Corn Commentary

Refinery Shutdown Like a E15 Advertisement

If you live in the heart of the Midwest soaring fuel prices are a reality, not a nightmare, figment of your imagination or Wile E. Coyote cartoon. An equipment failure at one the region’s largest oil refineries caused an immediate and painful spike at the gas pump for consumers across the Midwest this week. The BP Whiting Refinery located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, had a breakdown of its crude distillation unit. The device, not made by ACME apparently,  is critical to the output of 120,000 barrels of gasoline a day. Whiting is the sixth-largest refinery in the United States and is a pivotal supplier of gasolineacme for drivers in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri.

“Gasoline prices are already on their way up and are expected to go up more than $1 a gallon in these markets,” according to NCGA President Chip Bowling. “Everyone is talking about these crazy gas prices right now so I am encouraging folks to use this as a teaching opportunity. This is a great way to drive home to family, friends and others how tenuous our relationship is with petroleum. We rely too much on imported oil and on a small number of aging oil refineries.”

A 250,000 barrel-per-day crude distillation unit went down with a mechanical problem at the facility, knocking out half the plants productive capacity for an undisclosed time.

“All of the lost gasoline output resulting from this outage could be offset if all gasoline in the Midwest region immediately transitioned from E10 to E15,” said Bob Dinneen, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. “Moreover, ethanol in the Chicago wholesale market is roughly $1 per gallon lower than gasoline today. That means if refiners and blenders serving the Midwest market immediately switched to producing E15 to blunt the impacts of this refinery outage, gas prices would instantly fall by at least 5 cents per gallon and drivers in the Midwest would save about $6 million per day,” he said.

RFA is calling on EPA to immediately waive RVP requirements for E15 and also allow E12 blending–based on the fact that it is substantially similar to E10–in the Midwest region to facilitate expanded ethanol blending and blunt the consumer impacts of this refinery outage.

“I hope the Environmental Protection Agency is paying attention. If cleaner air alone is not enough to get them to leave the current Renewable Fuels Standard alone, then maybe this incident at Whiting will convince them,” Bowling said. “Incidents like these are not unusual and are getting more common as refineries continue to age and oil companies show no stomach for building new facilities. Agriculture has the corn and the desire to boost production.”






Corn’s Big Change: Why Mutants are Good

By Tom Mueller

EXTRA, EXTRA, read all about it! Plant scientists identify the gene mutation that turned grass into corn!

Not exactly the headline heard or seen on any news outlet this week. So, what’s the big deal?

Teosinte. Image via UW-Madison, from cited story in Washington Post.

Washington Post journalist Robert Gebelhoff captured the significance in a recent Speaking of Science column. In the article, University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher and study author John Doebley compared the impact of teosinte’s mutation from grass to corn to that of humans evolving from four-legged creatures to upright bipeds.

This research documented how a simple nucleotide change can alter protein function. Until now, there was disagreement among scientists on whether a single change in the DNA could make such a difference. Armed with DNA diversity data (i.e. a measure of genetic variation), researchers identified the location within the corn genome where the covered kernels of teosinte became the naked kernels of the corn plant. When teosinte’s tough protective kernel husk vanished, the diversity of the plant was unleased and this mother-load of calorie dense food took form.

Genetic mutation is a natural and frequent occurrence. Most mutations are neutral and innocuous. However, when a significant mutation takes place, we experience a game changer.

Corn’s mutative evolution has been big, but just how big was it? In Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post article In defense of corn, one expert noted that corn has adapted to almost every climate that humans have, and that it is three times as productive as 95 percent of the world’s flowing plants. That mutant really packed a punch.

By all accounts, corn has a few more benefits up its genetic sleeve. As it turns out, the gene identified in the University of Wisconsin-Madison study also affects the shape of corn kernels. The size and shape of corn seed does have an impact on emergence and early growth when environmental stresses such as early planting, cool soil temperatures and soil crusting are present.

So, embrace the mutants.

About the author: Tom Mueller, chairman of NCGA’s Research and Business Development Action Team, farms in Illinois.

Monday’s Maize Mutant: HM1

Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerald Neuffer

Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerald Neuffer

Cochliobolus carbonum is a fungus that causes northern leaf spot and ear rot disease in corn. The fungus produces a toxin that is highly destructive to corn ears and leaves. The HM1 gene in corn is responsible for resistance or susceptibility to the fungal plant pathogen. Corn lines that are resistant to C. carbonum and its toxin can become susceptible if their HM1 gene is mutated.  This seemingly unfortunate event has allowed maize researchers to clone and characterize the HM1 gene, which led to a better understanding of how fungal toxins work and how plants defend themselves against pathogens. Mutant analysis is one of the most powerful tools researchers have for understanding how genes work and how their expression controls different pathways and how plants respond to the environment.

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.

