Corn Commentary

Ethanol Bashing is an Orchestrated High-Dollar Venture

 In yesterday’s blog I briefly discussed the phenomenon of editorials on an identical subject suddenly showing up in newspapers across the country almost like a flu epidemic had simultaneously hit newsrooms nationwide.

 The most recent attack on corn-based ethanol provides a great example of how these coordinated efforts are staged. The current outbreak, which began Sunday, hit the nation’s top tier opinion leaders on Sunday and Monday and began showing up in large regional daily newspapers like the Des Moines Register and the Columbus Dispatch the last two days. Many local papers can be expected to jump on the passing train by week’s end bringing yet another 6 day ethanol drubbing to an end.

 Editorials like this don’t happen in a vacuum, especially the main Op-ed pieces with no names attached because they represent the “official opinion” of the newspaper. In fact most editorial writers rarely leave the paper to venture into the real world to form their very articulate opinions.

 Most sit in their secluded offices each day and read others opinions, research the internet and read other papers trolling for ideas. However, most also hold court each day where the powerful and the influential come calling with their hat in their hand and try to persuade the editor to write a piece reflecting their position.

 If you happen to work at a large East Coast news outlet you have a tremendous amount of power because these folks generally start all news cycles and take the lead on deciding which issues get ink or airtime. Some people (yes, I know a few) make a good living professionally coaching CEOs in business and even government officials on how to best present and sell their message. Most have a news background and they use their contacts to grant attain access for others and grease the skids for their client.

 Why would someone go to such great lengths and even spend huge sums on Public Relations/Public Affairs companies to help them hone their talking points and put together professional information packets? Because if you hit a home run with someone like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, competing editors elsewhere will scramble to get something out as soon as possible and hope nobody notices they didn’t have it first. A sort of race begins. In this race it is ok to be second or even third but just like in the Olympics…nobody cares who got fourth place. (more…)

Make Some Noise!

If you have watched any of the World Cup soccer tournament, you no doubt heard that incessant sound make by blowing the noisemakers known as “vuvuzelas” that were popularized by South African soccer fans. The plastic blowing horns produce a loud, distinctive monotone note that some people say sounds like the constant droning of a huge swarm of bees.

Critics of corn - whether it be ethanol, sweetener, or just farming in general - can sometimes sound like the constant droning of vuvuzelas, churning out the same old tired arguments in a loud, distinctive monotone. Looking through my Google alerts for ethanol over the holiday weekend I found a number of articles and blog postings that use those vuvuzela-type arguments. When the stories offer a place for comments, I always look to see what is being said and may offer some comment of my own to try and break through that monotony.

About a dozen corn grower states recently got some social media training by AgChat expert Michele Payn-Knoper. While much of that training focuses on how you can use social media tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to tell the positive story of agriculture to the general public, it also involves taking the initiative to set the record straight when you see agriculture being attacked in on-line stories. It has never been any easier to provide your own editorial comments than it is today with stories found on-line. No printing or stamps involved, no letters to mail, no gatekeeper (in most cases) to edit or silence your point of view. There may be moderation for some comments (which is highly encouraged, if you have or want to start your own blog) but usually comments are approved. The moderation is mainly to prevent spam comments from getting through.

My point is - make some of your own noise! The articles I saw had NO opposing viewpoints from corn growers or their advocates. Take some time once a week to browse through on-line articles that are critical of farming or ethanol or corn products and make your voice heard. Sign up for Google alerts for corn, farming or ethanol so you know what is being said and respond. The forum is there, we need to utilize it.

Here are just a few articles crying out for your comments:
Ethanol Industry Wants Same Rubber Stamp BP Got - Baltimore Sun editorial
Not For Consumption - Motley Fool
Age of Ethanol - The Economist
Food Offers Fast Facts not Frills - Centre Daily Times review
Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone Jealous of Gulf Oil Spill - Huffington Post

Corn Farmers Coalition Showcases Facts About Family Farmers

If you haven’t already tuned into the new level of activism in agriculture, especially regarding misinformation on our largest industry, then you won’t find better evidence of this evolving cultural phenomenon than the Corn Farmers Coalition.

Speaking to a couple of family farmers recently they expressed their frustration at the misinformation, innuendo and outright fabrications that are being used to frame their chosen profession. As upset as they were, there was also a prevalent sense that there was nothing they could do to change things.

