Corn Commentary

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

Instead of Praising Passing Platitudes, Push the Girl Scouts Achieve Greater Goals

A few years back, I took a look at how the Girl Scouts profit from selling quite a few cookies that contain HFCS while teaching about its so-called “evils.” (Click here for part one, here for part two and here for the final installment.) Today, a story came across that gave me pause. After reading the whole piece, I want to share it. Everyone should have a clearer sense of how their cookie crumbles.

In a well-intentioned story by the Genetic Literacy Project, the group discussed how the Girl Scouts “reject attempts by anti-GMO parents to use fear in their kids campaign.” The author praises the group for, to this point, rejecting calls by a group of agenda-driven parents to ditch GMOs. While certainly a praiseworthy position, the Girl Scouts response exposes the green motives cleverly disguised behind the customary green uniforms.

“At the current time, there are genetically modified agricultural crops (GMOs) in Girl Scout Cookies. Our bakers determine whether to use GMOs in Girl Scout Cookies based on a range of market-related factors and depending on the specific cookie recipe.”

The group sites serious science in the following paragraph, referring WHO and AMA assessments of GMO-safety, and even references the importance those groups place on GMOs as an important tool in the fight to feed a growing world. But, what they do not say seems to speak most clearly to the reality of the situation.

Of the full statement, one phrase seemingly contradicts the others – “market-related factors.” Basically, while the Girl Scouts acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting GMOs, they could be swayed. A small group of activist parents may not be enough to do the trick. Driving down profits does have a downer-effect on the organic-only cookie crusade. But, much like they did in the case of HFCS, these pillars of courage and strength (according to their own credo) can cave.

The Girl Scouts stand for building strong, independent young women who think for themselves, stand up to peer pressure and excel both in character and academic achievement. Sadly, this admirable aspiration can seemingly be swayed by the mercurial motivation of collecting more of consumers’ cash. Science, something so-oft advocated as a crucial area of increased achievement for girls, is up for sale when it comes to the Girl Scouts.

Yes, organizations such as the Girl Scouts require profits to pay for their excellent endeavors. But, one must consider the cost. Teaching young women science only matters when it pays the rent may not be the best lesson. Science matters to persons of character, from Galileo to Servetus, because they desire truth, knowledge and character more than the fleeting favor of the en vogue estimation.

Standing up against the crowd may not be lucrative. It often proves the more challenging option, and it often brings consequences that seem unjust at the time. Yet, for centuries now, it has been seen as the rock upon which true character is built.

The Girl Scouts aspire to high ideals. They push young women to challenge themselves. As an organization, they too must live up to their goals. Standing by science, steadily supporting tools that will feed the world, they can. Now, the question that remains is if they will.

Ag Secretary Stresses Biofuels Support at AFBF

afbf15-vilsack-stallmanFarmers from around the country had a chance to ask Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack questions during an informal town hall-style meeting at the American Farm Bureau convention this week in San Diego.

The last question he took was from a South Dakota farmer who asked about continuation of strong biofuels policy in the United States. Vilsack detailed his continued support for the industry, particularly in the area of exports. “I am a firm believer in the future of the biofuels industry,” he said. “Ethanol production is at record levels…we’re now beginning to see great interest in the export market, not just for ethanol but also for dried distillers grains.”

Vilsack also noted the need to update the research on ethanol when it comes to indirect land use. “A lot of the push back to the industry is based on studies that took place 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and there have been enormous increases in productivity of American farmers, that basically suggest the indirect land use calculations are not as accurate as they need to be,” he said.

Listen to the secretary’s comments on biofuels here: Secretary Vilsack at AFBF on biofuels


2015 AFBF Convention photo album

Ag Unites for Trade with Cuba

usaccAgricultural companies and organizations united this week to launch the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC) to work toward liberalized trade and re-establishing Cuba as a market for U.S. food and agriculture exports.

