Corn Commentary

Who Will Farm the Land When Farmers Are Gone?

Picture1“They keep farming even when their eyesight is failing and their hearts are going bad.” So starts a great story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today regarding escalating farm accidents among older farmers. “They get back on their tractors after farm accidents have put them in the hospital, sometimes with permanently disabling injuries.”

And it is very true that unlike most of us farmers might slow down but they rarely stop working at 65. As the article points out many die on the job, “because they gamble with their aging bodies once too often.” This is an accurate and tragic story, and likely not one that is going to go away.

Nationally, the typical farmer is past 58 years old and isn’t slowing down, up from 50.5 in 1982. Buried beneath this headline is an even broader social issue of who is on deck as these warriors of the soil drive their tractors into the sunset?

Farmers via their sheer efficiency and productivity have pulled a bushel basket over their incredible job performance. Society often takes them for granted, but this article begs the question who’s next. The recent rural renaissance brought on by large crops, steady exports and growing ethanol production, combined with higher prices had launched a migration of youth coming back to the farm.

However, this process appears to have stalled now, due to a return to break even prices, before the movement has even taken full flight. The vast majority of Americans say they want these family farmers, these storehouses of generations of specialized knowledge, to continue to provide their food, fuel and fiber. I am guessing most people have no clue how tenuous the future of family farmers really is, and unless we get creative it will be too late.


America’s Farmers Thrown Under the Train Instead of Posted on It


American corn farmers do not often see how their lives might be impacted by high profile, First Amendment debates in the media. While we each value our Constitutional rights and deeply cherish liberty, our messages about growing food and stewarding the land generally do not stir up mainstream debate to a degree that lands us on the national stage.

Today, we did.

The Corn Farmers Coalition campaign, a six-year long tradition, normally places ads featuring facts about farmers presented by actual farm families in the DC Metro during the summer to help educate legislators and other Dc thought leaders. Sharing the unique stories of the men and women who grow corn while highlighting their constantly-improving practices and technology helps those in the capital understand what happens across the nation’s countryside and why it matters.

Today, those ads have not gone up on schedule.

Media outlets have spotlighted recent events that transpired between Pamela Gellar’s American Freedom Defense Initiative and the DC Metro over the ability of one group to purchase ad space from the latter. DC Metro, eventually, chose to resolve the issue by banning new issue-oriented advertising in the transit system for the remainder of the year. (Read more here)

America’s corn farmers know that, while CFC brings new information to DC every year, the campaign’s concept does not waiver or qualify as “new.” While the messages may change slightly, the intent remains the same.

They also know that the ads provide information without urging for any particular issue-oriented action. Showing images of real Americans in their fields with their families helps farmers share a little perspective on American agriculture with a town often farm removed from its rural roots. Featuring US Department of Agriculture data and facts, supported by reputable research, educates Washingtonians on the ever-evolving, ever-improving achievements on America’s farms.

Yet, DC Metro has stalled progress on the campaign’s scheduled June 1 launch due to a conflict in which we played no role. In the headline-grabbing dispute between AFDI and DC Metro, America’s corn farmers pay the price for highly politicized positions. Every year, real farmers invest real dollars to send the farm to Washington. Without a reasonable resolution of this conflict, America’s farmers will be thrown under the train rather than on it.

If It Looks Like Big Oil, and Walks Like Big Oil, It’s Probably…Big Oil

enviro impactsA story in today’s New York Times cites a new study by the World Resource Institute that attempts to discredit the significant and increasing contributions of biofuels to meet the world’s energy needs. On close inspection two things become abundantly clear.

First the so-called “new” study is nothing but the same old stuff trotted out by the anti-ethanol crowd nearly annually to see if any of the misinformation sticks to the wall. Take the wig and mustache off and it’s the same old pig.

Second, the former journalist in me always says to consider the veracity of the source to validate the data. In this case the World Resource Institute is funded by Shell and Statoil, two of the world’s largest oil companies. Always follow the money.

This fraudulent study has more holes than a colander but to address some of the most egregious point by point:

Ethanol production is not inefficient? Some of the best research to date from the University of Illinois Chicago shows you get a 40% net energy gain from ethanol production compared to all the energy used along the production chain from farm to gas pump.

The article begs the question why have so many invested billions of dollars in biofuels if they are a bad idea with no future? They do so because ethanol is a plug and play fuel source that meets the needs of our transportation fleet today. What makes it even more attractive is the bright future for biofuels. Automakers in Detroit make no secret of the fact that the next generation power plant for cars will be smaller, higher compression engines. And the best fuel for this future automotive technology is octane rich ethanol.

