Corn Commentary

A Billion Gallons of Ethanol from One Plant

Golden Grain Energy in Mason City, Iowa is celebrating the production of its one billionth gallon of ethanol this month.

That’s a lot of ethanol over the course of ten years from a plant with a nameplate capacity of 115 million gallons per year. Nameplate means they are capable of producing that much per year, and often that goal is not attained in a year for various reasons – like drought, for example. This means Golden Grain had to have achieved its nameplate goal almost every year for a decade, falling only 150 million gallons short of the most they could have possibly produced.

That billion gallons represents over 351 million bushels of corn.

gge-billion-shirtsGolden Grain Energy celebrated the milestone on Monday with special guests including Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Plant employees wore special t-shirts to note the occasion calling it the Billion Gallon Club.

“This is a huge occasion for the plant, the staff, and the community as a whole,” said Chad Kuhlers, Chief Operations Officer of Golden Grain Energy. “I believe we are the first single location ethanol plant in the country to reach this production mark and it couldn’t have been done without the support from the shareholders, community and the great work from our employees over the years.”

American Coalition for Ethanol Executive Vice President Brian Jennings noted that the impact of just that single plant on the local economy is significant. “Golden Grain Energy has … paid out more than $2 billion dollars to corn farmers, suppliers and service providers, and employees, and returned nearly $137 million dollars to its investors,” said Jennings.

The plant was started by 900 area farmers and citizens, broke ground in the fall of 2003, and started producing its very first gallons at the end of 2004.

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!

Soil Health Hinges on Farmers

The first year of the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), introduced at the 2014 Commodity Classic, enrolled 20 farmers in six states to be demonstration sites for the effort and by the end of five years they expect to have 100. These farmers have agreed to basically be the “guinea pigs” to help other farmers learn from their experiments and innovations.

shps15-smithOne of those farmers is Tim Smith of Iowa who was one of the demonstration farmers on a panel at the Soil Health Summit in St. Louis last week. “I can see the soil conservation benefits and I can see the nutrient reduction benefits, but I think the soil health benefits are what’s going to help sell it to other farmers,” said Smith. His conservation efforts earned him the first National Corn Growers Association Good Steward award presented at last year’s Commodity Classic.

Smith believes that improving soil health is critical and just the right thing to do. “In the last 150 our average top soil (in Iowa) has gone from 14 inches down to eight inches,” he said. “We can’t continue that because it will run out if we don’t start taking care of it … any soil loss is not tolerable.” Listen to my interview with Tim here: Interview with Tim Smith, SHP farmer from Iowa

shps15-ncga-rossThe National Corn Growers Association is the administrator for the Soil Health Partnership and Corn Board member Kevin Ross believes it’s a very worthwhile initiative for farmers and all involved.

“I’m really pleased with the direction it’s heading,” said Ross during the summit last week. “It’s really good to see these groups on the same page with a common goal and that’s soil health.”

Ross, who is a farmer from Minden, Iowa, says he thinks of soil as a living, breathing thing that needs care to maintain and improve its health. “It’s just like your personal health, you have to manage it and correct things if there’s an issue,” he said. Interview with Iowa corn grower Kevin Ross, NCGA Corn Board


2015 Soil Health Summit Photo Album

First Soil Health Partnership Summit Held

shps15-welcomeThe Soil Health Partnership (SHP) was officially launched at last year’s Commodity Classic so it will just be one year old in another month. But Nick Goeser with the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) says the concept had a relatively long gestation period.

“The idea for the Soil Health Partnership started in 2011, so within three years we came to the point where we could launch it and it’s been great,” Goeser said during the first Soil Health Summit in St. Louis on Thursday which included farmers, agronomists, and organizations involved in the effort.

shps15-goeserThe farmers at the summit are among the 20 in six states that have made a five year commitment to the project. “The farmers are early adopters and innovators in the area of conservation management,” Goeser explained. “They agree to enroll a 20 to 80 acre field on their farm and allow us to collect soil samples to update our recommendations to farmers.” In addition, the demonstration farmers agree to host field days as part of the project.

NCGA is the administrating organization in the SHP, which was set up with funding from Monsanto and The Walton Foundation, but in the last year the partnership received a Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA-NRCS that has provided additional funds.

Listen to Nick explain more about the SHP in this interview: Interview with Nick Goeser, NCGA Soil Health and Sustainability Manager


2015 Soil Health Summit Photo Album

RFS for President!

