Corn Commentary

Binging on Earth Day Irony

dead dolphinOk, I admit I love irony. So I had to chuckle a little bit as everyone was getting fired up about the arrival of another Earth Day. The irony lies in the fact that this momentous occasion occurs two days after the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

To refresh your memory this was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, estimated to be up to 31% larger in volume than the previously largest, the Ixtoc I oil spill. Following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a sea-floor oil gusher flowed for 87 days, until it was capped on 15 July 2010. The US Government estimated the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels.

That’s 210 million gallons of oil and we don’t even want to talk about the 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals they call dispersants which were either to:

  • Hide BP’s Faux Pas and remove it from public display
  • or allow nature to recover faster

The irony gets tastier if you are my age because I am old enough, ok more than old enough, to have celebrated the first Earth Day and remember how this whole affirmation of Mother Terra Firma began. It started 44 years ago after a US Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, witnessed the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda.

Well the Earth Day recognition has lasted but the public consciousness and the leadership of our elected officials lacks a little staying power. Today, the oil industry continues to be one of the largest polluters in the world. And because of their deep pockets and political influence they have been allowed to blithely go about their business with little or no consequences.

The BP spill offers a great case in point. Big oil responded initially and spent money for clean-up efforts and they put on a contrite face while the cameras were on. But take a closer look today at their efforts in court to dodge any more clean-up costs and the fines that were imposed. They say their job is done even as the number of dead dolphin washing up on beaches topped 900 last week. Kemp sea turtle have been nearly ravaged into extinction in Gulf waters.

And to add insult to injury petroleum interests are now spending millions to mislead the public. Big oil is poisoning the system as well as the environment. They are doing everything they can to keep a death grip on the liquid transportation fuel market.

That’s why today—Earth Day — you should take few minutes to educate yourself regarding the sheer audacity of oil. It’s as simple as going to OilRigged.com to shine a spotlight on the oil companies’ dirty tricks and dishonest attacks. Americans deserve to know how oil companies have rigged the system to make us pay more at the pump—sending their profits up while our air and water quality goes down.

The Originators of Earth Day

Today, Corn Commentary features a guest post from Kevin Hurst, chairman of the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council and corn farmer from Tarkio, Mo.

The Originators of Earth Day

Around the world people are celebrating Earth Day. It’s a great tradition, one that is needed for the health of our planet and future generations. It is a reminder to protect the resources we are given. It is something I’m reminded of on a daily basis.

As a child, I spent most of my time with my father and grandfather who were both farmers. I knew what I wanted to do. Today I’m proud to say we’ve been farming the same land for four generations. In order to sustain the soil, we treat it like a bank account. You have to replenish your checking account, just like you have to manage the resources in the soil. Carelessly spending all the nutrients and top soil makes for a steep decline in productivity and profitability.

Much like any other business, technology has made us more efficient and precise. Rather than treat every field the same, soil testing, soil mapping and GPS allow farmers to provide each plot of soil with precisely what it needs to be healthy and fertile. Thanks to innovative practices, we’re producing 87 percent more corn using 4 percent fewer nutrients. We’ve also reduced soil erosion by 67 percent compared to when my father farmed 30 years ago.

My ancestors would be amazed by today’s technology. Between 1980 and 2009, America’s farmers doubled corn production utilizing only 3 percent more land. We’ve reduced the amount of acres required to grow one bushel of corn by 30 percent, meaning we can produce a lot more with less.

Those familiar with farming also know the importance of conservation. Thousands of farmers continue to enroll acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or Wetland Reserve Program to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and reduce loss of wildlife habitat. In 2012 the Wetlands Reserve Program hit a record high 2.65 million acres and is expected to grow. CRP rates are also trending above 90 percent of the federally capped level.

Each and every one of these practices is helping farmers like me conserve resources and maintain the integrity of our land. In recent years we’ve gone a step further. With the ability to produce larger crops on our land, farmers can now provide not only food and feed, but also a cleaner, greener fuel straight from America’s fields.

Last year alone, 13.3 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 38 million metric tons. That’s equivalent to removing eight million cars from the road. Eight million-no fracking, tar sands or derricks required. The best part? It doesn’t cause an ecological and economic disaster if spilled.