If you are frustrated and tired of all the attacks and negative news swirling around agriculture you have come to the right place. Read slowly, soak this up, and then if you are a corn farmer give yourself a big pat on the back.

Imagine 60,000 city people getting a positive message about farmers every day. As they go to and from work, go out for dinner, go to a movie, or just go about their life in general. Next imagine that most of these people are employed in jobs on or near Capitol Hill in Washington, DC…Congressmen, staffers, agency employees, lobbyists, environmental groups, and even media. That’s what is happening right now as you read this thanks to the efforts of farmers themselves.

In the attached photo of the Union Station Metro stop in Washington, DC you can see several of the ads that will be prevalent throughout June and July as part of CFC’s efforts.  From the highly trafficked Metro system, to Reagan National Airport, to the most widely read political publications like Politico and Congressional Quarterly. Throw in on-line advertising at the aforementioned publications,, National Public Radio, ads in the Washington Nationals baseball team programs, and a smattering of talk, sports, and contemporary radio and you begin to get a feel for the breadth and scope of this campaign. It is conservatively estimated the educational campaign will create more than 10 million positive impressions in the land of policy and regulation.

Equally as impressive is that CFC, and the $1 million in corn checkoff funds backing the campaign, comes straight from family farmers in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and Michigan who believe we need to introduce a foundation of facts to the dialogue in Washington.

Ten messages based on USDA and EPA facts will be used in the campaign to show tech-savvy, innovative farmers are growing more corn every year - for food, animal feed, ethanol and exports - while using fewer resources and protecting the environment.

The coalition will meet with media, members of Congress, environmental groups and others to talk about what’s ahead: how U.S. farmers, using the latest technologies, will continue to expand yields and how this productivity can be a bright spot in an otherwise struggling economy.

We have a great story to tell so take heart.  You can make a difference and CFC offers clear evidence.

Flipper & NCGA 1, Food Elitists Nothing!

I have always been a fan of dolphins but after last night’s Oscars I am an even bigger fan. That’s because in the best Documentary Feature category Food Inc., the diatribe against American agriculture, got a good old fashioned smack down by The Cove.

The Cove” follows animal activist Richard O’Barry — who once trained dolphins for the television show “Flipper” — alongside a team of filmmakers as they attempt to document dolphin slaughter in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji.

Food Inc. shows filmmaker Robert Kenner attempting to slaughter American ranchers and family farmers and send us all running back to backyard gardens and 1900’s vintage farms. He shows us the worst examples of how livestock is raised in this country and also wants us to question the healthiness of corn in our food supply.

Food Inc. is clearly a piece of “food advocacy work” rather than honest journalism, according to Dan Glickman and he ought to know. The current chairman of the Motion Picture Association of American is a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton. (Maybe someone should do a documentary on how the Ag Secretary makes the pilgrimage from DC to Hollywood. Now that would at least be interesting.)

Family corn farmers represented by the National Corn Growers Association lashed out at Food Inc. in advance of last night’s festive event saying the documentary shouldn’t win the Oscar because it not only grossed out grocery shoppers, but was unfair to the nation’s farmers.

 The dictionary says the noun documentary describes a film or TV program presenting the facts about a person or event. Kenner’s propaganda clearly should have never made it to the red carpet.

 Perhaps now we can relegate Food Inc. to collect dust on the back shelves of video stores where it belongs and farmers can go back to producing the safest and most abundant food supply in the world.


Talking Trade With Farm Broadcasters

As Mark noted in the previous post, last week was the annual National Association of Farm Broadcasting Trade Talk. There is probably no event like this in any industry where representatives from over 150 companies and organizations get to interact with about the same number of farm broadcast reporters walking around doing interviews in a six hour period. Most broadcasters come away with between 15 and 30 interviews that come in especially handy over the holiday season! Pictured here at the National Corn Growers Association booth are Mark on the left, and Joel Heitkamp with KFGO in Fargo, ND preparing to interview NCGA First Vice President Bart Schott of North Dakota.

One of the major topics of interest at Trade Talk was the late harvest, and even though North Dakota’s corn harvest was still in the single digits last week, Bart expressed optimism about the crop. “If we get a few more weeks of really nice weather, we’ll get this corn crop off in good shape,” he said. Despite the problems this year, he says the crop continues to look good and is still expected to be the second largest on record, “If there’s ever been a debate about whether we can produce enough corn feed our exports, livestock industry and ethanol industry, this will be the second year in a row that we’ve proved them wrong.”

