Corn Commentary

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

i-heart-soil-logo

#SoilHealth2015

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.

Pope Francis Considers Farming a Vocation

“There is no humanity without the cultivation of the land; there is no good life without the food it produces for the men and women of every continent.” Pope Francis, 1/31/15

pope-francis-unWith the patron saint of all things of nature as his namesake, Pope Francis has serious views about protecting the environment, but he believes that agriculture plays a “central role” in the “cultivation and stewardship of the land.”

That’s what he said recently
in a meeting with the National Confederation of Direct Cultivators, which is some kind of agricultural organization, as the pontiff noted that the name “direct cultivators” refers to cultivation, “a typically human and fundamental activity.” Pope Francis said that farming and ranching constitutes “a true vocation.”

“It deserves to be recognised and suitably valued as such, also in concrete political and economic decisions. This means eliminating the obstacles that penalise such a valuable activity and that often make it appear unattractive to new generations, even though statistics show an increase in the number of students in schools and institutes of agriculture, which leads us to foresee and increase in the numbers of those employed in the agricultural sector. At the same time, it is necessary to pay due attention to the removal of land from agricultural use, to make it available for apparently more lucrative purposes”

castel2The pope actually has his own farm at the traditional summer place for pontiffs, Castel Gandolfo.

The 55 acre farm dates back to the early 1930s under Pope Pius XI as part of the renovation of the summer vacation home which has been in use since the 16th century. The farm includes cows, chickens, bee hives, ostriches, turkeys, rabbits, vegetables and more. The farm reportedly produces 185 gallons of milk a day, 50,000 eggs a year, honey, olive oil and vegetables.

There are news reports that the farm may be opened for public tours this year, but the Vatican has not confirmed that yet. I’d be interested in a visit if it happens!

Corny Christmas Greeting

Corny ChristmasHave yourself a corny little Christmas,
May your price be right
From now on,
Gas prices won’t be out of sight

Have yourself a corny little Christmas,
That’s what we can say,
From now on,
The weather will be good, we pray.

Remember back in the olden years
Fruitful golden ears of corn.
All our friends get John Deere for us.
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years
The harvest will be plenty,
If the Fates allow.
Hang a shining star as you prepare to plow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Vote for Your Favorite Corn Photo

fields-cornThe midterm elections are over but here’s a chance to exercise your right to vote for something fun and beautiful.

There’s a wide variety of candidates and each has something special to offer. Whether you support beauty, family, growth, challenges, or life – pick a category and cast your vote in the Fields-of-Corn Photo Contest.

Over 400 high-resolution photos of corn growth from seed to harvest and the families that grow it were submitted in the National Corn Growers Association on-line contest and the photos are now being judged by the public by selecting their favorites using online Facebook “Likes.” There’s a $500 grand prize for the most likes and there will also be awards for the top three entries in the five categories of Farm Family Lifestyle, Farming Challenges, Growing Field Corn, Scenery/Landscape, and Still Life from the Farm.

It’s easy and fun – vote early and vote often! Polls close on December 31.

Indian Corn Adds Color to the Fall

indian-cornColorful corn can be seen decorating doors and table tops during the fall season, but how much do you really know about the corn that is known variously as Indian, flint, ornamental, or even calico?

According to Wikipedia
, flint corn has less soft starch than dent corn and does not have the dents in the kernels. Flint corn is one of three types of corn cultivated by Native Americans – from whence the Indian corn moniker comes. Cultivation of flint corn was typical to tribes in New England and across the northern tier, including by tribes such as the Pawnee on the Great Plains. But, archeologists have found evidence of such corn cultivation by the Pawnee and others before 1000 BC. Cultivation of corn occurred hundreds of years earlier among the Mississippian culture people, whose civilization arose based on population density and trade because of surplus corn crops.There is also evidence that flint corn was grown in China, India and South America for centuries.

While we use the colorful ears for decoration, our ancestors actually ate it and it is still eaten in countries like Argentina and other areas of South America, Latin America and southern Europe. Heavy in starch, it can be compared to hominy, which is used to make grits. Indian corn can be ground to make flour, or the whole kernel can be reserved for popcorn. It can also be used as livestock feed.

Indian corn for decoration these days is the result of several hybrid varieties developed within the last 50 years. Calico-patterned or speckled varieties of Indian corn result from cross-pollination of single-shaded plants. In addition to the multicolored ears, there are solid ears in shades of white, ruby, blue and black. Many varieties have names as colorful as the corn – like Autumn Explosion, Robust Ruby Red, Big Chief and Glass Gem. There are even miniature varieties with cute names like Indian Fingers, Cutie Pops, Little Boy Blue and Miniature Blue, Cutie Pink, Little Miss Muffet, Little Bo Peep and Miniature Pink.

Support the Farmer Veteran Coalition

Farmer Veteran CoalitionToday is Veterans Day and one of the sad facts about the men and women who serve our nation is that they often return from active duty with few job opportunities.

That’s where the Farmer Veteran Coalition is making a difference. The coalition is helping to mobilize veterans in the fight to feed America by cultivating a new generation of agriculturalists through the collaboration of the farming and military communities.

Homegrown by Heroes“We’ve got veterans returning to small communities all over this country, and based on my experience in the military and interactions with people in the military, I believe that these people possess the skills and the traits that can contribute in a very positive way,” says Coalition board member Charlie Kruse. Those skills include teamwork, dedication and pride in what you do along with willingness to adapt to different situations.

Kruse, who is a Missouri farmer and former president of the Missouri Farm Bureau who also served 26 years in the Army National Guard, is excited about the work the Coalition is doing, including helping veterans through the Homegrown By Heroes label. “I think it’s a tremendous activity that in some small way let’s all of us in this country pay back to those people in uniform who answered the call and served us proudly,” he added.

Find out more about the coalition at farmvetco.org.



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