As we celebrate this Earth Day, I salute those who have gone before us to provide the advancements and innovations that allow today’s farmers to be better stewards of the land. We farm not only to make a living, but to further protect our land and legacy for generations to come.

Kevin Hurst is a corn farmer from Tarkio, Mo., and the chairman of the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council.

Kevin Hurst is a corn farmer from Tarkio, Mo., and the chairman of the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council.

Click here for larger image.

Click here for larger image.

Corn Planting Slow and Steady

corn-plant-14So corn planting is running behind the five year average right now – but it’s ahead of last year’s progress at this time and we had a record crop in 2013. Remember how the tortoise beat the hare in the old fable – slow and steady wins the race!

Illinois, Indiana and Iowa have barely begun to plant, according to the latest report out of USDA NASS this week. Just one percent in Iowa, two in Indiana and five in Illinois so far, but that is more than last year. And Missouri is actually just about caught up to the five year average with 26 percent planted while Kansas is ahead of average at 21 percent.

National Corn Growers Association President Martin Barbre of Illinois is confident planting progress will take off quickly as the weather warms. “Keep in mind that last year, planting season started off slowly, and we harvest a record corn crop in the fall. In 2012, planting flew by quickly, but severe drought plagued much of the country and damaged the overall crop. Farmers realize that a long planting and growing season, which may present opportunities and obstacles, still lies ahead.”

Forbes Fuzzy Math

Forbes proved that by carefully presenting numbers in a persuasively plotted manner one can confuse a reader this weekend in its story “It’s Final – Corn Ethanol Is Of No Use”. Referencing the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group reports released at the end of last month, energy writer James Conca conca-cocted a seemingly sensible argument. Unfortunately, he used slanted stats to obfuscate the truth and, with the skill of a math-magician, create an illusion instead of a solid story.

In his argument, Conca cleverly hides reality through the use of percentages. Comparing the total percent of the corn crop used to feed people and livestock in 2000 (90 percent) to the broken out figures for livestock and food and beverage feed in 2013 (45 percent and 15 percent respectively). He clearly intends to shock by using the smallest possible numbers for 2013 instead of using a more mentally honest direct comparison.

But this is only the beginning of the show. Much of the story happens off the stage.

Behind the curtain, Conca hides the hard numbers that would show his sleight of hand for what it actually is. In 2000, the United States produced only 9.9 billion bushels of corn. In 2013, U.S. farmers grew a record 13.9 billion bushels. Percentages working as they do, a larger percentage of a smaller crop can (and often does) equal a smaller percentage of a larger.

Usage for starch held steady. Sweetener, cereal and food usage rose.

Corn used for livestock feed rose too. In 2000, 5.2 billion bushels of U.S. corn went to livestock feed. In 2013, 4.3 billion bushels went directly to the livestock feed market with the equivalent of an additional 1.1 billion bushels going to feed use as distillers dried grains and corn gluten feed. That is a total of 5.4 billion bushels of corn in 2013.

Overlooking real magic, Conca fails to mention how ethanol co-product DDGs help maximize the potential of each kernel of corn by creating both feed and fuel from it.

While he puts on a complicated, carefully choreographed performance, Conca’s performance falls flat as a piece of unbiased journalism. Instead of shining the spotlight on the real fallacies, he follows the other righteously indignant frauds into a fog of reactionary rhetoric that obscures the bright role biofuels play in building an honestly better future.

First, Do No Harm

Whether you first heard it on a television drama about incredibly attractive doctors or in a med school classroom yourself, most Americans know that the Hippocratic Oath commits medical professionals to “first, do no harm.” It is a basic principle that guides their ethics and upon which all patients rely. Given this oath, how then does Dr. Oz justify the harm he causes the American public in his relentless pursuit of his real guiding principle – profit?

Corn Commentary bloggers have previously mused over the misguided, ill-informed and even outright fallacies promoted by Dr. Oz and other merchants of dietary doom. Yet, as a doctor, Dr. Oz swore to uphold a higher principle than greed. He took the Hippocratic Oath.

This weekend, I realized just how much harm an infotainment shock jock can do when masquerading in a white doctor’s coat and scrubs. He can create fear that, in turn, causes well-meaning consumers to make financially harmful decisions.