Listen to my interview with Bart here - one of the dozens NCGA reps did last week with farm broadcasters - and podcasters!

Ethanol Misinformation on The Daily Show

Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” may not be a “real” news show, but the lighter side takes itself seriously enough to have big name political guests and do semi-serious interviews with them.

Such was the case this week when former Vice President Al Gore appeared on the show to promote his new book “Our Choice” about how we can solve the “climate crisis.” During the interview, Stewart said that making choices to help the environment can be confusing for people. “We were told ethanol was the answer, turns out that’s worse for the environment,” Stewart said. The former VP, who supported corn-based ethanol while in office, did little to defend the fuel in response to that statement. “Yeah, but the new forms of ethanol that they’re coming up with now actually are not bad for the environment and we can switch to the new kinds that will be much better,” Gore said.

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen says that short exchange highlights a disturbing trend in ethanol misinformation. “Failing to understand the issue and continuing to propagate factually inaccurate information, even on a faux news show, is dangerous and undermines the legitimate debate about our energy future,” said Dinneen. “This trend in statements by prominent and influential individuals is leaving the American people with a false set of choices about the various roles of renewable energy across the board.”

Dinneen extended “an open invitation for Mr. Gore to visit any of the nation’s ethanol facilities and to attend the industry’s annual conference next February in Orlando, Florida.” No response from the VP yet.

CNN Shows Corn Ethanol in Positive Light

CNN’s “State of the Union” last weekend featured a refreshingly positive look at corn and ethanol in Nebraska, headlined “Ethanol keeps Nebraska running in tough financial times.”

Host and chief national correspondent John King visited the farm of Neale Shaner in Fort Calhoun, and the Advanced BioEnergy ethanol plant in Fairmont, where he stood on a mound of dried distillers grains with ABE Plant Manager Grant Johanson. Here’s a taste of the article:

Watching their 12-row combine harvest the corn is a sight to behold, methodically scooping ears from the fields and dramatically increasing productivity. This corn won’t end up on a dinner table but instead at a giant Cargill plant just up the road, where it is processed into ethanol and several corn byproducts.

In Washington, ethanol is a source of controversy, with many lawmakers arguing it is an industry unfairly propped up by generous federal subsidies. To Nebraska, however, it is the direct source of roughly 1,000 jobs at ethanol production plants across the state, many of them located in small towns where those 40 to 50 plant jobs are the local gold standard.

Read the whole article here.

Japanese Journalists Visit Nebraska Corn Country

A team of journalists from Japan were in Nebraska last week, hosted by the Nebraska Corn Board as part of a U.S. Grains Council trade mission. For some, it was the first time they ever saw corn growing in fields. The group visited Darr Feedlot in Cozad, a corn farm in Seward, the Monsanto Water Utilization Learning Center in Gothenberg, Advanced BioEnergy in Fairmont, Bunge Milling in Crete and the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Alan Tiemann, chairman of the Nebraska Corn Board, hosted the team on his farm near Lincoln. “They got to see cattle on feed, where distillers grains and corn are fed, and then an ethanol plant where distillers grains is produced,” said Tiemann, pictured here in the blue shirt showing two members of the team a combine. “The new water learning center impressed the team. They found it very educational and it gave them a chance to see a number of seed technologies at one time. The milling operation and stop at the university added to the foundation of U.S. agriculture we provided for the group.”

“Team members were impressed by the high quality of Nebraska corn and the farmers’ use of agronomics and biotechnology to produce an abundant crop more efficiently,” said Tommy Hamamoto, the U.S. Grains Council’s director in Japan, who accompanied the group. “Journalists on the tour have a better understanding as to how U.S. corn is produced and used, which will help them better explain the U.S. grain system in fact-based news articles back home.”

Read more about the visit on the Nebraska corn growers blog.

Who you Callin’ Yellow?

Apparently my post critiquing the Illinois Times article about food got a rise out of one blogger who called it “yellow journalism.”

What is amazingly ironic about this blogger’s viewpoint is that he accuses us of not getting the facts straight, yet he thinks it’s irrelevant that the Illinois Times article had the production of corn in the United States off by 11 billion bushels! He says, “Whatever the total yield of corn is (and yeah, let’s lump it all together until the bloggers at the National Corn Growers Association can explain to us mere mortals why we shouldn’t – whose your audience, baby?), it is in fact true that only a tiny percentage goes to the fresh market.” Why get the facts straight when they are really not pertinent to your cause? And why try to understand the difference between corn for grain and sweet corn? Who really cares when that is not your point?

