Corn Commentary

Set the Record Straight

It has never been more important for supporters of corn ethanol to set the record straight and make their voices heard.

Here is a perfect opportunity. A Business Week editorial by Ed Wallace posted yesterday is crying out for comments. “The Ethanol Lobby: Profits vs. Food” presents a re-hash of all the same tired arguments against ethanol - from food versus fuel, to cutting down rainforests, to excessive water usage, etc.

One new criticism I found especially slanted was that states like Indiana and Nebraska don’t support the use of E85 because, in the writer’s opinion, they don’t have enough E85 stations. He ignores the fact that of the 2000 E85 stations in the country, nearly 1300 are located in the corn belt. I have already commented on this article - corn growers need to do so as well.

The National Corn Growers Association last week called on all those interested in the future of U.S. corn to help the association set the record straight about false attacks on the corn and ethanol industry. NCGA President Bob Dickey said, “Now, more than ever, we need an team of 300,000 proud U.S. farmers who grow corn to defend our way of life and stand up to these false attacks now and always in order to win the debate.” NCGA has also provided an on-line resource for growers to utilize in getting facts to back up their opinions.

One of the ways NCGA suggests is writing letters to the editors of local weekly and daily newspapers as frequently as possible. I would add that searching out and commenting on anti-ethanol articles posted on line is important as well. Unlike writing to local newspapers, most on-line comments are published without delays or editing. You can also engage other commenters in discussion and challenge their opinions. If even half of our 300,000 proud U.S. farmers would take an hour a week on their computers to search for stories about ethanol and make comments, it would make a significant impact.

Speaking of comments, the Environmental Protection Agency has officially opened a 60-day comment period for proposed changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard. The comment period will be open until July 27. Corn growers are strongly urged to make their voices heard on this important issue for the ethanol industry. In addition, the comment period on the proposal to allow an increase in the amount of ethanol that can be blended into regular gasoline has been extended to July 20.

This may be a busy time of year for many farmers, but it is worth it to take some time and fight back to win the debate over corn and corn ethanol.


The New York Times had an editorial over the weekend under what they call their “Running Commentary” featuring thoughts from five different economists on why wholesale prices for food were up 1.5 percent in April, the biggest monthly increase since January 2008. The title is “Food Prices: Myths vs. Reality.”

Here’s a summary of the five responses from the economists:

1. Bill Lapp, former chief economist with ConAgra Foods, blames it on reduced availability of corn, increased demand for ethanol, and lower livestock numbers.

2. Arizona State University business professor Tim James pointed out that the increase is wholesale prices, not retail, which is a more volatile index. The consumer price index actually shows a 0.2% decline in food prices.

3. UC Davis extension marketing economist Roberta Cook says there are many factors that influence food prices and one of them is tomatoes …. no, wait - it’s consumers’ willingness to pay more for better tomatoes.

4. Michael J. Roberts, assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University, noted that food prices declined in four of the five previous months, commodity prices dropped 70 percent between July 2008 and March 2009 and prices are now some 55 percent off last summer’s highs.

5. Finally, Washington State University ag economist Karina Gallardo basically said there are too many factors affecting too many different types of food to say with any certainty why prices went up.

So what did we learn from this, class? If this were multiple choice test, which answer would you pick if you were asked why wholesale food prices were up in April?

A. Ethanol
B. Don’t worry about it
C. Eat better tomatoes
D. Prices are actually lower
E. None of the above

CBO Report Spins Both Ways

The Congressional Budget Office report on ethanol and food prices released last week spun both ways for ethanol, depending on the media outlet and which side of the food versus fuel debate your corn is buttered.

For example, the San Francisco Chronicle headline proclaimed “Energy Blamed More than Ethanol For Food Prices.” Others with a similar spin included Midwestern papers like the Des Moines Register and the Grand Island Independent.

Headlines from the Associated Press and Reuters, however, led with a more negative spin. AP headlined “Report: Ethanol Raises Cost of Nutrition Programs.” Unfortunately the report only quantified the effect of higher corn prices on last year’s food price increases, even though it specifically notes that “certain other factors—for example, higher energy costs—had a greater effect on food prices than did the use of ethanol as a motor fuel.” It would be nice to know how much higher gasoline and electricity prices helped to raise the cost of nutrition programs, but CBO was only charged with finding out how much ethanol was to blame.