A friend who I know to be on a budget related how his wife insisted upon bringing home organic products, from produce to processed cookies and sodas, because she saw that it was better on the Dr. Oz Show. Even after considering the wealth of research on the subject, she insisted that Dr. Oz must be right because:

1. He was a doctor.

2. He was such a respected doctor that he was on television.

Attempts to correct the many misconceptions on which this argument is based aside, the caring, concerned mother felt that she had to pay a seriously premium price tag for groceries based solely on the pseudoscience presented on the Dr. Oz Show. The food offered no greater nutritional value. Her choices were no better informed in terms of the actual dietary value of the foods. Instead, she paid money her family would have to scrimp and save to cut from elsewhere in the budget for products which would not make them any healthier.

Maybe Dr. Oz doesn’t see the harm because the paychecks he cashes insulate him from the worries he creates for normal Americans. Maybe he doesn’t care. But for anyone who faces the day with a finite amount of funding and an unwavering determination to do what is best for their family, his willingness to eschew sound science in the pursuit of panic-driven ratings does do harm. It harms the confidence of everyday moms trying to care for their families. It harms the budgets of those who truly believe they must break their budget to meet the Dr.’s deceitful demands. It harms the general understanding of food-related issues amongst the American public.

There is no reason to trust a doctor who does not stand by the oath that establishes the ethical standards of his profession. There is no reason to trust Dr. Oz.

Happy Tax Day!

Seriously, who says that? Nobody, that’s who. Still, it’s one of those two sure things in life – but the other one only happens to us once while taxes happen every year!

apr15Taxes were appropriately part of the agenda last week during hearings and press conferences on Capitol Hill.

During a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on tax issues, American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman testified that long-standing tax provisions should be made permanent, including Section 179 small business expensing which allows farmers and ranchers to expense certain purchases of assets. “Farm Bureau supports maintaining that with a cap of $500,000 per year. In other words, you could buy up to $500,000 worth of assets and be able to expense that amount in the first year, which would certainly help you bear the brunt of getting those assets to use in your business,” said Stallman.

That 500-thousand dollar break expired at the end of last year, along with many other provisions, but House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan has said he is open to making some of them permanent. “We’re the only country in the world that has big pieces of its tax policy that expires, we now call those extenders,” said Camp. “We literally let them expire for a year, then we retroactively put them in place and then they go forward a year.”

During an Americans for Tax Reform press conference after that hearing, Camp indicated he thought the expensing provision should be among those to be made permanent. “Some items are very good, whether it’s the expensing issue or research and development tax credit,” he said. “I look forward to continuing to work on those and have markups in committee to see which of these policies we can make permanent.”

More “extenders” include tax credits for biodiesel, advanced biofuels and wind energy, which are now part of Senate legislation recently passed out of the finance committee.

The Littlest Ethanol Lobbyist

ace14-dc-ethan1Wearing a tie and sporting a “Don’t Mess with the RFS” button, 10-year-old Ethan Fagen was the youngest of the grassroots lobbyists at the recent American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) Biofuels Beltway March on Capitol Hill.

Ethan came along with his grandfather, Ron Fagen of Fagen, Inc., and he was right in the trenches with him handing out materials and talking about the benefits of ethanol, like how good it is for the environment compared to fossil fuels. “Think in 200 years if you run ethanol there will be cleaner air for the next generation,” said Ethan, who is part of that next generation.

ace14-dc-fagensSitting in the front as the ACE Fly-in participants heard from government officials, Ethan caught the attention of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who thought it was “pretty cool” he was there for the event.

In my interview with Ethan, he told me that he would like to be a farmer someday and grow corn and have cattle. It’s interesting that if you add two letters to Ethan’s name, it becomes ethanol. That could be intentional, considering his grandfather is a pioneer in the ethanol industry! Interview with Ethan Fagen, ACE Fly-in Participant


2014 ACE Biofuels Beltway March photo album

The Costs of GMO Labeling

Today, Corn Commentary features a guest post from blogger, CommonGround volunteer, farmer and dietitian Jennie Schmidt. Schmidt testified last month at the Maryland House and Senate in opposition to a state bill which would require labeling of certain products containing GMOs. As similar battles rev up across the country, she offers not only her perspective as a farmer but also as a registered dietitian who earned an advanced degree in science.