The blogger also says, “The wack thing about Corn Commentary’s spit ball is that it’s called “Abundant Food Is Good,” an idea neither Food, Inc. nor it’s reviewer at the Illinois Times contests.” Yet that is exactly what they are doing when they attack American agriculture and food companies. These are the same people who were complaining about food price increases last year and blaming them on ethanol. Yet if the ideas for food production they have were mandated, the increase in food prices would be astronomical in comparison - and much more permanent.

I assume that the blogger was using the term “yellow journalism” as a play on the color of corn, since the definition of yellow journalism is much more in line with the tactics of “Food Inc.” and other activists. Wikipedia gives several characteristics of yellow journalism that more than apply to people like that, including the use of “misleading headlines, pseudo-science, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts.”

Yep, I’m calling you yellow.

Abundant Food is Good

America has the safest, most abundant, and most affordable food supply in the entire world. That would be a good thing, right? For some people, however, this is somehow a bad thing.

While in Illinois over the weekend for a wedding, an issue of the Illinois Times caught my eye in a restaurant. The cover story was “The High Price of Cheap Food: Counting hidden costs shows Illinois farmers a better way.” It was free, so I picked it up.

Basically, it was an endorsement of the movie “Food, Inc.” with its own glaring fact errors and one-sided “reporting.”

Let’s just start with the most obvious. According to the IT, “Only the tiniest fraction (less than a bushel per person) of the 1 billion bushels of corn grown annually comes to consumers as corn — on the cob or as chips, tortillas, cornmeal, etc.” Actually, our corn production in this country last year was 12 billion bushels. And that’s only corn for grain, some of which may be counted as food grade for chips, tortillas, corn meal, etc. Sweet corn production is not measured in bushels, although this article attempts to clump it together with field corn as if it were the same thing.

But, that’s just being picky. I’m sure that was an innocent typo and really has nothing to do with the reporter’s main point, which is that somehow having affordable, abundant and safe food year round is bad. She points out, (correctly) “In 1960, the average family spent 18 percent of its income on food; today that figure has plummeted to nine percent. That’s less than was ever spent on food throughout history, and less than is spent currently anywhere else worldwide.” We have a “staggering array of choices” and produce available year round even when it’s not in season.

However, the reporter says, “If that sounds almost too good to be true, in many ways it is.” Actually, it is not only true, but it is good as well.

She then goes on to blame the federal government for subsidizing “lazy” farmers who are addicted to government payments “like cocaine.” She also says that the fact that 95 percent of U.S. farms are family owned is true, but misleading, because really it’s companies like ADM, Cargill, Tyson and Monsanto who control agriculture in the country, not the family farmers.

And we use too much fertilizer and fossil fuel and slave labor, etc. So, what we need to do as a nation is switch “from conventional to sustainable farming, defined as farm practices that don’t deplete the land and natural resources and that provide living wages to farmers and farm workers.” And she tries to convince us that somehow this is not going to result in a less abundant or more expensive food supply:

Many remain convinced that industrial agriculture is the only way enough food can be grown to feed a hungry world. They’re skeptical — even disbelieving — when told that sustainable farming, using methods both old and new, can actually produce more food per acre than conventional farming. But numbers provide the proof. An acre of conventionally raised corn at today’s prices would fetch $602, although by the end of the year, it’s projected to cost $716.55 — and takes 50-plus gallons of fossil fuel to produce. In contrast, a local Springfield produce farmer using sustainable practices says he earns as much as $16,000 per acre.

Note that this is literally like comparing apples to oranges - or probably in this case, corn to strawberries. Growing an acre of produce to sell at a local farmers market is not in any way comparable to growing 4,000 acres of corn.

The article begins with a scene at a local farmers market where an old man is asking the price of strawberries. They are $3.50 at the farmers market, compared to $1.99 at the grocery store, where the reporter tells him they are “shipped in from California and grown with toxic chemicals. They don’t have much flavor ’cause they’re picked before they’re ripe — probably by illegal immigrants who’re paid slave wages.” The old man replies, “They taste fine to me.”

It is great and wonderful for us to have strawberries from California before they are in season in Illinois - and it is equally great and wonderful that we can have fresh, locally grown produce in the summertime. What is really great and wonderful in this nation is that we have that choice. Not having the choice will lead to a less abundant, less affordable and less safe food supply.

And that would definitely be a bad thing.

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