The report made some important points about the inability to predict ethanol’s future impact on food prices because the forces determining that impact move in opposite directions.” Federal mandates now in place require additional use of ethanol in the future, which would continue to put upward pressure on prices. In contrast, increases in the supply of corn from cultivating more cropland, increasing crop yields, or improving the technology for making ethanol from corn or other feedstocks (raw materials) would tend to lower food prices.

What was interesting about the report was that there was something in it for everyone, with both sides of the food versus fuel debate claiming that it supported them. I guess the government just wanted to be fair to everybody.

Cornhusker Happiness

Cornhuskers are the happiest people in the nation, according to’s new Happiness Index.

Nebraska came out on top in the Happiness Index, which used unemployment figures, foreclosures and non-mortgage debt to determine a state’s overall financial well being.

Ethanol production got some of the credit for Nebraska’s happiness in a Good Morning America story aired on Monday morning, which noted that Nebraska’s “ethanol plants, in particular, have flourished and the ongoing effort to grow industry has enabled people who lose jobs to find new ones relatively easily.”

Two other Corn Belt states ranked second and third according to the index - Iowa and Kansas - and explains that people in the Midwest tend to live more within their means, unlike people on the coasts. The unhappiest states are mainly on the east or west coast - Rhode Island, Nevada, California, Florida, and Oregon.

Vilsack Confirmation Expected

The country may get a new Secretary of Agriculture the same day we get a new president.

VilsackFormer Iowa governor Tom Vilsack’s confirmation hearing before the Senate went smooth as corn silk this week and he could be confirmed on Inauguration Day, according to Senate Ag Committee Chairman - and fellow Iowan - Tom Harkin.

Looking over the news reports about the hearing - the few that made it in the “main stream” as opposed to the farm media - I was struck by this line in the New York Times article:

His confirmation hearing comes as the farm economy is struggling after years of soaring prices fed by growing demand for exports and ethanol.

What is wrong with this sentence? First, “the farm economy is struggling” - like no other segment of the economy is struggling, and actually agriculture is doing much better than most despite lower prices. Second, “after years of soaring prices” - ummm, make that one year, maybe two at most.

Meanwhile, the Reuters report focused on the fact that Vilsack will take a pay cut to become ag secretary, like that’s really important.

I guess they had to find something to talk about, since Vilsack’s hearing was so - well, boring. The Miami Herald gave an extensive overview of Vilsack’s background (born in Pennsylvania to an unwed mother and a father whose name he still doesn’t know) and stressed his commitment to serving all of agriculture, including fruit and vegetable growing states like Florida. There seemed to be some minor concern that because Vilsack is from the Midwest he would only care about corn and soybean producers.

The hearing did cover a broad range of agricultural, conservation and nutrition related issues, all of which Vilsack basically said he would support. While he was somewhat short on specifics, he did admit he will have a lot to learn once he takes over at USDA.

Disconnect Between Food and Agriculture

There seems to be an enormous disconnect in places like New York City between food and the farmers who produce it.

Take for example this editorial in the New York Times this week by Nicholas D. Kristof calling on president-elect Obama to appoint a “Secretary for Food” instead of agriculture.

Mr. Kristof says, “A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.”

Did it happen to occur to Mr. Kristof that that means two percent of our population feeds themselves and the other 98 percent - not to mention a good portion of the rest of the world? Nope. For some reason, he doesn’t appear to get that connection. Instead he says that renaming the USDA the “Department of Food” would move us “away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy — all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.”

Then he proceeds to quote from anti-agriculture activist Michael Pollan who says, “We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket — high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food.”

I guess that means that all the corn and soybean farmers in this country are not growing real food. So why should anyone be concerned that ethanol production is using food for fuel then?

Then Mr. Kristof complains that he gets $588 a year for “not growing crops on timberland I own in Oregon.” He gallantly points out that he forwards that money to charity. More than likely that money comes from some conservation program that is designed to help preserve our natural resources. Again, he seems to think this is a bad thing.

There were some 250 comments on this article in one day before they closed the comments. Sadly, too many of those commenting seemed to agree with his contention that the government, through USDA, supports “factory farms” rather than small family operations and rural towns. He wants to see a “Department of Food” to give “primacy to America’s 300 million eaters.”