It also becomes abundantly clear that these think tank folks might want to meander outside the Washington, DC beltway and visit a farm. They question the percentage of the corn crop being used for ethanol today. It’s not how much of the crop we are using for biofuels but how large the crop has gotten. We have grown the largest 11 corn crops in history in the last 11 years. We currently have the largest carryout (supply of corn) ever so feedstock is abundant to meet all demand for corn.

And all of the above has been accomplished in the US on virtually the same acreage, and with less environmental impact. This is an amazing accomplishment that should make all Americans proud.

Enjoy the Cheap Gas Ride

cheap gasNot to sound like a lunatic but it may be entirely possible, maybe even likely, the American public will be begging for a return to $3.60 gas in the near future.

I know it sounds crazy, but if you are following the public debate you can already see the discussion heating up to argue the true implications of today’s bargain basement petroleum prices. The euphoria consumers and market analysts alike were experiencing a few weeks ago is wearing off like a cheap wine hangover.

One big concern is that near term economic gains in the US related to cheaper fuel may be overstated and ultimately result in deflation and a global economic slowdown.

It is becoming increasingly evident that it could take a few years before the full ramifications of this gas guzzlers holiday are known. However, some comments by an oil industry executive this week provide a peek behind the curtain that often shields the business maneuvering and real objectives of international big oil.

The boss of oil giant BP Bob Dudley has said that oil prices could remain low for up to three years. What results next may make our previous high oil prices seem like a gift from grandma.

Once big oil has beaten oil upstarts like the domestic fracking industry to a bloody pulp, they will remerge from the ashes like a phoenix ready to spank bad little consumers for cheering the development. The paddle they will use according to some industry experts will be $200 a-barrel oil, a considerably richer prize than the $110 a barrel which preceded the $47 a barrel we are currently experiencing.

Any reasonable person would wonder why a business would take such a gamble, cut investment, cut jobs and sustain such a huge loss? The simple answer is they will do it because they can and the payoff is immense.

Sure oil countries like Norway, Russia, Venezuela, Scotland, Nigeria and Angola will take a beating but the big players in OPEC – the ones with the large expanses of beach and no water – have lower production costs and care only marginally more for their business partners than they do the consumers that they bleed every day.

People’s Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan also points out low oil prices could slow down China’s development of renewable energy projects. In a wondrous masterpiece of understatement he says: “We worry a little bit that the price signal may give disincentive for new energy types to develop and could reduce investment in new non-fossil energy.”

Does anyone know how to say “duh” in Mandarin?

If we really want to throw the market manipulating overlords at OPEC a curve we should do the opposite of what they expect. Instead of grumbling and driving circus clown size cars we should immediately find ways to encourage an expansion of existing non-fossil energy development such as ethanol. Then we should back that up by launching the largest energy research and development project in history. I contend we will be forced to do this as finite oil supplies run out. Why not do it now rather than waiting until the wolf is at the door.

Besides, in the business world innovation is one of the few things that can still trump monetary muscle.

Entertainers Should Entertain, Not Preach

jason mraz 2As a former journalist I have a deeply ingrained sense of outrage when the public is being misled, bilked or fooled. This is especially true when misinformation is used to strip away their hard earned cash.
So I thought I would send an open letter to Jason Mraz, a singer/songwriter and niche celebrity, who also spends a lot of time and money working on causes he finds important including the environment.

If you don’t have time to read any further I have two messages for the obviously talented Mraz, who played to an appreciative crowd at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis last night:

Scientific experts say organic foods are not healthier that food grown using conventional methods contrary to what Mraz told the audience last night.
2 – Good for you for having the conviction of your beliefs. I appreciate your willing to use your celebrity to help a cause. But please keep your personal politics off the stage unless you do it through your songs themselves, that way fans know what they signed up for going in.

Using the interlude between music to espouse lifestyle choices, support political candidates, or give advice on something as personal as food is just bad form. Most people go to concerts, movies, sporting events, etc… to get a mental break from the headlines of the day or meditating on philosophical issues. I have never been a Jason Mraz fan, in part due to lack of exposure, so didn’t know too much about him. Still, I admit to being very surprised when a photo of his personal garden popped up on the stage and he proceeded to espouse the benefits of organic food production.