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack says the conversation to normalize relations with Cuba is long overdue and important for US agriculture. “Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food,” said Vilsack. “It’s a $1.7 billion market. Our rice growers, our wheat growers, our corn growers, our soy producers, our poultry and pork and beef producers, all have opportunities in this new day.” Secretary Vilsack at US Ag Coalition for Cuba kickoff

One of several lawmakers who attended the Ag coalition kick off was Congressman Rodney Davis of Illinois who says re-establishing normal relations with Cuba will help the Cuban people. “I believe that opening more trade with agricultural products…increasing the trade that we already have in the Cuban nation, is going to allow America to invest in a Cuban economy that’s going to free the Cuban citizens from the conditions they live under now,” said Davis. Cong. Rodney Davis of Illinois at USACC launch

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) says he is excited about the opportunities of increasing trade relations with Cuba. “The real excitement to me is the opportunity to … spread Democracy, the opportunity to do what farmers do naturally and that is feed hungry people,” he said. “Trade ought to be a part of diplomacy.” Cong. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota at USACC launch

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) is one of the many agricultural organizations that have joined the coalition.

“Cuba is not a level playing field for American farmers. It’s time we have a chance to better compete for Cuba’s business. NCGA has long supported normalized trade relations with Cuba, as part of our efforts to expand markets for U.S. corn and feed the world,” said NCGA President Chip Bowling.

The USACC believes that normalizing trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba will provide the U.S. farm and business community with new market access opportunities, drive enhanced growth in both countries and allow U.S. farmers, ranchers and food companies to efficiently address Cuban citizen’s food security needs. Under current sanctions, U.S. food and agriculture companies can legally export to Cuba, but financing and trade restrictions limit their ability to serve the market competitively. The USACC ultimately seeks to end the embargo and allow for open trade and investment.

Welcoming the New Congress

ncga-rodneyThe National Corn Growers Association spent Tuesday on Capitol Hill this week, welcoming the 114th Congress to Washington and talking up the importance of agriculture to the American economy.

“We are here to welcome the new Congress, and to encourage them to work together with one another and the Obama Administration to advance policies that help agriculture and family farmers,” said NCGA President Chip Bowling, pictured here with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL). “I was encouraged not only by the warm reception we received, but also a hope that lawmakers will set aside past divisions, find common ground, and get things done.”

After overcoming the challenge to his bid for re-election as Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio used a very agricultural metaphor to urge Democrats and Republicans to work together. “Every day you and I come here, try to cultivate good seeds, and take care of the pests. And then with patience, sacrifice, and God’s grace, there will be a harvest,” said Boehner. “Let’s make this a time of harvest.” Speaker John Boehner harvest quote

NCGA executive vice president Jon Doggett notes that you have to plant a crop and nurture it before you harvest it. “I think there will be a lot of actions taken in the first few months of this Congress that will set the tone as to whether or not we’re really going to be able to harvest anything at the end of this Congress,” said Doggett.

With the latest farm bill being implemented, Doggett says corn growers are mostly concerned with protecting what they have during the budget reconciliation process. “We may see some attacks on Title 1 of the farm bill (and) on the crop insurance program,” he said. “Both have piles of money that folks will want to rob.”

Doggett talks about opening day for the 114th Congress and priorities for corn growers in this interview: Interview with NCGA Executive VP Jon Doggett

Big Oil Wants It Both Ways

Falling gas prices have dominated news coverage over recent months. From “price at the pump” reports to longer diatribes over the economic and political impacts of falling oil prices, media outlets of all genres present a wide array of viewpoints on the topic.

Not surprisingly, this puts the American Petroleum Institute in the spotlight once again as eager journalists inquire about the causes of the downswing. Not shockingly, Big Oil’s mouthpiece provides a persuasive argument for why increased domestic production pushed prices down. While this makes sense, it diametrically opposes their earlier stance on the correlation between production and price in their industry.