There has been much discussion over whether or not the labeling of “GMO” foods would add to the cost of food production or not. This was one of the supporting arguments for GMO labeling at the legislative hearing at the Maryland House of Delegates Committee on Health and Government Operations during which Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, both insisted that labeling costs would be minor at best.

So does Mother Jones

So does The Grist

Wow, do these scientists and journalists have any understanding of the food supply chain from farm gate to grocery shelf?

Apparently not, nor does anyone else who thinks that “GMO” labeling won’t increase the cost of food.

Here is my pictorial analysis of the food supply chain from my farm gate:

JS 1

Seed corn is ordered and delivered to farm, then planted in the spring around May.

JS 2

By summer, it looks like this.

JS 3

By fall, it looks like this.

JS 4

It gets harvested between September and November.

JS 5

Corn is transferred from the combine to a tractor trailer truck.

JS 6

The grain is hauled here to our on-farm grain bins for storage. We have storage for about 50,000 bushels, less than 25 percent of our total yields in a normal year for corn, soybeans, wheat and barley, all of which need to be stored until they’re needed by our customers. This includes the specialty seeds we grow that require segregation from commodity grains.

JS 7

When it’s time to sell, we reload the trucks and haul it to the local grain elevators.

JS 8

The tractor trailer delivers the corn here,

JS 9

or here,

JS 10

or here.

And that’s just three of the local grain elevators. We have several other options depending on who is buying our grain. We and all our farming neighbors deliver to the same elevator and unload grain. This is called “commingling” where our crop is combined with everyone else who delivers to the same elevator and stored together in these large bins, regardless of what variety or trait of corn was grown.

So where’s the cost you ask? Well, every farmer in the region is hauling grain usually around the same time… to the same group of elevators. Hopefully you read my blog on seed choice last year and realize that all farmers determine their own purchases for seed and we don’t all grow the same thing. In fact, we grow 3-4 different varieties of corn ourselves. Why? Because we match the varieties of corn to our soil types. That’s called good stewardship and good business practice.

The food supply chain in the United States relies on a system of commingling, grain delivered to the elevator by farmers throughout the region. Maryland has 2 million acres of farmland, nearly a half million of which grew corn in 2012. In a not very good growing year, Maryland farmers produce 53 million bushels of corn.

If GMO labeling were to pass, that would require a HUGE addition to both on and off farm storage. Nationally, we’re talking billions of dollars in infrastructure needed to segregate grain. What none of these labeling laws is clear about either is how to achieve this segregation? Should it be segregated by trait? By variety? Both? The more layers of segregation, the more infrastructure is required and the more the costs escalate.

Segregation is costly. We know because we do it every year, year in and year out, and have for years. We do it because we get paid a premium for ensuring that the specialty grains and seeds we grow are “identity preserved”, very much like the certified organic process, involving higher management, higher tracking, and systems in place to ensure that the grains and seeds are genetically consistent and true to their traits, of highest quality meaning they are uniform in size, shape, color, free of weed seed and contamination. We will have 900 acres of grains and seeds this year that will require some protocol for identity preservation. They will be tested for the presence of GMO and tested to ensure that they are genetically consistent to parent seeds. This requires us to use some of our grain tanks for segregation. It requires us to do more “housekeeping”, cleaning equipment, trucks, trailers, planters, harvesters, grain bins, etc… all along the food supply chain to ensure that we have preserved the identity of that crop. It is an inherently more costly system.

So what are the costs? Here is my rudimentary analysis from the USDA Crop Production 2013 Summary.

There is 13 billion bushels of on farm storage in the United States.

There is 10.4 Billion bushels of off farm storage in the United States.