My hat is off to Mraz for trying to live a health-conscious lifestyle, but I went to hear music not visit a lifestyle coach, let alone one without real credentials. You have every right to your opinion but please try being more selective in how you use your notoriety and bully pulpit.

An article in “Real Clear Science” earlier this summer points out the majority of Americans believe that organic foods are healthier than food grown through conventional methods. The majority of Americans are wrong. Science has shown that organic is neither healthier for you nor better for the environment. In fact, it’s not safer, more nutritious, not does it taste better. These are all notions promoted by organic food proponents who have a lot to gain or were just misled. Given the markedly higher prices for nearly all of these products, the public has a right to know they are being hoodwinked.

In the Drone Debate, Watch What You Wish For

Grist published another gripping piece today on the important role drones can play in the “fight against Big Ag.” The post, based on a blaring inaccuracy at its core, posited that “If you were privy to everything that went on inside a factory farm, you might never want to eat again.” Then, it proposed drones were the answer to getting behind those “closed doors.”

Putting aside the note that gates would create a more accurate analogy, let’s look at the base issues.

Gates paint a more accurate picture not only because they are what actually encompass most farms. They are also more similar in that you can see through them.

Farmers and ranchers across the country ARE opening their farms to show how they grow and raise our food. A wide array of groups, including programs like CommonGround, organize farm tours where bloggers, dietitians and just regular families can visit a wide array of farm and ranches to see ag in action. Simply pushing these efforts aside seems cynical or intentionally obtuse.

Next, the basic reasoning that agenda-driven cynics have a right to enter private property to see exactly what is “going on” makes little sense. In implying that anyone denying them immediate, complete access to the place where they not only work but also live, the author sets up a standard to which I doubt she would hold herself.

Simply, Samantha, do you ever write from home? As you work at home and I am skeptical of what may be “going on” there, may I come on over? Take a look around? I think people want to know if your work area creates mental confusion that comes through in your writing. Personally, I like to look through people’s medicine cabinets to get a clearer picture.

Better yet! Why not just have drones hover outside of your windows looking in at all times? That is what you propose for farmers and ranchers. Constant surveillance.

Farmers and ranchers do want to have a dialogue with the public about how food is grown and raised. They don’t want to invite people ideologically opposed to modern agriculture into the very place that they live. It isn’t because they have something to hide; it is because they know that their open, honest efforts are often met with closed minds and a blatant refusal to consider the validity of their statements.

Unless anti-ag activists feel perfectly comfortable being under constant drone surveillance themselves, it is radically hypocritical to promote doing so to someone else. And, for those who take this side of the argument, there is another question. How long until someone turns the drones on you?

Let’s Move! Science Backs GMOs

Whether one is a fan of the White House’s Let’s Move! initiative or not, it almost inarguably plays a large role in our nation’s discussions on food. Today, Let’s Move! Executive Director and White House Senior Advisor on Nutrition Policy Sam Kass made a major statement about the future of food during the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives conference backing the science behind GMOs and advocating for a cultural shift toward their acceptance.

Kass’s remarks, covered in Politico Pro, indicated his thoughts on how the impact of climate change and adaptive technologies will shift the currently fierce debate over GMO foods.

“I think this debate is naturally going to start to shift,” said Kass. “I think the science is pretty clear. Ultimately I think the science will win out.”

His comments echoed those often made by groups such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and CommonGround in espousing the importance of consumer choice and access to factual information about the quality and safety of the abundant food options produced by U.S. farmers and ranchers.

“I think part of the problem with the debate as it stands is that it’s either one or the other,” said Kass. “Every side says my way is the best way. Diversity [in agriculture] is strength.”

Put Your FFA Jacket in the Smithsonian?

You know how they refer to outlaw motorcycle gangs like Hell’s Angels as 1 percenters? Well, I jokingly referred to the omnipresent blue corduroy jacket ffa jacket historicalwearing FFA members in high school as 2 percenters. That’s because only about 2 percent of the population had a real shot at becoming a farmer and feeding the world.

There are more than 20 million jobs in this country that are in related agricultural fields but the number of people who will make a career of farming is even lower today. Pretty elite company and many never parted with their old trusty jacket. Now you might have a shot to put yours in the Smithsonian museum.

No, I am not kidding. A new exhibit entitled “American Enterprise” is scheduled to open in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum next summer and agriculture will be well represented in the exhibit including FFA. Specifically, they are looking for a jacket that tells a great personal story and how FFA affected the wearer’s life.