In late October, the Renewable Fuel Association’s Geoff Cooper first pointed out the inexplicable shift in how API views the laws of supply and demand. Simply, it somehow seems that if the increased supply comes from ethanol, and thus not the petroleum industry which it represents, it increases prices. If the increased supply comes from their Big Oil-backers, it decreases prices.

The basic laws learned by every student in an entry-level econ class only apply if they suit Big Oil’s all oil agenda. When they do not, one is to believe the basic tenets of economics reverse themselves. The laws of economics actually bend to suit API’s needs.

To read his full post, click here.

In reality, the rules do not change. Through well-funded, carefully crafted campaigns of confusion, API obfuscates the obvious – ethanol benefits American consumers by lowering the price at the pump. But, as it does not line Big Oil’s already bulging pockets, it remains an inconvenient truth that they would rather repudiate until its basis suits their own base interests.

American consumers can certainly celebrate the momentary relief falling oil prices bring, but it makes sense to remember the hard facts every day.

Ethanol lowers prices and decreases reliance upon the Big Oil’s near monopoly. Fuel choice fuels the economy in a more reliable, substantial manner than volatile market conditions ever could. Supporting domestically produced, renewable ethanol means supporting a paradigm shift toward a more stable, more affordable energy future.

Year of the Farm Bill

fb-2014It was probably the biggest agricultural news story of the year. What was supposed to be the 2012 farm bill was passed and signed into law this year as the 2014 farm bill, a multi-tasking piece of legislation according to President Obama.

“Despite it’s name, the farm bill is not just about helping farmers,” said Obama as he signed the bill in February. “Secretary Vilsack calls it a jobs bill, an innovation bill, an infrastructure bill, a research bill, a conservation bill … it’s like a Swiss Army knife.”

Well, that’s like about 20% of the knife, since 80% of the $956 billion price tag on the legislation is for food assistance and nutrition programs. “That’s why my position has always been that any farm bill I sign must have protections for vulnerable Americans,” said Obama. “This bill does that.”

USDA has spent the majority of 2014 working to implement the nearly 1000 page bill, and will continue that work into 2015 as farmers make their choice between the new ARC and PLC farm programs by March 31. “In addition to ARC and PLC, we’ve seen the institutional of our supplemental crop insurance option, the STAX program for our cotton growers, and the whole farm policy for our specialty crop growers,” said Secretary Vilsack.

One of the issues from the new farm bill that remains to be resolved in 2015 is the definition of “actively engaged” for a farming operation. “That is a definition that has great significance and importance out in the countryside,” says Vilsack, who noted that Congress exempted small family farms and family held farming corporations. “It will probably be limited to partnerships and joint ventures which represent somewhere between four and five percent of all production.”

2014 may be the year we finally got a new “Swiss Army knife” farm bill, but 2015 is the year we’ll finally get to use all of the implements.

Freedom Isn’t Free

While we often hear politicians declare that they know “the greatest problem of our time,” few have the courage to face what really confronts us- a finite supply of oil.

Yes, today, oil is cheap. American consumers do not currently fork out the incredible sum to which they have become accustomed. Despite the momentary reprieve, oil remains of incredible importance for not only our country but the rest of the developing world.

Drivers increasingly demand an ever-growing supply of the fossil fuel abroad. At home, demand has declined somewhat but remains high when viewed in light of less auto-dependent nations. The family car remains a symbol of both status and freedom that elicits incredible desire.

This week, the Des Moines Register ran a commentary authored by a Gulf War veteran explaining not only how our oil-dependence impacted the wars of the past but fuels the conflicts of the future. Simply, continuing to depend upon oil dooms the U.S. to a cycle of conflict in the Middle East.

“Sadly, our continued addiction to petroleum here in the U.S. and across the globe makes doing so nearly impossible, and the rise of ISIS on the profits of the oil trade should remind us all that our oil dependence is dangerous and unsustainable,” David May explains in his piece. “Thus far, elected officials have opted to use military force to protect our national security by disrupting ISIS’s ability to bring a supply to the oil market. But another option — one that every American can play a part in — is decreasing the amount of oil needed to fuel our cars, trucks and heavy machinery.”