What he apparently doesn’t realize is that because there are less farmers they need to produce more and more food to feed those “eaters.” Does he think we should have smaller farms and more of them? Would he like to have his own sustainable, organic farm in New York City to produce his own food?

Despite our best efforts in agriculture, the disconnect remains. The well-fed population of the United States fails to see the connection between the healthy, safe and abundant food supply they enjoy and the hard working farmers who produce it.

Corn Cob Harvester

Vermeer Corn Cob HarvesterThe new Vermeer corn cob harvester announced this week by the company was on display earlier this month at the cob harvesting event sponsored by POET at project LIBERTY in Iowa.

Vermeer says the CCX770 Cob Harvester new wagon-style cob collection system “will revolutionize corn harvesting by enabling farmers to harvest corn and cobs simultaneously.”

The harvester is towed immediately behind select corn harvesting combines to collect and unload the cobs. While the main idea here is to harvest the cobs for cellulosic ethanol production, the company points out that there are many other uses for corn cobs, such as livestock feed supplement for mixed
rations, livestock and pet animal bedding, blending cobs with coal to co-generate electricity, gasification to create several types of energy for industrial processes and other industrial applications including
construction materials, abrasives and absorbents.

Farm Broadcasters Interview Corn Growers

The National Association of Farm Broadcasting annual meeting each year in Kansas City includes an intense six hour “Trade Talk” where over 100 farm broadcasters have the opportunity to meet and interview representatives from over 100 ag organizations and companies. With all the issues surrounding corn this year, the National Corn Growers Association booth was busy the entire time fielding questions from reporters.

NCGA president Bob Dickey of Laurel, Nebraska and first vice president Darrin Ihnen of Hurley, SD are seen here being interviewed at the NCGA booth. Among the topics they were discussing - corn price volatility, ethanol, sustainability, food versus fuel, the economy, and the upcoming new administration. The NCGA officials were interviewed by 30-40 reporters during the event - just about as many as you can do in a six hour period!

I have personally participated in NAFB’s Trade Talk since it’s inception some 15 years or so ago (getting too old to remember!) and I can tell you that it is probably the single best event of the year for both the interviewers and the interviewees. The members of NAFB represent both individual stations and radio networks across the country and reach an untold audience of farmers and ranchers, as well as rural lifestyle and even urban consumers in some cases. It is a great way for organizations like NCGA to get information out to a wide audience in a relatively short time.

Journalists in the Corn

Some 260 agricultural journalists from all over the world are on an annual congress this week that goes to a different country every year. This year it is Austria and Slovenia.

One of the excursions in Austria was to a biomass facility in the southern part of the country where nearly all of the town of Gussing has locally generated energy. Biofuels are not a major part of the renewable energy in the country - just one ethanol plant and ten biodiesel plants total. More vehicles run on diesel, but while they grow lots of corn they have to import oilseeds for biodiesel feedstock, so it is pretty expensive right now.

It is always interesting to get perspectives on agriculture from other countries. There was a huge corn field across from the biomass facility we were visiting and many of the journalists were more fascinated by the corn than the piles of wood chips that were being used to generate local energy. Some of the countries represented here grow very little, if any, corn - countries like Japan and Finland, for example. Biofuels are a big topic of discussion and the people that I talked to were very interested in our work here in the United States to start making ethanol from corn stover.

If you are interested in seeing more about the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists congress, check out AgWired. We leave Austria today for Slovenia and will be visiting another biomass facility, as well as a hog operation and a dairy farm.

New Ag Editors President Gets Corn

AMS 08 Got CornHolly Martin of High Plains Journal is the new president of the American Agricultural Editors Association and the outgoing president wanted to make sure she “Got Corn” as part of her new position.

Her focus in the coming year will be on next year’s International Federation of Agricultural Journalists meeting that will be held in conjunction with AAEA’s annual meeting. That meeting will offer our ag journalists the opportunity to showcase American agriculture to hundreds of ag media representatives from around the world. It will be held July 29-August 5.

Holly is the editor of High Plains Journal and lives with her family on a farm near Ford, KS. The outgoing AAEA is John Walter with Successful Farming.

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