If “Old Blue” was retired years ago the Smithsonian also wants to hear your story anyway about how FFA gave you purpose and direction and landed you on a tractor instead of a motorcycle.


Energy Independence No Greased Pig Fantasy

There is an old saying…”make hay while the sun is shining.” Dating back to at least 1546 this traditional farmer logic translates into grab opportunity while you can. This has never been truer regarding the nation’s energy situation. A new report by the Energy Information Administration makes that abundantly clear. EIA says the greased pig fantasy of energy independence in the US is real.

We’ve reduced our dependence on foreign oil from 60 percent to 45 percent in the last few years. This is real, quantifiable progress brought on by smaller, high mileage vehicles, less driving due to a sagging economy, 15 billion gallons of ethanol capacity and domestic oil production on steroids.

Net oil imports to the U.S. could fall to zero by 2037 because of robust production in areas including North Dakota’s Bakken field and Texas’s Eagle Ford formation, according to this Department of Energy projection released this week.

Most days I am just numb about government studies and gasoline prices. I pull up to the pump, try to ignore the price and move on about my day. But there are other days too when I am angry about being held hostage by oil companies, and especially about their cavalier approach to crushing any real competition.

And that is exactly that they are trying to do with ethanol today.  So, here is a novel thought. Let’s take this time of energy abundance to think big and invest in a more sustainable energy future rather than waiting until the wolf is at the door. Because, rest assured petroleum remains finite and the next generation will wonder why we squandered this brief respite from oil piracy.

Oil imports have fallen to about 5 million barrels a day from a peak of almost 13 million barrels in 2006, thanks in part to advances in techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in shale rock. Despite this, we continue to spend $1 billion a day protecting our assets in foreign oil. And there is no getting around that gasoline is bad for our health and the environment.

make-hayNow would be a great time to call your Congressman and Senator and ask them to show some vision regarding biofuels and our energy future. The rapid growth in ethanol production has shown us the promise of a bio-based fuel future. It’s time to make hay!




Water is Life and Drought Equals Higher Food Prices


Food prices are on the rise again and you probably already noticed. Thankfully, the mainstream media thus far is covering it in a balanced way and pointing out the primary drivers behind the increase. Those include things like drought in key growing regions, and an anticipated cut in planted acres in the Ukraine due to political unrest.

But as surely as the birds outside your window are a precursor to Spring, before this is over someone will find a way to blame high corn prices and ethanol fuel by default. Prodded on by Big Oil, who is losing market share to ethanol, and abetted by folks who prosper when corn is cheap, they will once again try to make 2 + 2 = 9.

According to today’s Wall Street Journal federal forecasters estimate retail food prices will rise as much as 3.5% this year, the biggest annual increase in three years. This should provide a real kick in the pants for American consumers who are still dealing with the lingering effects of sluggish economy.

But rest assured the corn industry is doing its part to provide the corn the nation needs. In fact we grew so much corn in 2013 that corn prices have been hovering at levels that barely cover the cost of production for many farmers. Some analysts in the Wall Street Journal article hint that the lingering effects of a drought that hit major corn growing regions in 2012 might be another factor in inflated food prices.

Don’t buy into this for a second. Despite the 2012 drought farmers grew the eight largest corn crop in history, providing a testament to modern farming technology in use on family farms.  And as we all know there is nothing tentative about food manufacturers when it comes to raising food prices. Even a hint of any issues in the supply chain and they react by jacking prices like Usain Bolt leaving the starting block. I wish they were as efficient at lowering prices when normalcy returns to the market place.

Scratch the surface a little harder and you will find the real reason many products we often take for granted are seeing major price bumps.  Beef prices are up and it is directly linked to years of drought in the Texas and the south western US. Cattle need lots of water and when it’s not available ranchers reduce heard size. Initially this results in a big supply of beef hitting the market at great prices. However, that window has closed and now the public will pay more until kinder weather and a rebuilding of the nation’s beef herd which takes time.

Ditto on dairy prices where growing demand from Asia is putting upward pressure on prices. Add a brutal drought in California which supplies much of the dairy products we love and you get the picture. Cows eat lots of grass and hay, both of which are in short supply on the west coast. And I don’t even want to mention how much of the fresh produce you consumer comes from the big CA. There are similar tales behind other rising food items but I think you get the idea.

And remember being skeptical of what you hear is a virtue.

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