Corn Commentary

Two Newspapers, Two Paths to Farming

Sometimes, it is easy to lump people into a broad category. Elitist or plebian. Enviro-hippie or pollution-spewing Hummer nut. Midwestern bumpkin or coastal snob. While these labels make for a quick, easy way to write off people to whom we would prefer not listen, they do not account for our incredible ability as human beings to become deeper, more complex individuals. .

Two starkly different articles published this week on the role of farmers in modern America illustrated the importance of transformatory voices and the shared stories of people who have taken on unexpected roles can add nuance and insight to the national dialogue. A dialogue which, particularly in this election year, has grown shallow, partisan and generally uninformed.

Mark Bittman, a New York Times writer known more for his exquisite palate than economic aptitude, took on the state of U.S. farming from the viewpoint of a frequent diner at Manhattan’s upscale eateries.  Lamenting the inability of the general public to find the boutique produce his beloved celebre-chefs spend days chasing down, he boldly proposes overhauling all of agriculture to more closely resemble his Utopian vision. In Bittman’s America, everyone not only has seasonal access to the products he enjoys, which notably must not include a good steak, but also has the time and skill to lovingly coax them into gourmet dishes. The farmers whom he deems “real” likewise coax the finest heirloom tomatoes and leafy kale from one or two acres of land. He argues that that this will employ more Americans, who he presumes wish to be farmers, and will provide healthier food for all, with food stamp programs to help us all afford his posh produce.

A knee-jerk response would be to trash all intellectuals, painting them wish a broad brush as cluelessly out-of-touch with the vast majority of Americans who refuse to pay thirty bucks for a cup of soup, let alone spend countless hours in attempts to emulate it at home. Although tempting, this adds nothing to the dialogue.

Victor Davis Hanson does. In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Hanson writes the prose equivalent of an ode to the farmers who persevere in this year’s drought. Speaking of the character of the people who stand tall while the drought beats down upon them, Hanson champions crop insurance and agricultural productivity. A writer from California’s abundant heartland who grew up on a farm, he knows that of which he speaks.

“The mystery isn’t that we have devastating droughts like this summer’s, but that so few Americans manage to produce so much food against such daunting odds,” he explains, noting this view comes from personal experiences with his family’s raisin farm.

Eloquently weaving in references to ancient Greek philosophy, Hanson provides a look at the farmer that many would rarely see. Having more experience on the farms of California than Kansas, Hanson’s view of the farmer and modern productivity could grow with further study into the importance of ethanol, but why throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?

Hanson says something that, particularly in this hot, volatile climate, ALL farmers need to hear. You are appreciated. Facing a natural disaster of historic proportions, he voices the support that most Americans feel for the men and women who feed them.

Conversely, Bittman also offers a valuable lesson, particularly when contrasted with Hanson. It is vital that American farmers create an open dialogue about what they do. Farmers already have an amazing story. They live it every day. In sharing it, they foster a cooperative, positive environment, something that should be valued in these divisive times.

One thing is for certain. If Manhattan’s elite chefs take charge of this conversation, a seriously skewed version of reality may gain a foothold.  It would be a shame. We should celebrate reality; we should work to show the strong, resilient spirit behind modern ag innovation.

At NCGA, we have been doing this for many years. For those with most interest in learning about the abundance and, yes, diversity, of American agriculture, we offer links to:

Hot? Irritable? Cranky? Imagine Watching Your Paycheck Burn Up Too

Can you imagine the feeling of waking up in the morning and realizing that it would be 13 months before you got another paycheck? The drought has farm families across the Midwest pondering just that as relentlessly hot, dry conditions turn the nation’s heartland from a breadbasket into an oven.

In a recent story from Voice of America, DuBois, Ill. farmer Alan Bowers Jr. explained what many family farmers in the central and southern Corn Belt feel as they watch the crop that they invested time, sweat and money in this spring wilt.  Blowing away, the corn becomes part of the dust that normally yields the most abundant crop in the world.

Using a simple, yet eloquent analogy, DuBois compared his corn and soybean crop to a paycheck.  Drawing on this common idea, he places in stark perspective how dire the situation facing many farm families may seem.

This candid look at farming stands in contrast to the multitude of mainstream news stories promoting the fallacious idea that farmers do not care about the crop. The emotional toll of seeing hard work wither due to circumstances well beyond human control aside, crop insurance ensures that family farmers like DuBois can make ends meet until the next season.  It ensures that natural disasters do not cause our nation’s agricultural sector to disintegrate.