People, Plants Both Suffering from Cold, Wet Feet

sad cornFeeling a little bit damp and cool? Is there a chill running through your bones? Young corn plants trying to grow in many parts of the Corn Belt feel the same way right now.

Delving more deeply into why the first crop condition report issued by USDA shows only 74 percent of the crop in good or excellent condition, one finds corn plants and the people who live near them share a distaste for some of this spring’s cooler, wetter conditions.

Farmers worked tirelessly across the country to plant their crops in the small windows available. From sinking one’s planter deep into the mud to watching as precious seeds wash away, planting in the rain just doesn’t work. Planting into soil too cool to foster germination doesn’t do the trick either. So, men and women across the Great Plains put in long hours to get the crop in the ground as the clock started ticking down.

But, like every year, they now wonder if it will be enough.

In farmer speak, what they need now are days that supply “heat units.” Translation – they need days where the sun and winds provide the light and climate that fosters their seedlings as they mature. They need those lovely late spring afternoons, along with proper nutrients, as much as their counterparts in the city.

Now, going directly into a scorching hot, dry summer wouldn’t make many people happy. If the rains do not come and the temperatures soar, corn plants will not thrive either. People and corn alike need a delicate balance to truly thrive.

Whether the steady rains have trapped you in the house with kids freshly out of school and itching to play or trapped in the shed watching young corn plants desperate for a little sun too, the same rains dampen our outlook. Let’s hope for a little sunshine together.

Reflections on the Earth

By Nick Goeser, Ph.D.

earth-dayAs we wind down this week’s celebrations of Earth Day, my mind focuses on the pressing issues facing our planet.  Global population growth, food security, water quantity and quality, air quality, increasing numbers of extreme weather events – and the list can go on.  Looking across the list, a common thread emerges in an area of focus that can help to mitigate the risks of several issues listed.  This common thread is soil health and many groups, including farmers, are working to improve this valuable resource as a means to improve their operations and as a means to improve food security, water use efficiency, water quality, air quality and resilience to extreme weather.

Let us look at a few of the areas that can be improved with soil health and the groups working hard to provide cropping systems solutions to farmers.

Well-functioning soils are a crucial component of ensuring continued crop productivity and securing our global food supply.  A number of months back, the Environmental Defense Fund invited me to discuss soil health effects on food security (“The key ingredient in a resilient food supply: healthy soil”).  This article focused on the tools we have to protect productive soils and to improve impaired soils- recognizing that there are no silver bullets and it takes time and effort to protect and improve soil.

Soil aggregate stability and adequate soil organic matter pools help to improve water quality through greater resistance to erosion, improved infiltration, and enhanced nutrient cycling for better crop nutrient use efficiency.  Soils with greater aggregate stability and shear strength can withstand greater amounts of rainfall without sediment losses to run off.  Throughout the growing season, a high level of soil organic matter and soil biological functioning increase soil decomposition of crop residues and release of nutrients to crops.  Components of soil organic matter also retain nutrients that improve nutrient use efficiency and reduce the risk of fertilizer loss to the environment.

Soil health plays a large role in improving agricultural water use efficiency.  Components of soil health—such as increasing soil infiltration rates, biological diversity, soil organic matter pools, soil porosity, and soil aggregate structure—all help a soil to accept and hold water from rain or melting snow.  These soil characteristics work together to improve the pool of water available to crops throughout the growing season.

As I continue to reflect on agriculture’s contributions to improving our planet, I am excited to see a great number of organizations working to help provide practical solutions for farmers to benefit their operations through improved soil functioning.  The Soil Health Partnership has the pleasure of working with a diverse group of collaborators Soil Renaissance, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Research Service, Noble Foundation, The Farm Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Technology Information Center, American Farmland Trust, state and national commodity associations, Monsanto, and many additional organizations in the agricultural industry.  It gives me great hope to see farmers contributing alongside such a large number of organizations with the skills to provide the solutions we all need.

Dr. Nick Goeser is NCGA’s manager for soil health and sustainability.

Monday’s Maize Mutant

Brought to you by the National Corn Growers Association and the Maize Genetics and Genomics Database

One thing we have learned from the National Corn Yield Contest is that plant populations are increasing. But as plant populations increase, how do we keep plants from crowding or shading each other? The answer is to change the plant’s architecture, specifically the angle of the leaves.

The liguleless1 gene in corn controls leaf angle by allowing the development of a small collar near the base of the leaf which allows the leaf to bend without breaking.  When the liguleless1 gene is mutated, the collar is absent and leaves assume a more upright angle that allows plants to grow closer together without crowding or shading each other.  Many modern hybrids carry the mutated liguleless1 gene.

The liguleless1 mutant is on the left.

Photo courtesy of Dr. M. G. Neuffer, University of Missouri.

If Farming Were Easy…

farmingThis little saying was in this week’s newsletter from Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) – “If farming were easy Congressmen would do it.”

