Corn Commentary

CUTC Session Looks to the Kernel for Mycotoxins

When it comes to mycotoxin research, one group at this summer’s Corn Utilization Technology Conference really got down to the heart… or more accurately in this case, the kernel… of the matter. Charles Woloshuk, Ph.D. from Purdue University, chaired the discussion on pathogens that attack seeds. He explained it’s a big issue because it affects so much of the corn trade. “If it goes overseas, [the contracts] are based on the level of toxins,” adding that’s it’s always been an issue with feed, and ethanol producers are concerned that it would show up in their dried distillers grain (DDGs).

Woloshuk says the real problem is detecting the mycotoxin in the first place. “When we find it, we get concerned about it, but we can’t predict it very well.” He suggested rotating crops but realizes there’s a lot of pressure to plant corn after corn. “We’re trying to understand the kernel itself,” and what are the critical factors influencing toxin production and how to stop it he concluded.

Listen to my interview with Charles Woloshuk here: Interview with Charles Woloshuk, Ph.D., Purdue University

2012 CUTC Photo Album

Ancient Techniques Looked at to Mitigate Aflatoxins

Attendees at the recent Corn Utilization Technology Conference got to hear a discussion on how the effects of aflatoxins can be mitigated in human and animal feed. “We’re interested in using clay-based materials that actually bind aflatoxins very tightly and somewhat preferentially in the stomach and intestines of animals and humans,” said Timothy Phillips, Ph.D., from Texas A&M University, who chaired the session on mitigating aflatoxins. He went on to explain that aflatoxins are hard to detect, so they are hoping to employ the clays in food to lower the effects of the toxins. “If these clays could be added to animal feed or human foods, or even condiments such salt, [just like adding iodine,] then this will help us to manage the problem.”

Phillips says using these clays to mitigate the effects of toxins is nothing new. “Clays have been used for centuries. Actually, the first reports were in Mesopotamia about 2,500 years ago. We’re excited about using this old medicine and bringing it to a contemporary point.” There’s still some more tests, studies and FDA approvals that need to get done, but he believes it could be a big help for human health, especially in some developing countries.

Listen to my interview with Timothy Phillips here: Interview with Timothy Phillips, Ph.D., Texas A&M University

2012 CUTC Photo Album

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

A Tip of the Hat

As many media mercenaries continue misleading attempts to whip an already economically stressed public into a frenzy proclaiming the drought will hit their pocketbooks at the market this fall, the Associated Press offered a more balanced, thoughtful look at the possible impacts today.  Noting the many factors that impact food prices, the article carefully examined how a variety of factors keep food prices in check.

Taking the time to explain the difference between sweet corn and field corn may seem somewhat unnecessary to those who work the land daily, but it helps consumers understand the nuances of our industry.  Educated consumers are empowered consumers.  They have the knowledge and perspective to evaluate sensationalized claims with a critical eye.  An open, honest conversation about our food benefits consumers and farmers alike.

So, kudos AP. The tools farmers use to tell their story, such as CommonGround and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, continue their work to help open this conversation. It is refreshing to see media taking on an active role in using its clout to educate its readership.  America’s family farmers appreciate the help.

USDA and Meatless Mondays – Give ‘Em a Break!

As someone who has worked for both a large global corporation and a large governmental agency, I know how impossible it is to monitor everything said or posted by such a large number of employees.  And “impossible” is the right word – especially if you are a federal agency with more than 100,000 employees around the world.

We have been loath to publish anything about USDA’s minor “Meatless Monday” mention on an internal publication that was posted online, but now that the debate has made its way to the New York Times, it’s time to be clear.

1. All you have to do is look at a USDA menu to see it is not anti-meat, as some in the livestock sector thought; or anti-vegetable, as those on the other side of the fence now argue.

2. When the newsletter was pointed out to the USDA, the agency did the right thing, and did it quickly.

3. When Mark Bittman of The New York Times picked a new fight after the brouhaha, by asking USDA a when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife kind of question (“Is it more important to support meat producers than those who produce other crops?”), USDA did the right thing yet again … and gave the right response.

Now, it’s time for everyone to stop talking about it. And we will do the same, unless the attacks and idiocies continue.

Playing Kick the Can

Kick your legs high in the air,
Do it like you just don’t care,
Now every woman every man,
Come and kick the can.

by Dance Dance Revolution

The 2008 farm bill was a “Bill of Confusion” – this year we’re playing “Kick the Can” and it’s getting further down the road.

The House was going to consider a one year extension of current legislation, but after running that idea up the flag pole it became evident there weren’t enough players for that game, so as they fiddle around, the crops continue to burn up.

No one seemed to really like the idea of a one year extension of current legislation, even the livestock producers who would have received an extension of disaster aid programs that expired in 2011. Especially since the House has a new five-year bill to bring to the floor and the Senate has already passed one.

“There are real differences between the Senate bill and the House Ag bill, but there should be room for consensus,” said Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Our American farmers and ranchers and all those affected by the drought are depending on Congress to do our job right. So, don’t kick the can down the road. I urge the House to bring a five-year farm bill to the House floor as soon as possible.”

Senate leaders indicate they will not even consider a bill offering any type of drought aid this week in order to keep the pressure on the House to allow a five-year farm bill to go to conference before recess.

