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.


Love It or Hate It- NPR Has Mixed Emotions on Ethanol

NPR needs an all-hands-on-deck meeting. Recently, the reporters covering ethanol seem to be operating under almost opposing sets of assumptions. Sometimes, they hit it out of the park. Defying anti-ethanol propaganda disguised as conventional wisdom, they cut through the crud and achieve the accuracy journalists value above all.

But, sometimes, they fall victim to the trap laid by anti-ethanol activists who have worked for years to ingrain their false facts so deeply that they achieve an aura of un-questionability.

In this story from June 10, NPR reporter Grant Gerlock tackles why U.S. farmers and the EPA disagree vocally on changes made to the Renewable Volume Obligations outlined in the Renewable Fuel Standard. Gerlock speaks with a variety of guests, from the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Jeremy Martin to Iowa State University’s Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist. While this may appear to be a good faith effort to present a well-rounded view of the situation, Gerlock’s unquestioning acceptance of anti-ethanol rhetoric quickly becomes apparent.

Speaking with USDA researcher Rob Mitchell, a proponent of switchgrass as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol, Gerlock makes a mental leap based upon the assumption that some ethanol is good and some is bad. He just assumes that corn-based ethanol could not possibly lower greenhouse gas emissions – even in comparison with oil. While both products do so, it does a grave disservice to suggest that the one more widely available today does not offer this important benefit.

To read the transcript (and see the incredible leap of misinformed faith for yourself), click here.

Yet, in a piece by Michael Tomsic that host Audie Cornish highlighted, NPR accepts NASCAR’s assertion that corn-based ethanol blends have been key to their efforts to make the sport “more green.” Discussing the move to ethanol, Tomsic sites that switching to a 15 percent ethanol blend has “reduced emissions by 20 percent” for NASCAR.

To read the transcript, click here.

Notably, he not only touts the virtue of using E15, he also points out that legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. no longer has concerns about how his car will perform on the fuel after having a chance to use it.

Yes, NPR showed in the first instance that it can fall prey but, in the second, it showed that others within the organization can find the positive, honest story America’s farmers have to tell about ethanol- the story which they have raced feverishly to share.

Want to say kudos highlighting NASCAR Green? Want to set the record straight on corn-based ethanol’s environmental advantage? Either choice, there is a way.

NPR offers listeners the opportunity to submit their comments to the Office of the Ombudsman. Unlike traditional comment sections, the letters submitted are considered carefully. Each week, some are even chosen to be read aloud on the air.

So no matter what you want to say, speak up! They have the story half-right. Your voice can make a difference.

To contact the NPR ombudsman, click here.

Who Said Conventional Production Is Sustainable?

When you look at the facts, conventional agriculture scores higher than organic on sustainability. What system generates these results? The new Responsibly Grown labeling system developed by Whole Foods.

According to a multitude of media reports, the system will rank produce on a variety of criteria including water use, pesticide use and sustainability. Then, the data will be used to award produce selections with a label of “good,” “better” or “best.”

For one example, from Fox News, click here.

From early reports, conventional farmers have placed much higher than the growers using organic methods.

The system reflects a shift in the industry as a whole. While organics may have grown in popularity, many advocate a more scientific approach to assessing the impact of food production. Whole Foods spent three full years developing the Responsibly Grown program. Instead of simply applying a label to market the produce, they provide information on the true impact of growing practices.

Farmers, whether conventional or organic, strive to care for their land. It has provided a livelihood for their family for many generations in most cases. In about as many, they hope it will continue to do so for many generations to come. Keeping it healthy only makes sense.

Conventional production can be more sustainable than organic. Soon, the proof will be clearly labeled at a Whole Foods near you.

The Future for Corn Farming

bayer-zylstraWhat does the future hold for corn farmers? That was a question addressed at the Bayer CropScience Corn and Soybean Future Forum in Frankfurt, Germany last week, and some farmers gave their views.

Iowa Corn Growers
chairman Roger Zylstra, who farms in Jasper County, talked about the opportunities and challenges of sustainable corn production. “There are significant challenges right now in corn production because of the rapid drop in prices we’ve seen,” he said. “But I think there are tremendous opportunities in the world.”

The Bayer forum featured farmers from all over the world and Zylstra noted that farmers in different countries do their best when they “get along as neighbors and trading partners.” Interview with Iowa farmer Roger Zylstra

bayer-kip-tomIndiana farmer Kip Tom discussed successful farm management in a future digitalized farming world and the challenges of adopting new technology in agriculture. “A lot of it comes down to the connectivity of our rural areas,” Tom said. “But the other hurdle comes back to education. We’ve got to have a work force that understands how to use these tools if we’re going to get good information from it.”

Tom talked about “social license” when it comes to environmental resources. “We have a license to make sure that at the end of our lifetime, we return it to the next generation in as good as or better condition,” he said. “We’re all tenants. We make think we own the land, but in the end, we are tenants.” Interview with Indiana farmer Kip Tom

Farmer’s View of Sustainability

walmartWalmart held a big event last week where the CEOs of major global companies made new commitments toward more sustainable products.

Among the food and agribusiness company CEOs taking part were Monsanto, Cargill, Dairy Farmers Incorporated, General Mills and Kellogg, many whom talked about how they will be working with farmers on sustainability goals.