Last year, U.S. Farmers grew the following crops ALL of which require storage:

  • 13.9 billion bushels of corn
  • 389 million bushels of sorghum
  • 421 million bushels of rice
  • 3.3 billion bushels of soybeans
  • 2.1 billion bushels of wheat
  • 215 million bushels of barley
  • 1 million bushels of oats
  • 7.6 million bushels of rye
  • 18 million bushels of millet
  • 3 million bushels of flax seed
  • 7.8 million bushels of safflower
  • 1 million bushels of canola
  • 65 million bushels of sunflower
  • 38 million bushels of rapeseed and mustard seed
  • 301 million bushels of lentils
  • 937 million bushels of dry peas
  • 250 million bushels of peanuts
  • 1.5 Billion bushels of other dry edible beans including:
    • light red kidney
    • dark red kidney
    • Great Northern
    • baby limas
    • large limas
    • pinto beans
    • small white
    • navy beans

So 2013 produced roughly 23.5 billion bushels of 26 different grains and seeds, including those already in some form of identity preservation protocol, and have storage capacity of 23.6 billion bushels… without the extra infrastructure to segregate “GMO” from “non-GMO”. To segregate, additional infrastructure would be required along the entire food supply chain from farm gate to grain elevator to processor to manufacturer, in order to separate corn, soybeans, and canola.

A new grain bin cost approximately $2/bushel to buy and install, so a 50,000 bushel bin will cost $100,000. If we currently have sufficient storage for commingled grains and seeds, what will be the astronomical figure to segregate them by trait? That answer is dependent on how we are going to segregate.  In order to have true traceability, GMO seeds and grains would have to be segregated by trait, so RoundUp ready traited grains would have to be segregated from Bt traited grains, and the stacked or combined traited grains would have to be segregated from those that are just Bt or just RoundUp Ready, and the combinations of traited grains would have to be segregated by the combination or stack of traits in the seeds too, because otherwise, you don’t have “truth in labeling” to say which GMO is in the product.

I mean surely, we need to label it by GMO trait right? Because otherwise “we don’t know”. This is the premise by which the activists say is the problem right? The uncertainty of GMO? We can’t commingle traited seeds and grains because then we no longer have true traceability. Absolute and utter segregation by trait or combination thereof is required to meet the demands of what is being called for in the GMO labeling legislation across the United States.

True GMO labeling will require vast capitalization of infrastructure to segregate grains and seeds by trait. (Read $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$).

And I’ve only been talking about the costs of grain storage.  I can’t even begin the fathom the costs that it would take to segregate all along the entire food supply chain, keeping GMO corn, soybean or canola ingredients segregated by trait from conventional counterparts from the farm to the processor to manufacturer. We’re talking billions of dollars in order to maintain the absolute traceability of a certain genetic trait in a seed from farm to final product.

Those who say GMO labeling won’t add to the consumer’s grocery bill need to go back to Economics 101 and some basic high school math.

True traceability in our food supply system will be hugely expensive.

It’s likely that as a nation, we’d never capitalize all that infrastructure to achieve true traceability.

Which goes to the crux of the matter – this isn’t about labeling, as I cited in my last GMO blog, labeling is a means to an end. As noted by many activist groups, the ulterior motive behind labeling is not about a consumer’s right to know, it is about banning the technology.

Say NO to mandatory GMO labeling. Stand for science.

Interested? Read more posts authored by Schmidt on her blog, The Foodie Farmer, or follow her on Twitter @FarmGirlJen

Talking with Lawmakers on Capitol Hill

capitol-snowDuring National Agriculture Day and American Coalition for Ethanol Fly-in activities just two weeks ago, I was able to interview three farm-state lawmakers from the Midwest about issues important to agriculture.

All three are strong supporters for farmers and ranchers and all serve on their agriculture committees. I asked all of them about the Renewable Fuel Standard and we discussed several other issues like WRRDA, over-regulation, and rail delays.

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois discusses ethanol and the RFS, his experience working on the farm bill, and the water resources development bill.
Freshman Lawmaker Learns & Teaches on Farm BillInterview with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL)

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) talked about ethanol and the RFS, rail delays, farm bill implementation and livestock disaster aid.
Sen. Thune Talks Rail Delays and Livestock AidInterview with Senator John Thune (R-SD)

Retiring Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) talks about the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the problem farmer face with over regulation, and what his vision is for the future of agriculture.
Conversation with Sen. Mike JohannsInterview with Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE)

2014 ACE Biofuels Beltway March photo album

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!

 

 

 



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