Hot? Irritable? Cranky? Imagine Watching Your Paycheck Burn Up Too

Can you imagine the feeling of waking up in the morning and realizing that it would be 13 months before you got another paycheck? The drought has farm families across the Midwest pondering just that as relentlessly hot, dry conditions turn the nation’s heartland from a breadbasket into an oven.

In a recent story from Voice of America, DuBois, Ill. farmer Alan Bowers Jr. explained what many family farmers in the central and southern Corn Belt feel as they watch the crop that they invested time, sweat and money in this spring wilt.  Blowing away, the corn becomes part of the dust that normally yields the most abundant crop in the world.

Using a simple, yet eloquent analogy, DuBois compared his corn and soybean crop to a paycheck.  Drawing on this common idea, he places in stark perspective how dire the situation facing many farm families may seem.

This candid look at farming stands in contrast to the multitude of mainstream news stories promoting the fallacious idea that farmers do not care about the crop. The emotional toll of seeing hard work wither due to circumstances well beyond human control aside, crop insurance ensures that family farmers like DuBois can make ends meet until the next season.  It ensures that natural disasters do not cause our nation’s agricultural sector to disintegrate.

Crop insurance places exists because Americans value their abundant, affordable, safe supply of food and the farm families who produce it.  Americans understand the integral role these hard working individualists play in the fabric of our national character and in our economy. Maintaining their ability to farm next year when confronted with such enormous, unstoppable obstacles makes sense.  Understanding their frustration in watching the crop slip away does too.

As drought conditions persist, remember that the people who grow food, the people who raise it and those who eat it all must endure these trying conditions together. Looking toward one another with understanding and compassion can ease the stress placed on one another, even if it cannot ease the stress placed on the crops.

Letting the Corn Genome Out of the Bottle

USDA scientists recently published the most comprehensive analysis to date of the corn genome, which should speed up development of improved varieties, including drought resistance.

“This kind of research is very important to identify functional characteristics that are of importance to the farmer,” said USDA’s Chief Scientist Dr. Catherine Woteki, who adds that the information will now be used by seed companies. “So they’ll be able to develop the next generation of corn varieties that will have these beneficial traits in them for farmers.”

The researchers published two separate reports in Nature Genetics that shed light on corn’s remarkable genetic diversity, reveal its evolution, and outline how corn, known as maize among scientists, continues to diversify as it adapts to changing climates and habitats.

One report examines the genetic structure and the relationships and sequential ordering of individual genes in more than 100 varieties of wild and domesticated corn. Lead author Jer Ming Chia described how the structures of genomes can vary tremendously from one corn variety to the next, how structural variations within a genome can have major effects on traits, and how the corn genome is essentially still in flux. The researchers also discovered significant variations in the physical size of genomes of different varieties.

A second report provides a glimpse into how corn evolved from a wild, scrubby plant into what is arguably the most important crop in the world. The researchers identified hundreds of genes that played a role in the transformation of corn from its wild roots to today’s cultivated crop and show how that transition was largely achieved by ancient farmers who first domesticated the crop thousands of years ago.

Richard Childress & Elliott Sadler Like Ethanol

It was a great weekend of NASCAR action for Illinois corn growers at Chicagoland Speedway. Capping it off was Sunday’s 2nd Annual Nationwide STP 300.

Ethanol had another victory on the NASCAR track when Elliott Sadler won the race. The race came out of caution with two laps to go so it made for an exciting finish.

After the race I asked Elliott what he thinks about racing on a fuel that’s made in part by Illinois corn growers. He says the initiative that NASCAR has taken to go green in the last couple years is a great one. Since the track is surrounded by corn and soybeans he says, “It’s neat to see something in the field growing. I’m a farmer at home too.”

Then Richard Childress, RCR Racing, chimed in. “In NASCAR we’ve put in almost 4 million miles or maybe a little over by now on E15, American Ethanol blend of fuel. That says a lot for what E15 can do for your car.”

Listen to Elliott and Richard’s remarks here: Elliott Sadler & Richard Childress on Ethanol

Illinois Corn Growers NASCAR Weekend Photo Album

Crystal Balls and Ivory Halls? Take the Food Price Debate Back to the Farm

In the war over whose crystal ball sees how the drought will impact the average American, experts send volleys to and fro.  Citing their own models, they argue until in a rabid fervor defending their ability to play pretend the best.

In the immortal words of Kevin Bacon, “Remain calm. All is well.”

No matter how carefully constructed the estimate, only time will tell how severely the hot, dry conditions inundating so much of the country will impact the crop and the farmers working to grow it.  The situation can shift as quickly as the weather and no expert knows for certain what precisely will happen until the crop is in the bins.

Panic-inducing stories prognosticating food price spikes conjure the image of Dickensian orphans begging for just a bit more.  Stories on rising prices may unnecessarily raise blood pressure, but they raise ratings too.

Instead of looking to a dubious doctorate who hasn’t descended from his ivory tower in decades, why not ask the people on the ground, growing food for our families? They take pride in what they do and understand why these stories can be alarming. They have families to feed too.

Recently, CommonGround Kentucky volunteer opened her farm for a conversation on food prices. Take a listen.  Now, through programs such as this, consumers have access to the people growing food for our country.  The insight that this family farmer and mother shares may make taking Mr. Bacon’s advice a bit easier — and who doesn’t love bacon?

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