Corn Commentary

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

 

The Year the Yields Went Up in Georgia

basf-classic13-randyGeorgia is a long way from the nation’s Corn Belt, but this year’s National Corn Yield Contest winner Randy Dowdy set a new record of 503 bushels per acre on his farm near Valdosta.

“While the contest does not award a single, national prize or have an overall winner, Dowdy’s accomplishment certainly deserves recognition,” said National Corn Yield Contest Manager Rachel Jungermann-Orf. “We congratulate him on this accomplishment and look forward to seeing further innovation from contest participants over the years to come.”

Dowdy has actually been achieving record yields since he started farming just seven years ago. “I’m a first generation farmer,” said Dowdy. “My first corn crop went in 2008.”

The Georgia farmer admits he did not know what he was doing so he was all about trying new things. “In 2010 when I entered the (corn yield) contest I made 279 (bushels per acre),” Dowdy says. “The next year, we went in to 350s, the next year 370s, the next year in the 400s. It’s rewarding, I’m thrilled about it, but I still know there’s some things I can do better, so the sky’s the limit.”

Just for comparison, all corn farmers nationwide this year are expected to average a yield of just over 174 bushels per acre – which is also a record.

Happy Anniversary to the RFS

rfs-7Friday marks the seventh anniversary of the signing into law of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) which expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) as we know it today.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) has compiled a report that examines the successful impact of the RFS over the past seven years on the economy, job creation, agriculture, the environment, fuel prices, petroleum import dependence, and food prices.

Among its findings, the report notes that “Renewable fuel production and consumption have grown dramatically. Dependence on petroleum—particularly imports—is down significantly. Greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector have fallen. The value of agricultural products is up appreciably. And communities across the country have benefited from the job creation, increased tax revenue, and heightened household income that stem from the construction and operation of a biorefinery.”

Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) president and CEO Bob Dinneen remembers that day seven years ago and talks about its accomplishments so far and how EPA needs to move ahead with the law as written. Ethanol Report on RFS Anniversary

Partisan Report on RFS

bpcThe Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) appears to be a bit partisan in a new report released this week on “Options for Reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

The report was produced after several meetings during the year with an advisory group that consisted of 23 members, seven of which were oil companies representatives. Only five members of the group represented agriculture (2) or biofuels (3). The rest were a mix of academia (2), big business (4) with two of those representing Toyota, environmental groups (2), and policy organizations (3).

Both of the agriculture representatives were from the National Farmers Union (NFU), president Roger Johnson and vice president of programs Chandler Goule. “It was very important that agriculture that supports the renewable fuels industry be present at the table,” said Goule, who notes that while the meetings were held in a very professional manner, “they were heavily skewed toward big oil.”

Goule says NFU has major objections to two of the policy recommendations made in the report. “The flattening of the total renewable fuel mandate at its current level going forward, but continuing to increase the three advanced categories, we have significant concerns about what that would to do ethanol and biodiesel,” he said. “Even more concerning was removing the total renewable fuel mandate and only mandating the three advanced categories. Basically what they are doing is giving in to Big Oil’s conclusion that a blend wall exists, which it does not.”

Chandler talks more about the BPC report in this interview: Interview with Chandler Goule, NFU

One Economist’s Outlook for Corn

asta-css-14-basseAgResource Company president Dan Basse giving his economic outlook for the year at the ASTA CSS 2014 and Seed Expo last week.

Basse says the protein side of the plate is doing very well right now, dairy and beef in particular, “so we call it the Year of the Cow” and while grain farmers will likely struggle for the next few years, “they’ve had a very good 5-7 years behind them.”

Basse notes that this crop year is historic in that it’s the first time we’ve seen record world production for corn, wheat and soybeans and global stocks are also record high. “It should give us pause as agricultural producers that unless we start making some cuts or unless something happens in the world climatically speaking, we’re going to keep piling on those big stocks and it’s going to create issues going forward,” he said.

With the biofuels market reaching maturity, Basse says that means more stagnant demand for corn use to make ethanol. “We have an EPA that can’t even make a decision on what the mandate should have been for 2014 and surely can’t make one for 2015,” he said. “We’ll still see corn demand for ethanol somewhere in the vicinity of five billion bushels, but there’s not that growth engine we’ve had in the last five years.”

