the end of a driveway, sports fans across the country are joining in the celebration of America’s homegrown sport’s successes running on its homegrown fuel.

Want Cutting-Edge Technology in Your Workplace? Farmers Do Too

Imagine how differently a day at the office might have been in 1961.  A secretarial pool takes the place of word processing software.  Googling a subject might take hours and physical labor sifting through back editions of the paper or encyclopedias and still yield limited results.  Email communications require a phone call, paper memo or even a written letter sent through courier or mail without the Internet.  Once out of the office, communication ceases unless a coworker dials a landline nearby.

While most people have capriciously wished for an end to modern technology following a particularly annoying late-night text from an employer, only the smallest minority actually advocates a return to the workplace technology of 50 years ago.

So, why do so many people outside of agriculture think that a return to equally antiquated technology would actually improve farming?

Recently, a column in Stock and Land magazine examined the impact of a large-scale return to the farming methods of our forefathers, a romantic notion with dismal consequences. Instead of growing a crop large enough to share with the world, U.S. farmers would produce only enough food to feed half of the country’s current population.  Maintaining levels of dairy, meat and milk production would require two-thirds more land.  Increased environmental degradation and social unrest further complicate this already hungry scenario.

Simply, removing technology and scientific advances from modern life seriously damages productivity and effectiveness whether done in corporate or agrarian America.  Notably, the negative impact on farming creates a food shortage thus depriving an incredible number of those in towns and cities of the sustenance needed to survive.

Instead of buying into the soft-focus vision of farming that replaces knowledge and understanding with a vague sense of nostalgia, get the facts.  Question the farmers and ranchers who produce food about how and why they use the technology and practices that they do.  Look at the bounty of healthy options U.S. agriculture offers.  Become part of national discussion about food that seeks a better tomorrow instead of a rose-tinted version of the past.



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