Crop insurance places exists because Americans value their abundant, affordable, safe supply of food and the farm families who produce it.  Americans understand the integral role these hard working individualists play in the fabric of our national character and in our economy. Maintaining their ability to farm next year when confronted with such enormous, unstoppable obstacles makes sense.  Understanding their frustration in watching the crop slip away does too.

As drought conditions persist, remember that the people who grow food, the people who raise it and those who eat it all must endure these trying conditions together. Looking toward one another with understanding and compassion can ease the stress placed on one another, even if it cannot ease the stress placed on the crops.

Letting the Corn Genome Out of the Bottle

USDA scientists recently published the most comprehensive analysis to date of the corn genome, which should speed up development of improved varieties, including drought resistance.

“This kind of research is very important to identify functional characteristics that are of importance to the farmer,” said USDA’s Chief Scientist Dr. Catherine Woteki, who adds that the information will now be used by seed companies. “So they’ll be able to develop the next generation of corn varieties that will have these beneficial traits in them for farmers.”

The researchers published two separate reports in Nature Genetics that shed light on corn’s remarkable genetic diversity, reveal its evolution, and outline how corn, known as maize among scientists, continues to diversify as it adapts to changing climates and habitats.

One report examines the genetic structure and the relationships and sequential ordering of individual genes in more than 100 varieties of wild and domesticated corn. Lead author Jer Ming Chia described how the structures of genomes can vary tremendously from one corn variety to the next, how structural variations within a genome can have major effects on traits, and how the corn genome is essentially still in flux. The researchers also discovered significant variations in the physical size of genomes of different varieties.

A second report provides a glimpse into how corn evolved from a wild, scrubby plant into what is arguably the most important crop in the world. The researchers identified hundreds of genes that played a role in the transformation of corn from its wild roots to today’s cultivated crop and show how that transition was largely achieved by ancient farmers who first domesticated the crop thousands of years ago.

Global Warming: Could Media-Generated Hot Air Be a Cause?

As temperatures across the Midwest soar into the triple digits with little chance for rain or relief in sight, talking heads have started to blabber on again about how the drought will hit consumer’s wallets.  Adding further pain to the heat-induced misery, these armchair economists stoke the fires of already burning financial concerns.

Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater may grab attention and cause alarm, but it is illegal to do so for a reason.  Causing panic for the sake of causing panic does not have a public benefit.

A more cynical commentator might note that it does help drive rating and generate revenue. But instead of focusing on the fray, take a look at the facts.

According to a newly released study from National Public Radio’s Planet Money series, Americans today spend less on groceries than they did 30 years ago, nearly a full five percentage points less.  Prices have declined across the board with some staple items, such as butter and chicken legs, down by 35 percent.  Even a steak costs 30 percent less.

Will a drought impact America’s corn crop this year? Almost certainly.  Does this spell dire circumstances that will leave the grocery consuming public taking out loans to feed their family with healthy, safe food? Almost certainly not.

In today’s America, what is truly in jeopardy is a sense of perspective.  Banners flash before already stressed eyes on the evening news making dire declarations.  Weary from battling real issues all day, these prophets of pain become an echoing chorus of doom drumming away basic sanity.  Frantic feelings froth to a frenzy as the spiral of sustained stress with the prognosticators acting like an emotional succubus that feeds on America’s anxieties.

Stay calm.  It may be hot outside, but cooler heads can prevail.  Calmly, remember that America has the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in its history.  The percentage of income needed to eat well has dropped to one of, if not the, lowest level in the developed world.  Through innovation and hard work, farmers prove, time after time, that they can and will feed America, no matter what challenges they face.

Two Thumbs Down: Critics Pan EWG’s Attempt at Summer Scare Sequel

As temperatures rise and an array of fresh, vibrant produce options fills grocery baskets, the Environmental Working Group issued its annual summer scare list with this week.  Deemed the “dirty dozen,” EWG again drags out its pseudoscience in the hopes of terrifying consumers, maligning nutritious foods and filling its coffers with donations from a frightened and misinformed public.

Almost any sound, reputable source stresses the incredibly important role that eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables plays in a healthy diet.  Instead of promoting this, the EWG joins the ranks of similar charlatans who base fad diets on trendy tidbits.   Based more in sound bites than sound science, the misinformation found in the list pushes well-intentioned eaters off track.