The 2016 presidential campaign is starting to percolate and in Iowa the biofuels industry is making the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) their candidate.

americas-futureIowa Governor Terry Branstad last week announced a major new bi-partisan campaign called America’s Renewable Future that will promote the RFS to both candidates and caucus-goes for the 2016 Iowa Presidential caucuses.

“I’m very passionate about the Renewable Fuel Standard,” said Governor Branstad during a conference call to announce the effort. “It’s made a real difference for farm income and good jobs, reducing our dependency on foreign oil, improving the environment – so I’m really excited to see this strong, bi-partisan effort being made to educate people that come to Iowa and presidential candidates.”

Coordinating the effort will be Governor Branstad’s son Eric, a public affairs specialist and campaign operative. “We have partners coming in from all over the country and those partners have committed millions to fund this effort,” said Eric Branstad. “We are designing it to look like a presidential campaign and the RFS is our candidate.”

America’s Renewable Future is co-chaired by former Iowa State Representative Annette Sweeney, a Republican, and former state Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge, a Democrat, as well as Iowa renewable fuels industry leader Bill Couser. The effort “will wage a mulitimillion dollar, multi-platform effort” to educate presidential candidates about the benefits of the RFS and ask them to take a stand.

That effort kicked off last Friday with an ad in the Des Moines Register as potential Republican presidential candidates began to gather for the Iowa Freedom Summit.

Still, the RFS went largely unmentioned during the Saturday summit. Asked about the RFS in an interview with the Des Moines Register on Friday, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said he would continue his opposition to the law as “a matter of principle.”

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was the only one who showed up at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit on Tuesday, even though all potential candidates were invited, and he did show his support for the RFS, calling it “pro-environment, pro-competition and pro-American jobs.”

Gov. Branstad says Iowa is still an important state for a presidential candidate and the RFS is important to Iowa. “This is one of the battleground states that’s going to, I think, determine who’s going to be the next president of the United States,” said Branstad. “I think it would be a disadvantage in Iowa to not support the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Branstad said.

If It Looks Like Big Oil, and Walks Like Big Oil, It’s Probably…Big Oil

enviro impactsA story in today’s New York Times cites a new study by the World Resource Institute that attempts to discredit the significant and increasing contributions of biofuels to meet the world’s energy needs. On close inspection two things become abundantly clear.

First the so-called “new” study is nothing but the same old stuff trotted out by the anti-ethanol crowd nearly annually to see if any of the misinformation sticks to the wall. Take the wig and mustache off and it’s the same old pig.

Second, the former journalist in me always says to consider the veracity of the source to validate the data. In this case the World Resource Institute is funded by Shell and Statoil, two of the world’s largest oil companies. Always follow the money.

This fraudulent study has more holes than a colander but to address some of the most egregious point by point:

Ethanol production is not inefficient? Some of the best research to date from the University of Illinois Chicago shows you get a 40% net energy gain from ethanol production compared to all the energy used along the production chain from farm to gas pump.

The article begs the question why have so many invested billions of dollars in biofuels if they are a bad idea with no future? They do so because ethanol is a plug and play fuel source that meets the needs of our transportation fleet today. What makes it even more attractive is the bright future for biofuels. Automakers in Detroit make no secret of the fact that the next generation power plant for cars will be smaller, higher compression engines. And the best fuel for this future automotive technology is octane rich ethanol.

It also becomes abundantly clear that these think tank folks might want to meander outside the Washington, DC beltway and visit a farm. They question the percentage of the corn crop being used for ethanol today. It’s not how much of the crop we are using for biofuels but how large the crop has gotten. We have grown the largest 11 corn crops in history in the last 11 years. We currently have the largest carryout (supply of corn) ever so feedstock is abundant to meet all demand for corn.

And all of the above has been accomplished in the US on virtually the same acreage, and with less environmental impact. This is an amazing accomplishment that should make all Americans proud.

Miss the SHP Summit? You Can Still Get the Scoop on No-Till

At this week’s Soil Health Partnership Summit, attendees explored how healthy soils benefit farmers and the environment. Experts covered many areas, paying particular attention to the practice of no-till farming.