To read the original post, click here.

The news has made the growing threat of ISIS incredibly visible to Americans. Media portrayals, whether created by ISIS itself or domestic commentators, have shown the brutal reality faced by those living under its rule.

The danger appears larger-than-life. The underlying support hides in its shadow.

May argues on behalf of the Renewable Fuel Standard. This veteran, someone with real experience and hard-gained understanding, supports fueling our nation with fuel produced in our nation. His argument deserves serious consideration.

American corn farmers proudly grow the largest feedstock for domestic fuels. At the same time, rural America also supplies a disproportionately large number of America’s troops.

While more and more articles announce the return of a cheap oil economy, consider the ramifications. Depending on a finite resource has consequences. Ethanol offers a solution.

The future can be both greener and more peaceful. It is in our national interest.

Corny Christmas Greeting

Corny ChristmasHave yourself a corny little Christmas,
May your price be right
From now on,
Gas prices won’t be out of sight

Have yourself a corny little Christmas,
That’s what we can say,
From now on,
The weather will be good, we pray.

Remember back in the olden years
Fruitful golden ears of corn.
All our friends get John Deere for us.
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years
The harvest will be plenty,
If the Fates allow.
Hang a shining star as you prepare to plow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Top 10 Annoying Words about Agriculture

Today, Corn Commentary shares a year-in-review style guest post written by Jennie Schmidt, who farms and serves as a CommonGround volunteer in Maryland. The post originally ran on her blog “The Foodie Farmer.”

 

A few weeks ago, I emailed around a poll to my farm and Ag friends both near and far to ask them to give me their top 10 words that most annoyed them that are used in referencing agriculture and farming. I received a lot of interesting responses. There were many, many repeats which I have ranked in order from top to bottom. What it boils down to is that as a culture, we want everyone “in their place”. We want to define the people whose opinions differ from ours and confine them to a box. Social media is littered with examples of people and organizations lumping together and defining those who hold different beliefs in a negative way. It is a way of stereotyping, generalizing, misrepresenting, and for some, the ulterior motive of spreading misinformation. Thanks to my friends who contributed.

Here are the results:

1. “BIG” – In the context of activist groups, “big” is a derogatory term linked to the perception that the majority of farms are corporate farms.Frankly, the term “big” used in this context sounds rather kindergarten-ish. It has little to do with size but more to the idea that family farms are small farms whereas big farms must be corporate. In fact, 96% of all farms in the US are family owned and operated.  Farms vary widely in size as USDA defines a farm as any entity generating $1000 or more per year. (Which includes my daughter’s 4H projects I suppose). $1K sets the bar pretty low in terms of defining a farm.

 js1
My daughter’s 4H livestock sheep & hog projects meet the $1000 USDA threshold to be defined as a “farm”.

“Big” is also used negatively by some who insinuate that because “Big Ag’ is seen through corporations, that some how we farmers are not able to make independent decisions about our family farms. That some how “Big Ag” dictates what we buy and what we do on our farms. We aren’t beholden to any corporation. We like most consumers, look for quality and customer service. Those two elements dictate our purchasing decisions and who we do business with.

A good example of double-speak however, is Chipotle who started a “big” campaign to redefine itself as “small”. Established in 1993, Chipotle has expanded to over 1500 restaurants and ranks 2nd only to Taco Bell in the Top 50 QSR (quick service restaurants) in the Mexican food segment. Chipotle’s 3rd quarter 2013 profits increased 18% to $827 Million. Let’s be clear, if there is “Big” in food and agriculture it is Chipotle, not the US farmers supplying them.