Monsanto chairman and CEO Hugh Grant announced two commitments to help address challenges in the areas of water and nutrient efficiency. First, the company will work to increase water-use efficiency in irrigation across its own global seed production operations by 25 percent by 2020. Grant also pledged that the company “will continue to innovate and advance smarter seeds and precision management tools that enable farmers to use nutrients more efficiently and curb greenhouse gas emissions on one million acres in the United States by 2020.”

corzine2In making the announcement, Grant asked Illinois farmer and former National Corn Growers Association president Leon Corzine to join him and talk about what these commitments mean for the agriculture community. “As we have these discussions, farmers need to be represented so everyone has a better understanding of what farmers are actually doing on the farm,” said Leon, noting he was able to attend the event because they had just finished corn planting so his son Craig said it was okay for him to go.

“One of the things Craig and I talk about that I learned from my dad and granddad is a personal initiative to leave the farm better than we found it,” Leon said. “That’s really what sustainability is all about.”

Leon talked about the “awesome” technology farmers have today that helps farmers be more efficient and “increase productivity while lowering our environmental footprint.” He just made a great case for farmers as stewards of the land that the non-ag media on the call really need to hear.

Listen to Leon’s comments were: Illinois Farmer Leon Corzine on Sustainability

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!




Seed Treatment Stewardship

Seed treatments could arguably be called one of the greatest advancements in agricultural production since the plow. That’s why proper stewardship of this important technology for farmers is so critical.

nafb13-asta-andyAmerican Seed Trade Association (ASTA) CEO Andy LaVinge says seed industry and agricultural organizations have partnered to develop a new guide for farmers under the industry banner of Seed Treatment Matters. “We got together with CropLife America, and the major grower groups – National Corn Growers, American Soybean, National Cotton Council and American Farm Bureau Federation – to talk about the adoption of new technologies we’ve seen on seed,” he said. “We want to make sure that technology is properly stewarded.”

“Seed treatment does matter,” LaVigne added. “As farmers look at their seed treatment and seed plantings, we want to make sure that it matters, what they plant and how they steward it.”

The guide developed by the groups is available at and it will also be offered and discussed at 2014 grower meetings.

Listen to my interview with Andy here: Interview with Andy LaVigne, ASTA

In World of Polluters Oil Has No Rivals

oil & $100 billThey call it black gold and Texas Tea but I prefer to call it environmental anathema; that rare combination of disgrace and abomination.  Better that than using the words that I would like to use that got my mouth washed out with soap as a child.

Ok, Thanksgiving is almost upon us so I want to purge a little bile so I will enjoy the day a little more. What better target than Big Oil?

You know, those heavily subsidized global scale polluters who control…I mean contribute to every politician to make sure they have their bases covered. Well after an announcement today, I guess we will see how well their “investment” pays off.

It seems gas and oil are almost singlehandedly responsible for the bulk of all the man-made global warming emissions since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Chevron, Exxon and BP are among the companies most responsible for climate change since dawn of industrial age, according to a new analysis.

The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies, which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, new research suggests.

I have always been a big fan of irony but this week takes the cake.  It seemed bizarre that earlier this week EPA announced their proposal to significantly weaken the Renewable Fuel Standard, reducing the volume of renewable fuels like ethanol for 2014; thus making us even more dependent on oil.

Odd that an agency with “Environment” in their name would turn away from a program that has cut emissions of greenhouse gas by 110 million metric tons, making it one of the most successful programs in the EPA arsenal. This is the equivalent of taking more than 20 million vehicles off the road.

Now it will get even more interesting to see how this same administration that purports to be on a crusade to fight greenhouse gases will deal with Big Oil now that the emperor has no clothes.




Before You Criticize, Take a Look at Your Own Backyard

In recent conversations about the environment, some fingers have been pointed toward corn farmers. The finger pointers wrongly allege that growing corn emits massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

If you want to see an enviro-villain responsible for a far greater percentage of our nation’s COemissions, just look out your front door.

Residential lawns actually emit more CO2 than corn fields according to a study recently published in the Soil Science Society of America Journal. As more exurbs push city boundaries further and residential developments move land out of agricultural production, the effect can even intensify according to David Bowne, an assistant professor of biology at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who led the study.

Everyone needs a place to call home. Everyone needs nutritious, healthy foods. Instead of pointing a finger at a farmer because, as such a small subset of the population, very few outside of agriculture personally know about and have experienced our nation’s incredible farming and ranching tradition.

Farmers work hard to act as good stewards of the land, air and water upon which they depend for their livelihood. The original environmentalists, farmers want to work with their counterparts from all parts of the country to ensure that their children will be able to continue farming the land that their grandparents once did.

All fruitful efforts start when we extend an open hand instead of wagging a finger. So take a moment to look at the facts. We have all contributed to the problem. Now, we all must be part of the solution.

Corn-based Biopolymers to Replace Petroleum-based Plastics

Finding new uses for corn… and ways to treat our environment a little bit better… were the hot topics at this summer’s Corn Utilization Technology Conference.

Jay-lin Jane, Ph.D., Iowa State University, chaired the discussion on how biopolymers made from corn can be a sustainable, renewable, alternative to petroleum-based plastics. “The most common use for this type of material is disposable types of materials, because it’s biodegradable and environmentally friendly,” she explained. Examples include plant pots that can remain in the ground and give nutrients to the newly transplanted flowers and vegetables and even fairway-friendly golf tees. “When the golf tee is broken and left in the field, it may become nutrients for the grass.”

Listen to my interview with Jay-lin Jane here: Interview with Jay-lin Jane

2012 CUTC Photo Album

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