While many may not have been able to attend the summit, interested parties can find out more through a blog post published by the Environmental Defense Fund. Featuring an interview by EDF’s Karen Chapman with Barry Fisher, an agronomist and soil health expert at the National Resources Conservation Service, this article delves into the meaning of no-till, its benefits and obstacles which might prevent its adoption.

To read the full post, click here.

The mission of the Soil Health Partnership is to catalyze enhanced agricultural sustainability and productivity by demonstrating and communicating the economic and environmental benefits of improved soil health. For more information, visit soilhealthpartnership.org.

Enjoy the Cheap Gas Ride

cheap gasNot to sound like a lunatic but it may be entirely possible, maybe even likely, the American public will be begging for a return to $3.60 gas in the near future.

I know it sounds crazy, but if you are following the public debate you can already see the discussion heating up to argue the true implications of today’s bargain basement petroleum prices. The euphoria consumers and market analysts alike were experiencing a few weeks ago is wearing off like a cheap wine hangover.

One big concern is that near term economic gains in the US related to cheaper fuel may be overstated and ultimately result in deflation and a global economic slowdown.

It is becoming increasingly evident that it could take a few years before the full ramifications of this gas guzzlers holiday are known. However, some comments by an oil industry executive this week provide a peek behind the curtain that often shields the business maneuvering and real objectives of international big oil.

The boss of oil giant BP Bob Dudley has said that oil prices could remain low for up to three years. What results next may make our previous high oil prices seem like a gift from grandma.

Once big oil has beaten oil upstarts like the domestic fracking industry to a bloody pulp, they will remerge from the ashes like a phoenix ready to spank bad little consumers for cheering the development. The paddle they will use according to some industry experts will be $200 a-barrel oil, a considerably richer prize than the $110 a barrel which preceded the $47 a barrel we are currently experiencing.

Any reasonable person would wonder why a business would take such a gamble, cut investment, cut jobs and sustain such a huge loss? The simple answer is they will do it because they can and the payoff is immense.

Sure oil countries like Norway, Russia, Venezuela, Scotland, Nigeria and Angola will take a beating but the big players in OPEC – the ones with the large expanses of beach and no water – have lower production costs and care only marginally more for their business partners than they do the consumers that they bleed every day.

People’s Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan also points out low oil prices could slow down China’s development of renewable energy projects. In a wondrous masterpiece of understatement he says: “We worry a little bit that the price signal may give disincentive for new energy types to develop and could reduce investment in new non-fossil energy.”

Does anyone know how to say “duh” in Mandarin?

If we really want to throw the market manipulating overlords at OPEC a curve we should do the opposite of what they expect. Instead of grumbling and driving circus clown size cars we should immediately find ways to encourage an expansion of existing non-fossil energy development such as ethanol. Then we should back that up by launching the largest energy research and development project in history. I contend we will be forced to do this as finite oil supplies run out. Why not do it now rather than waiting until the wolf is at the door.

Besides, in the business world innovation is one of the few things that can still trump monetary muscle.

Ups and Downs, Highs and Lows

Corn growers have seen some pretty good prices over the past several years, but the downward trend this past year for a record crop is expected to be the norm for the next several, according to Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI).

afbf15-westhoffSpeaking at the American Farm Bureau meeting last week, Westhoff said that due to corn prices dropping to levels not seen in years, farmers will plant less corn in the next two years. More than 90 million acres were planted in 2014 and he expects less that 88 million acres will be planted this year. While Westhoff expects average corn prices to remain low by 2007-2012 standards, “but still well above the level we saw before 2007.”

The demand picture for corn is high on the livestock side, but low on the ethanol side. “We have global demand growth in the animal sectors, here and around the world,” said Westhoff. “But perhaps weaker growth, if any at all, in biofuels – depending on policy, oil prices and a lot of other things we can’t possibly know.”

On the export side, Westhoff says there is a lot more competition. “The high prices of the last several years kicked off lots of supply from Ukraine to Argentina and that’s not all going to go away over night,” he said. And while China is a huge source of demand growth, Westhoff says “the good news is it’s growth, but the bad news is it’s not as fast as it has been. They’re looking at 6.5 percent growth next year.”

Westhoff concludes that the ups and the downs are always dependent on factors beyond our control. “As always, weather, oil prices and other factors will drive annual swings in prices.”

Listen to Dr. Westhoff’s comments here: Presentation on crop outlook by Dr. Pat Westhoff, FAPRI



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