2. “Factory” – Activists now define climate-controlled barns as “factories”. If you are defining animal agriculture by agenda driven documentaries such as Food Inc, then you have chosen to limit your perspective and specifically elected not to look for balance in the whys and where-fores of food production in the current day. Personally, my preference is to talk to farmers, and not just the ones I perceive I am going to agree with.

 Jen_HogFarmer
Photo Credit: Edwin Remsberg

On a recent farm tour, someone remarked to my friend Jen, who is a hog farmer, how much extra space there was in each of her hog pens. If someone were to take a close up photo of the hogs to sensationalize animal spacing, the hogs would look packed together. Selective photography (and photoshop)  is a method used by some to spread myths about farming. In reality, the term “pig pile” comes from their natural preference, in barns or outside, to pile together to sleep.

3. “Industrial” – in modern agriculture, industrial is a word used to demonize progress and technology. Efficiency is apparently acceptable in other sectors, but not in farming. Not all that long ago, we as consumers did not have microwaves, dishwashers, smart phones, remote controlled – (fill in the blank), home computers, the Internet, etc…. We as consumers have adopted significant amounts of modern technology in our daily lives. Farmers have done the same. So if farmers are industrial through use of technology and efficiency, then we as consumers must be “industrial” too, right? I mean if the shoe fits, wear it! So do we all want to go back and stop using our technology so that agriculture will no longer be “industrial”?

 cutbarley1
A “combine” is named such because in one piece of equipment it combines the tasks of reaping and threshing, 2 vocabulary words foreign to most people today.
  1. Douse” – A word used to describe pesticide application. This is the type of rig used to apply pesticides and fertilizer. There is a fine mist (which in this pic happens to be fertilizer) guided by our GreenSeeker to apply only what the crop needs. Our family eats what we produce. Agricultural inputs are expensive. Why would we “douse” anything we grow with pesticides or fertilizer? Our approach is to look at the soil and plant health and apply what is “prescribed” from scouting and soil and tissue analysis. Much like your visit to the doctor, farmers diagnose and treat their crops according to their health and well being.
  1. Pump“- The word “pump” made the list thanks in part to Panera Bread’s failed @EZChicken antibiotic campaign that illustrated in cartoon manner, chickens being injected with antibiotics and that farmers who use antibiotics are lazy. “Pump” really goes in line with the word “douse” as in every thing farmers do, we’re believed to do to the excess. Any good business person will tell you that makes no sense whatsoever, but I suspect most of those who throw these terms around have never run their own businesses. Its easy to criticize someones business when your paycheck is funded by “unnamed donors” to a non-profit.

    Earlier this year, the FDA had to issue a response to the Environmental Working Group’s interpretation of an antibiotic resistance report..  The fact of the matter is, judicious antibiotic use is an issue for everyone and finger pointing does little to further the conversation. We don’t like the finger pointed at ourselves but let’s face it, human users of the health care system and those who prescribe antibiotics are as much at fault if not more so than farmers. How can I say that? This article from the Wall Street Journaldiscusses human prescriptions of antibiotics. And this report from the CDCshows which diseases and pathogens are most associated with antibiotic resistance, the majority of which are not farm related.

 human-vs-animal-antibiotic-sales-are-relatively-different-v21
Infographic credit: Dr. Scott Hurd, DVM
  1. Corporate“- as I said in #1, the majority of farms in the US are family owned and operated. They may vary in size, and they may be “incorporated” for tax purposes (C or S Corp) and for liability protection (LLC for example). I’m not a fan of Mother Jones, but they recently wrote an articleconfirming this fact. In terms of farms owned by corporations dictating the actions of the farmer, its pretty much a myth.
 47624_FINAL_CorporateFarms_Infographic-resized-300
Infographic Credit: CommonGround
  1. GMO/Frankenfoods” – Wow, this one is hot in social media these days. One of the prevalent anti-GMO claims is that the foods made from genetic engineering (GE) technology haven’t been studied and are not safe. A study in the journal Critical Reviews of Biotechnologylooked at a decade of research on “GMO” foods and found no credible evidence that GMOs threaten health or safety of humans or the environment. A review of the study can be found here.