This year, ignore the EWG.  Frankly, it annoys them more than engaging with them.  Instead, consider the facts.

Farmers value food safety for the same reasons consumers do.  The food from their farms feeds their families as well as yours.  Regular moms and dads with the same concerns, farm families strive to bring a broad variety of safe, nutritious foods to their tables and yours.

True scientists, the kind who hold respected positions in academia or publish in peer reviewed journals, have stepped forward, speaking out against this fear-based, anti-ag propaganda.  With prominent professors from University of California at Berkley leading the charge, real food safety experts deem the
EWG list an unscientific hype piece that actually has a detrimental effect on the conversation about food.

So be fearless about food and ditch the dirty dozen’s baseless babble.  An open, honest conversation between the people who grow food and the people who buy it is building.  Find out more by clicking here.

Join the Friendly Farm Faces on Capitol Hill This Summer

Have you ever heard about the Corn Farmers Coalition and wondered who actually sees this stuff?

Sure, the ads catch attention from a mile away.  Sure, the beaming family farmers, on their real farms, convey powerful, impactful messages about today’s farm.  Sure, these ads appear to be something that would draw any normal reader into a short ag literacy lesson. But, where do people actually come into contact with them?

As always, the innovative minds behind the campaign have found new, thoughtfully selected venues that reach those outside of rural America want to find their information- where they already are.

This week, the campaign launched its fourth year with fresh faces and facts both in traditional venues, such as the DC Metro, and in other places that pack a punch, like the online version of the Washington Post.  The award-winning informational series has, yet again, even more finely honed its choice of channel to include the online news sites that, according to the papers themselves, have greatly impacted how Americans consume news content.

Like the stories covered by journalists, the Corn Farmers Coalition paints a clear picture of farming, an industry with which 98.5 percent of the population has little or no contact.  Like the feature stories, it provides answers to the questions most prevalent in readers’ minds.  Like the hard-hitting exposes, it shows the truth, unbiased and in all of its glory.

Take a moment to check out what legislators, regulators, their aides and many other inquisitive inhabitants of our nation’s capital will be checking out themselves this summer.  Then, join the featured families taking the voice of the corn industry to Washington with a letter on why real farmers, just like the ones in these ads, need a real farm bill in real time by clicking here.

Celebrity Chefs Forget a Pinch of Humility, Whip Up Bitter Baloney

This election year, Americans are already growing increasingly agitated with pompous, self-important celebrities who feel an uncontrollable desire to pontificate upon politics. Qualified only by having played a politician in a made-for-TV movie or having co-written a B-side flop, these self-anointed bearers of the divine torch of celebri-smarts help us regular folk understand our mistaken, unworldly personal ponderings.

Honestly, who could take a multi-millionaire who plays dress-up for a living seriously when he or she banters on about the plight of the common folk? Did they learn about Main Street in a Method class?

Another group of sell-out celebrats, the chefs of cable TV, who not only feed actors but often host their own insightful television programs, want to tell average Americans how to think about the farm bill.  In a letter proudly coordinated by the Environmental Working Group, intellectual icons including Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio trumpeted their opposition to big, rich commodity farms while wrapping themselves in the trendy terminology of the local, organic and environmental movements. As much as they criticize the Senate legislation, how many of these signers even read it?

To be frank, it seems a tad hypocritical to take the bully pulpit preaching a populist gospel while rubbing elbows with the sophomoric socialites who get a kick out of menus that offer greater detail about each truffle-decorated tapa than their letter offers about the world-changing policies proposed. It’s like they all live in Portlandia.

The only advice these elitist epicureans have the expertise to dish out pertains to the dishes in their ovens. Most Americans cannot afford to dine at their establishments; America cannot afford to bite into their half-baked policies.

Farmers feed us in a meaningful, sustainable fashion. So, call the trendy wannabes out for what they are and stand by a classic.  America’s farm families need a farm bill now.  America’s top chefs need a new hobby.

More Friendly Farm Family Faces in the Capitol

Friendly farm family faces will be greeting those who work in and visit the nation’s capitol again this summer.

The Corn Farmers Coalition (CFC) is launching its major advertising campaign by taking over every available ad space at Union Station. The effort will also put prominent facts about family farmers in Capitol Hill publications, radio, frequently used websites, and other Metro locations in June and July.