Truly, if farming were easy, everyone would do it – and most of us either can’t or don’t want to. The same could be said for many professions, but most of them don’t have everyone from the president on down trying to tell them how to do their jobs.

If farming were easy, the bureaucrats on the federal to the local level would be doing it themselves instead of making up regulations that make it more difficult to produce food, fiber and fuel.

If farming were easy, the people who are against biotechnology innovations that help produce more food would all be self-sufficiently producing their own daily sustenance.

And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Putting Agriculture in the Political Spotlight

iowa-summitNine potential Republican presidential candidates were asked their opinions on various agricultural issues at the Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines on Saturday.

Comments made by at the event by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are still generating stories from major national news sources.

Over 270 journalists who attended the event, representing most if not all of the major news outlets nationwide, heard about some of the top issues for agriculture including trade, regulations, conservation, food safety, biotechnology, renewable fuels, and immigration as each taking candidate sat down on a stage with agribusiness entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter for about 20 minutes.

The main focus of the event was to get the potential candidates to take a stand on the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Six of the nine expressed at least conditional support, including Wisconsin Governor Walker who recently had been criticized by biofuel producers in his state for not taking a stand on the law. Three of the candidates – Cruz, Pataki, and Perry – came out firmly against the RFS, while at the same time saying they supported ethanol and other renewable fuels.

couser-cruzThe summit was organized with the support of America’s Renewable Future, a quasi-political campaign for the RFS introduced earlier this year. Co-chair Bill Couser, pictured here with Sen. Cruz, says their goal is to educate potential presidential candidates.

“Show them why we do this, how we do this, and say what do you think?” said Couser, an Iowa cattle producer and ethanol advocate. “I can say, let’s go look at a corn field, let’s go look at a feedlot, let’s go look at some windmills, let’s go look at Lincolnway Energy, and then let’s go to the DuPont plant right next door and I’ll show you what we’re doing with the whole plant and being sustainable.”

Couser says they plan to approach all potential presidential candidates individually and invite them to visit and learn more about agriculture and renewable energy, including Hillary Clinton. “Wouldn’t that be something if she showed up?” he said.

Listen to my interview with Bill at the recent National Ethanol Conference here: Interview with Bill Couser, America's Renewable Future Co-Chair

How Do I Love Soil? Let Me Count the Ways

By Nick Goeser



As Valentine’s Day approaches in this International Year of Soils, I found it fitting to stream a little Elizabeth Barrett Browning and think about how we show our love for soil.  Two of the best ways we can show our love for soil are to appreciate the important role it plays in our lives and to think about how we can work together to improve soils.

In December, Suzy Friedman, Environmental Defense Fund’s Director of Agricultural Sustainability, invited me to discuss the many reasons soils are important to food production.  Soil health is directly linked to a resilient food supply.  Beyond food, healthy soils function to support our urban parks and recreation areas, as well as fiber and fuel production at home and across the globe.

Just think – where do Valentine’s Day roses grow best?  In soil!  Where does Valentine’s Day chocolate come from?  Cocoa trees growing in the tropical soils around the world.  Soil is the common thread that weaves the most important parts of our lives together. So this year as you get ready to sit down to your Valentine’s Day dinner, take a few moments to think about what would be on it without soil.

How can we work together to improve the soils we love?  Partnerships.  Many partnerships are focused on improving soil health and conservation – some of which include The Soil Health Partnership, The Conservation Technology Information Center, The Conservation Cropping System Initiative and The Soil Renaissance.  These partnerships serve as a means for diverse organizations to come together to achieve common goals – and they are making great progress.  Together, many partnerships are helping farmers lead the way by adding support and information to make complex conservation decisions.

The Soil Health Partnership recently held its first Soil Health Summit.  This gathering served as a venue for the farmers, agronomists and collaborators of the Soil Health Partnership to share knowledge and talk about innovative ways to improve soil health.  We also opened the summit to the non-agricultural members of the public to open the dialogue between farmers and our urban neighbors.  Together, these groups spent time discussing modern agriculture and innovation in conservation.

Participants spoke to our common goals. “I see the value in soil conservation and nutrient reduction because I think that they can help address an issue that our urban populations are very concerned about as well– our clean water,” commented Soil Health demonstration farmer Tim Smith. “We need to reach a lot of people – not just the farmers, urban soils are also very important.  It is not only about creating a more desirable urban environment, but also for people in an urban environment to be aware of soils and how important they are.  It is not only about farming,” said Dr. Harold van Es, Cornell Professor of Soil and Water Management.

Whether urban or agricultural, soils are essential to our daily lives.  We must continue to work together through partnerships and collaborations to gather the information to help protect one of our most valuable resources.

About the author: Nick Goeser is NCGA’s manager for soil health and sustainability.

To track soil health and talk about it on social media, use #soilhealth2015.

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