Basse expects U.S. corn demand to remain about 13.5 billion bushels for the foreseeable future as export demand is also slowing with China producing more corn than it needs with strong incentives for farmers. “China has produced eight consecutive record corn crops … it’s swimming in corn,” he said. “So the Chinese are doing what they can to keep world corn out of the market and that’s what this GMO issue with MIR 162 is all about and it’s not likely to change anytime soon.”

So, as far as demand for corn, Basse says, “We’re really looking at the livestock sector and maybe we’ll build herds or get meat exports going.”

Lots more in this interview with Basse here – a condensed version of his one hour breakfast presentation at CSS. Interview with Dan Basse, Ag Resources


2014 ASTA CSS & Seed Expo photo album

Taking on the Food Fear Mongerers

asta-css-14-kevinHearing food and health “celebrities” spread misinformation about agriculture really annoys plant molecular and cellular biology professor Dr. Kevin Folta, who spoke at the CSS 2014 and Seed Expo this week in Chicago.

Folta, who has a blog where he calls himself “a scientist in a scientifically illiterate nation at a time when we need science the most,” took the Food Babe to task on social media after she made an appearance on his home turf at the University of Florida. “She misinformed our students, said stuff that was just not true, she made chemistry and safe food additives look bad,” he said. “It was a promotion for her and really an unfortunate one because I really believe her heart’s in the right place but she gave our students bad information – and not on my watch.”

Folta was prepared to challenge her at the forum where she spoke, but since she did not take questions as expected, he did a blog post to refute her and he stresses the importance of food being a social debate. “Dr. Oz has an audience of five million people every day, I have an audience of a dozen,” he said. “We have to amplify our message by getting more of us involved.”

Interview with Kevin Folta, University of Florida professor


2014 ASTA CSS & Seed Expo photo album

NPR Highlights Scary Story behind Food Babe’s Public Prominence

National Public Radio considered both the accuracy and impact of the Food Babe in a recent post on its Salt blog, “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out.” The results, based on conversations with a wide-array of respected experts, found her credibility with consumers far superior to the facts upon which she bases her opinions.

In short, the Food Babe creates confusion and fear because she is herself confused. Her lack of scientific expertise leads to flawed assumptions. Yet, through clever marketing, she has a bullhorn that broadcasts her deluded diatribe and amplifies her alleged authority.

The post notes that “when the Charlotte Observer asked her about such criticisms, Hari answered, ‘I’ve never claimed to be a nutritionist. I’m an investigator.’”

While this response, similar to one given by Dr. Oz during testimony before Congress earlier this year, attempts to clarify her self-professed area of expertise, it does not sit well with the experts interviewed by NPR.

“That lack of training often leads her to misinterpret peer-reviewed research and technical details about food chemistry, nutrition and health,” Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida and vocal online critic of Hari, explained to NPR. “She really conflates the science. If anything, she’s created more confusion about food, more confusion about the role of chemicals and additives.”

The post clearly lays out a wide array of arguments against the Food Babe’s pseudoscience propaganda given by a variety of experts.

“What she does is exploit the scientific ignorance and fear of her followers,” Kavin Senapathy, an anti-pseudoscience blogger who frequently challenges the assertions in Hari’s posts, explained to Salt. “And most of us are in agreement that we simply can’t accept that.”

Kudos, NPR, for journalism that looked beyond the hype and found credible information consumers can use. The Food Babe may seem attractive on the surface, but her flawless façade conceals an ugly truth about how pretty packaging can trump solid science in our nation’s great food debate.

Vote for Your Favorite Corn Photo

fields-cornThe midterm elections are over but here’s a chance to exercise your right to vote for something fun and beautiful.

There’s a wide variety of candidates and each has something special to offer. Whether you support beauty, family, growth, challenges, or life – pick a category and cast your vote in the Fields-of-Corn Photo Contest.

Over 400 high-resolution photos of corn growth from seed to harvest and the families that grow it were submitted in the National Corn Growers Association on-line contest and the photos are now being judged by the public by selecting their favorites using online Facebook “Likes.” There’s a $500 grand prize for the most likes and there will also be awards for the top three entries in the five categories of Farm Family Lifestyle, Farming Challenges, Growing Field Corn, Scenery/Landscape, and Still Life from the Farm.

It’s easy and fun – vote early and vote often! Polls close on December 31.



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