    GMO describes what humans have done for centuries – domesticate, modify and improve the traits of plants for a specific use, such as tomatoes, corn, potatoes and the majority of foods we consume on a daily basis. Activists use the term “GMO” and “Frankenfoods” to define foods produced through a specific technology and use it as a means for fear-based marketing. Here is a good blog about fear-based food marketing by DairyMoos.

 Selling-Fear1-300x180
Photo Credit: DairyMoos
  1. SuperWeed”-Let me just say it like it is…. Weed resistance is not a genetic engineering issue, it is an agronomic issue. Weed resistance to herbicides did not begin with RoundUp or with GE crops. The chart below is from the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds. It shows that resistant weeds were occurring well before GE crops were ever on the market. Notably, glyphosate/RoundUp which receives the most media attention, is 6th in chronological increase after 5 other classes of herbicides. You should also know that glyphosate/RoundUp did not come about because of GE crops. RoundUp was developed in the early 1970’s and became commercially available in the US in 1976, 20 years before the commercialization herbicide tolerant crops. Its worth repeating – weed resistance is an agronomic issue, not a GE issue.
    chronologicalincreaseresistantforwebpng
  2. Shill” – while I consider “big” to be a rather kindergarten-ish word about Ag, “shill” is definitely a high school bully word. If you take the time to read the comments section of a polarized discussion on social media, often the first stone thrown is “you’re a shill for Monsanto”. Sometimes kindergarten is combined with high school and the commenter says “you’re a shill for Big Ag”. I wasn’t directly called a shill, but the insinuation was there in the New York Times article I blogged about in Stay Calm & Farm Onearlier this year. More recently, following an article I wrote for the Boston Review on Why Farmers Choose GMOs, I had the below twitter interaction with PoetryBoston who without knowing me, decided that I knew little about what I was talking about, following which they pointed out that I was one of Monsanto’s America’s Farm Moms of the Year for which I received prize money. I’m proud to have been selected by the American Agri-Women’s Association as one of only 5 farm women in the US to be recognized. I make no apologies for the award nor am I embarrassed by it. It also does not influence my message which are data and results from our farm’s experience as growers of conventional, organic and GE crops (yes simultaneously, and no… no longer organic. A topic for another day) Shill is intended to be derogatory and offensive. It shuts down any chance of meaningful conversation and civil discourse. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable but that is rare if one spends any time reading the comments section.

 PoetryBoston tweets
From my @FarmGirlJen twitter page
  1. Agrarian” – Picture “American Gothic. The word “agrarian” brings a romantic notion of the days of old, and therefore, not being appreciative of where modern agriculture has brought our society as a whole. It demeans the profession that we love, and that somehow, all of society would be better off if we went back to subsistence farming. Agrarian, after all, is a society where the majority of citizens participate in farming, not the current 1.5% of the US population.
 Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic
American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930

My hope is that the conversation can become more civil by illustrating each of these words from a farmer’s perspective. Farming is essentially a profession of many introverts and often an isolated job on a day to day basis. The story of agriculture and family farms has been told for us, often inaccurately. We as farmers don’t all stand up and speak our minds publically about how we feel about these terms that are frequently used in reference to what we do.

People probably don’t understand , we don’t get to leave our jobs and go home at night. Our home is IS our farm and our job is a tapestry of our lives – of family, farm, and faith. Words that demean or misrepresent aren’t words targeted just a me or my husband, but at my kids, my in-laws, and my 96 year old grandmother (who by the way does not resemble the woman above).
Its personal. You wouldn’t want your family talked about that way.

 

We love our jobs, we love our farms, we love our family. We don’t own a pitch fork.

We are today’s modern farm family.

 

 MeGrapes
Photo Credit: Edwin Remsberg

 



Page 5 of 186« First...34567...102030...Last »