“Nine of the largest corn crops in U.S. history have been grown in the last decade by family farmers,” said Jay Lynch, a fifth-generation farmer from Humboldt, Iowa whose family is featured in one of the new ads. “Direct outreach by farmers like me is putting a face on today’s family farmers and raising overall awareness with legislators, leaders or governmental agencies from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of State, think tanks, lobbyists and environmental groups.”

Corn farmers from 14 states and the National Corn Growers Association are supporting the Corn Farmers Coalition program to introduce a foundation of facts seen as essential to decision making, rather than directly influencing legislation and regulation.

Learn more about the family farmers behind CFC in this short video.

Thanks Dominos For Not Caving to HSUS Whims

Farmers are always getting asked these days to get involved; write a letter, call your Congressman, but how about eat a pizza?  Now activation by the slice is something I think we can sink our teeth into and all wrap our minds around.

With many corporate players caving in to environmental whackos and misinformed consumer groups it is refreshing to see a major player in the restaurant industry like Dominos Pizza tell The Humane Society of the United States to “hold that thought” when they asked them to require pork suppliers to stop housing sows in gestation stalls.

When HSUS asked stockholders to bow down before their warm fuzzy image and the millions in lobbying and PR dollars they wield, Dominos shareholders rejected the resolution.  A Domino’s spokesperson explained that the company relies on animal experts to determine the best way to raise an animal that’s used for food.

Ok, now it is time for full disclosure on my personal bias. Unlike HSUS – that hides behind their false image as the savior of puppies and kitties, while giving a pittance to actual animal shelters.  When I was in college I have to admit to having a real gastronomic romance with Domino’s Pizza. The food was inexpensive which is critical to a student on a budget and they delivered faster than any other food establishment. Also, an important factor for those who get a random hunger for pizza late at night.

I still have that pizza problem today…love it, eat it weekly and still a fan of Dominos. I can openly live with this “pizza problem.”

One has to wonder how HSUS employees sleep at night knowing full well that they are spending their vast resources to drive a vegetarian agenda and hides a lifestyle choice as a moral cause. And they do so while constantly misrepresenting themselves to the general public.

Thankfully many people are taking note of the online “Farmers Paying It Forward with Pizza” campaign that was the brainchild of Clarence, Missouri pork producer and Ag blogger Chris Chinn.

The Brownfield Network became the most recent public entity to take note of Dominos act of corporate heroism. A logical decision really, but heroic none-the-less given the lack of spine and sense of right that seems to have invaded much of corporate America.

So, thanks to Chris, Brownfield and many others for bringing this into the light of day and challenging us all to show support of Dominos. And for the record I like my activism with parmesan sprinkled on top.

Optimism for the Corn Crop

The first U.S. Department of Agriculture outlook for this year’s corn crop is calling for record yields and record production.

The May 10 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report projects U.S. feed grain supplies for 2012/13 at a record 416.3 million tons, up 16 percent from 2011/12 at a record 416.3 million tons, with corn production called at a record 14.8 billion bushels, up 2.4 billion from 2011/12.

A projected 5.1-million acre increase in harvested area and higher expected yields, compared with 2011/12, sharply boost production prospects. The 2012/13 corn yield is projected at a record 166.0 bushels per acre, 2.0 bushels above the 1990-2010 trend reflecting the rapid pace of planting and emergence. Despite the lowest expected carry-in in 16 years, corn supplies for 2012/13 are projected at a record 15.7 billion bushels, up 2.2 billion from 2011/12. Total U.S. corn use for 2012/13 is projected up 9 percent from 2011/12 on higher feed and residual disappearance, increased use for sweeteners and starch, and larger exports.

Under the corn usage category, USDA is increasing feed and residual use by 900 million bushels based on a sharp rebound in residual disappearance with the record crop and an increase in feeding with lower corn prices and higher expected pork and poultry production and exports are projected to be 200 million bushels higher than last year on abundant domestic supplies, lower prices, and higher expected China demand. Projected corn use for ethanol is unchanged at five billion bushels on the year as weak gasoline consumption limits domestic blending opportunities.

Of course, the downside to bigger supplies is lower prices. USDA is projecting at this point that the season-average farm price this year will be somewhere around $4.20 to $5.00 per bushel, down sharply from the 2011/12 record projected at $5.95 to $6.25 per bushel but still much better than it used to be.



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