Corn Commentary

Aflatoxin Rears its Ugly Head

As the corn harvest takes off way ahead of normal, yet another consequence of the epic 2012 drought is rearing its very ugly head – aflatoxin, which is caused by a fungus that just loves the kind of weather we’ve had this summer.

“Hot, dry conditions actually promote the fungus Aspergillus flavus,” said USDA plant pathologist Dr. Kitty Cardwell. “When the plant is stressed, particularly high heat stress, it really disposes the crop to be vulnerable to this fungus getting into the grain. Then when it’s harvested and put in storage for awhile, the toxin starts building up in the grain.”

Reports of aflatoxin have already been coming in from states including Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana. Last week the Iowa Department of Agriculture started requiring aflatoxin screening and testing of milk and is also instituting a state-wide corn sampling program. “It will show up in the milk if aflatoxin affected corn is used for feed for dairy cattle,” said Dr. Cardwell, noting that there is zero tolerance for aflatoxin when it comes to food that can be fed to infants and young children.

While there are normally reports of aflatoxin every year in some areas, Dr. Cardwell expects that some farmers who have never had the problem will be facing it this year. She offers some advice for growers to self test for the fungus. “Take 10 kernels and put them in a moist paper towel for a day or so,” she said. “If what grows out of the kernel is bright, pea green, that will be Aspergillus flavus.” If all of them turn bright green, it’s time to get your corn tested at a lab.

Former Ag Secretary and USTR at FPS

A former Secretary of Agriculture and US Trade Ambassador doubts Congress will get a farm bill done this month and he hopes the nation will stay focused on increasing export opportunities.

Dr. Clayton Yeutter touched on those topics and several others during a brief press appearance at the 2012 Farm Progress Show last week.

While Yeutter admits that Congress could pass a new farm bill if lawmakers wanted to do it, “the odds are that they won’t get it done before September 30th” and will probably pass some sort of extension, possibly until after the election or maybe for another year. “If they do it for six months, maybe they can still get it done by spring planting time, but if they extend for a year, then there’s a likelihood it will spill past spring planting which means you leave everyone in a position of uncertainty,” he said. “I don’t know what Congress will ultimately do, your guess is as good as mine.”

Clayton Yeutter, who served as agriculture secretary under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1991, says there’s really not that much difference between the two bills, one passed by the full Senate and one yet to make it to the floor of the House. “My general reaction is, for Heaven’s sake folks, why can’t you mesh those differences because they’re not all that great,” Yeutter said.

Yeutter also served at USTR under President Reagen from 1985-1989 and he had some words of wisdom about trade agreements. “We have to keep our nose to the grindstone in this area and we need to make sure that the United States gets our due market share around the world,” he said. “We want to continue to develop the China market and we want to develop India as it begins to emerge and if we can get Japan in the TransPacific partnership negotiations, we’ve got a lot of additional opportunities in Japan.”

You can listen to all of Dr. Yeutter’s comments here: Clayton Yeutter at FPS

2012 Farm Progress Show Photo Album

Saving the Oasis and Feeding the Hungry

Syngenta recently launched a new website called “Saving the Oasis” featuring three short documentaries that tell the story of how Atrazine helps farmers protect the environment and produce more food, and is one of the safest crop protection tools in the world.

“We wanted to correct some misinformation out there with the public on Atrazine,” said Ann Bryan with Syngenta. “We wanted to talk about how Atrazine protects the soil, protects the environment, creates wildlife habitat, but also how it increases yield with corn and sorghum and sugarcane.”

Syngenta was encouraging farmers at the 2012 Farm Progress Show last week to go on-line to and watch the videos themselves and urge non-farm friends to do so as well – with an incentive. “When you click on the movie, we will be donating $5 to the Iowa Food Bank Association, which feeds people who are hungry in the 99 counties of Iowa,” Ann said.

Listen to my interview with Ann here: Syngenta's Ann Bryan

The donations will continue throughout the month of September, which is Hunger Action Month. So, don’t just sit there – take some action!

Go to, watch a three minute video and feed some hungry folks in Iowa.

Consumers Have a Right to Know

In the California GMO Labeling debate, it seems everyone involved can agree upon one basic premise – consumers have a right to know. The debate occurs around exactly what that right entails.

