Corn Commentary

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!

 

 

 

Who Wants to Deal with Anti-GMO Thugs?

Why are anti-GMO activists so thuggish in social media? We saw this with Cheerios, when they all focused their unrighteous indignation on that relatively harmless breakfast cereal’s Facebook page. And when General Mills slightly altered the ingredients (and nutrition content) of the cereal, they did not relent but continued their vitriol. Now it’s time for Rep. Mike Pompeo to feel their wrath, as it was leaked out in DC media that he might file a bill striving to make sense of GMO labeling.

Is it wrong to call them thugs? I don’t think so. Under Rep. Pompeo’s innocuous Facebook post seeking summer interns, posted March 27, one finds well over 200 comments about GMOs, breaking a cardinal social rule about commenting on posts – keeping them germane to the subject. Among those comments one can find numerous examples of immature name calling (traitor! corrupt pig!), obscenities, ungrammatical use of exclamation points (one comment had six!!!!!!), SHOUTING VIA CAPITALIZATION, and of course stretching the truth – both a little and a lot.

Don’t these social media meanies realize it harms their cause a little to look like raving lunatics? As much as we may want to try to have a real thoughtful conversation, the tone and volume of their rants sadly make it hard to even want to have that sort of dialogue.

Corn Farmers March for Biofuels in the Beltway

ace14-dc-alversonThere were over 25 battalions of ethanol troops on Capitol Hill last week as part of the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) sixth annual Biofuels Beltway March

ACE president Ron Alverson, a South Dakota farmer and board member for Dakota Ethanol, says the teams had appointments with the offices of more than 130 senators and representatives, and he thought they were well received, even in enemy territory. “We went into what we thought were going to be some pretty hard places – representatives from Alabama, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island,” he said. “They were very cordial and they listened well … we were really pleased.”

Their main weapon against ethanol foes was good information to defend against some of the more popular arguments against ethanol, such as food versus fuel and engine issues with higher blends. “We’ve got some really good arguments and good data…all we can do is go out and tell our story,” said Alverson.Interview with Ron Alverson, ACE president

ace14-dc-corn-teamOver 80 people turned out for the ACE event this year, the most ever, and the diverse group included ethanol producers, retailers, bankers, truckers, cattle ranchers, students – and a whole bunch of corn farmers. The team here consisted of (LtoR) Missouri farmer Gary Porter, Missouri Corn Growers public policy director Shane Kinne, and Minnesota farmers on the board of Chippewa Valley Ethanol Dale Tolifson and Dave Thompson.

I caught up with them as they were heading out of the Capitol after making their rounds and asked them each to give a brief impression of their visits. Interview with Biofuels March team


2014 ACE Biofuels Beltway March photo album

Farmland Coming to a Theater Near You

FarmlandThe latest screening of the feature length film documentary Farmland was a star-studded event this week in Washington D.C. While the movie has been previewed at several events this year, including the Commodity Classic, this one not only helped celebrate National Agriculture Day, it also marked the official announcement of its upcoming theatrical release.

On the red carpet here at the Ronald Reagan Amphitheater are Randy Krotz, CEO of the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), one of the film’s major supporters; director James Moll, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman, chairman of the USFRA.

farmlandThe movie provides an up close and personal look into the lives of six very different types of young farmers who talk about the challenges of becoming farm owners/managers. The story is told completely by the farmers and the imagery of them at work with no narration. “I don’t use a narrator,” said director Moll. “I’m delving into a world that I know nothing about … they can tell the story better than I can.”

Farmland has a deal with D&E Entertainment for the film to first be distributed to 60 major market theaters beginning May 1. “I hope that people watch it, relate to it, come away from it wanting to learn more about farming and ranching, and feeling like they actually had an opportunity to meet and get to know some of them,” said Moll.

Between now and May 1, Farmland will be competing in several film festivals during the month of April. After the theatrical release, Moll says they plan on the film being released on DVD and through the usual channels for home viewing. Interview with James Moll

classic14-usfra-farmlandThe farmer stars of the film are Leighton Cooley of Georgia, Brad Bellah from Texas, David Loberg of Nebraska, Sutton Morgan of California, Margaret Schlass from Pennsylvania, and Ryan Veldhuizen of Minnesota. A couple were at the premier last night and four of the six were at Commodity Classic where they participated in a press conference with USFRA.

The four pictured here, from left to right (around Randy from USFRA again in the middle) are Loberg, Veldhuizen, Cooley and Bellah. Listen to them talk about themselves and their experiences in making the movie here: Farmland Movie Press Conference

Ag Day Celebrates America’s Family Farmers

ag_dayIt can seem like everyone has a “day.” From margaritas to ravioli, calendars could become a dizzying disaster trying to keep on top of what is being “celebrated” every day of the year. Today is different though. Today, America celebrates the American icons that provide abundant food, feed and fuel. Today, we celebrate farmers.

Officially, Ag Day was created to recognize and celebrate the abundance produced by agriculture. Every year, agricultural associations, universities, companies, government agencies and many others across the country join in a wide variety of activities designed to bring the story of farmers and ranchers to the forefront. In 2014, the achievements of America’s family farmers certainly warrant a celebration.

America’s corn farmers recovered from a massive drought in 2012 to produce a record corn crop in 2013. Growing more than 13.9 billion bushels of corn, they showed the resilience and resolve indicative of our national character.

To learn more about the 2013 corn crop, click here.

In Washington, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, of which NCGA is a founding member, is taking a leadership role in bringing these and other accomplishments to light. This afternoon, USFRA held a panel discussion focusing on the next generation of American farmers and ranchers. Discussing what it means to be a farmer or rancher taking over responsibility for their family business in today’s environment, the participants brought the challenges and opportunities facing the future of ag to light.

On Wednesday evening, USFRA brings this discussion to life by hosting a preview of the new feature-length documentary, Farmland. The film, directed by Oscar and Emmy winner James Moll, takes an intimate look at the lives of six farmers and ranchers in their 20s. These young farmers have all taken responsibility for running their farming operations. Following the film, an intimate Q&A session will allow attendees to dig more deeply into their unique and fascinating situations.

To view a trailer of Farmland, click here.

Ag Day celebrates agriculture and, in doing so, it celebrates the American traditions of individualism and excellence that made our nation what it is today. So, maybe take a moment to hug a farmer as many may suggest. Just ask them first, they will still be hard at work and may need to wash up first.



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