Arguing to redefine terms such as “natural”, even to the exclusion of foods such as olive oil, proponents of the bill seem to believe consumers have a right to know exactly what their agenda-driven groups says that they do.

On the other hand, farmers believe that consumers have a right to know too. In a recent blog post, farmer Mike Haley carefully explained a side of the story that labeling loonies would prefer to push to the backburner.  Walking readers through the specific actions that this law would require of him, Haley shows the hidden costs of supporting the propositions hidden agenda.

Take a minute to see the true costs of this measure.  If it passes, everyone will pay.

Consumers have a right to know what they eat. They also have a right to know the consequences of their vote.

Praying for Those Affected by Drought

The American Farm Bureau Federation called for a National Day of Prayer for Drought Victims this week to remember the many individuals and families facing severe struggles due to this year’s devastating drought. While the “official” day has passed (it was Thursday August 23), no reason to stop praying and lots of reasons to start if you have not already.

References to St. Isidore the Farmer have been popping up lately in social media, invoking the intercession of the Catholic patron saint of farmers to pray for rain. This is being circulated even among non-Catholics. Might be a little late to pray for rain, but not too late to pray for farmers and ranchers hurt by the lack of it.

According to, St. Isidore was born in Madrid, Spain, about the year 1110. He came from a poor and humble family and worked as a farm hand from childhood. It is said that domestic beasts and birds showed their attachment to him because he was gentle and kind to them. His wife Maria is also considered a saint. In 1947, St. Isidore was officially named the special protector of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and American farmers. also has a lovely Novena prayer to St. Isidore which has beautiful reflections about farming as a partnership with God. Here is a short passage:

The farmer’s is a sacred calling because he is a collaborator with God in the work of His creation. … The farmer’s calling is one that must command great respect. Much knowledge and skill are required to manage well the farmstead with its land and fences, barns and granaries, tools, and machinery. Farming is among the greatest of human arts. The farmer must be an artisan and a craftsman, a capitalist, financier, manager, worker; a producer and a seller. He must know soil and seed, poultry and cattle; he must know when to till the soil, cultivate his fields, and harvest his crops. In the presence of his Lord the farmer should recall all this, not in a spirit of vainglory or pride, but in grateful appreciation of the calling that God gave him as a tiller of the soil. Praise and thanksgiving should rise in his heart as he reflects on the high regard the Lord has showered upon him and his work.

Olympic Gold Medalist Promotes Corn

While the Summer Olympics were going on in London, a gold medalist from the Winter Olympics was talking corn in Omaha at the American Coalition for Ethanol conference, thanks to the Nebraska Corn Board.

Curt Tomasevicz, a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic 4-man bobsled team, grew up in a small Nebraska farming community and now helps promote corn in the Cornhusker State. “That agricultural-based community got me to the Olympics,” Curt said of his hometown of Shelby, Nebraska, which boasts a population of 690. “I learned those lessons from those corn farmers that work hard every day, knowing that there’s good days and bad days, good years and bad years.”

Listen to Curt’s remarks at ACE here: Curt Tomasevicz at ACE

In an interview with Curt, he told me why he is a spokesperson for the Nebraska Corn Board. “To have that kind of support coming from a farm-based community, the logical thing for me to do is try to give something back to them,” he said. “Farmers are not competing for gold medals but at the same time they’re working hard to produce something, like corn. They work just as hard, if not harder, than Olympians.” Curt does personal appearances for the Nebraska Corn Board around the state at agricultural and civic events, as well as schools.

Listen to my interview with Curt here: Curt Tomasevicz interview

Kim Clark, director of biofuels development for the Nebraska Corn Board, was also at the ACE conference and she not only introduced Curt at the luncheon where he spoke, but she also gave an update on what they are doing to help get more blender pumps out in the state. “The corn board feels blender pumps are really important, especially for the state of Nebraska, since we are the number two producer of ethanol,” she said, noting that they set aside $750,000 this year to help promote installation of pumps. There are nearly 20 in the state now and about 30 new pumps are expected to be installed within the next year.

One of their challenges is getting into the larger cities of Nebraska, like Omaha, where there are currently no blender pumps available. “With the new grant program of $40,000 per location, that has gotten a lot more retailers interested,” she said.

Listen to my interview with Kim here: NE Corn Board's Kim Clark

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.

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