Impossible Farming


There is Successful Farming, Progressive Farming, Organic Farming, Natural Farming and an awful lot of Wishful Farming. I would like to add to the list one more kind: Impossible Farming.

I just ran across another example of it. Pat Hill, in her always interesting weekly blog on Progressive Farmer online, mentioned recently an interesting statistic or two when she was discussing the challenges that grain elevators face these days. A twelve row corn combine can harvest 20,000 to 24,000 bushels of corn a day. A modern, state of the art grain dryer can dry 6000 bushels of shelled corn from 20% moisture down to 15% in an hour. (Corn has to be that dry to store safely.) But with corn at 25% moisture, that drier can reduce moisture to 15% of only 3000 bushels in an hour. At 30% moisture, which was the case for a lot of corn coming to the elevator this harvest, it can dry only 1500 bushels in an hour. That means that the cost of drying, which amounts to plenty at 20% moisture, nearly quadruples at 30%. Going at full blast, the dryer can dry 36,000 bushels of 30% moisture corn in twenty four hours. The farmer whom Pat Hill was interviewing was running two twelve-row combines or hauling in 40,000 to 48,000 bushels a day. In other words, just one farmer could haul in more wet corn to an elevator in a day than the dryer could dry in a day. If there were, say, forty farmers hauling in corn, I would not want to be the manager of that grain elevator. Some of them were so pressed this year that they actually ran short of electricity and natural gas for their dryers. Can you imagine the horrible nightmare of keeping all that grain from heating and ruining before it could be dried properly? To top that off, the farmer told Ms. Hill that he planned to add a third 12-row combine to his string next year. No doubt other farmers will do that too. They do not want to be caught with corn still standing in the field in a foot or two of snow as happened quite often this year.

I try to envision a continuation of this kind of farm gigantism. The farmers buy bigger or more combines. The elevators buy bigger or more dryers. The farmers then can buy bigger or yet more combines. So the elevators have to install bigger dryers yet. This also means investing in more semi trucks to haul the corn because traffic regulations do not allow for bigger semis. To pay for it all, the farmer must expand acreage. The enormity of numbers that result as technology becomes capable of handling more enormity is just mind-boggling.

Of course, in a “normal” year corn will dry to 20% moisture all by itself in the field and so lower some of this awful cost of artificial drying. But how many “normal” years can you remember? And keep in mind, this is just a small part of the cost of corn production.

And the story doesn’t end there. In corn country, a strange word is on the lips of all farmers these days. Vomitoxin. The wet weather caused an outbreak of moldy corn, especially a disease called Gibberella corn ear rot. The rot produces vomitoxin, which is toxic to both humans and animals. So even though we enjoyed high corn yields in 2009, some of the crop, after finally getting harvested at enormous cost, is not fit to feed. If vomitoxin is discovered in the stored corn, there is no fungicide that can contain it say the experts. Hog and livestock feeders are scrambling to find clean corn to feed. Even for ethanol, corn with more than 7 parts per million vomitoxin is not being accepted.

One corn grower who is also a knowledgeable seed dealer, tells me a strange theory. Corn does not usually get infected with this kind of Gibberella rot. He is convinced that the new genetically-engineered corn varieties won’t mature and dry down the way more natural corn varieties do and that is one reason we have such a wet corn problem this year. If this story gains traction, I can hear Monsanto howling in protest. But what if it is true?

Whether or not it is true, to be a farmer in these days is to practice Impossible Farming. Agribusiness has become so unnatural that it is pricing itself out of the food market. We can always multiply numbers, but not the real things that numbers are supposed to stand for. Nature always bats last, we like to say. More profoundly, nature always bats first too.


Teresa Sue Hoke-House February 17, 2010 at 7:32 am

Big farming is crazy. Maybe it’s because those farmers just sit in big machines and never really have any actual physical contact with their land and crops and they have lost touch with what farming is really all about…..

“wonder what economic activity is for in the end, if there are few if any humans left to benefit.” Why its for piling up corporate profits and giving economists something talk about in their college classes, dontcha know? The last thing they care about is real people and the real world; what do these have to do with any thing that’s important, like finance and profits?

We have no idea how big ag business works. We work small plots of land, sometimes only an acre each. We farm at $3 a square foot. We don’t need big tractors and equipment, and do not bow to any organizational controlling body. We make a better than average living, working alone with 0 employees. We take care of the land and it gives back more every year. Beth, you are so right. If you don’t have vision in farming, why are you doing it? For Monsanto? I will never be held hostage by anyone, certainly not a large monopoly. AND – my neighbors LOVE me. I don’t contaminate their fields. Maybe all the big factory farmers need to give their lives a good look and try to remember how good it was before Monsanto.

Gene – problems here in Wales have not only hit wheat & barley, with crops going black in the sodden fields, but also with hay.

The issue is of the imperative of economic growth meeting implacable climate destabilization. For a second year in ’09 it started raining in June and we got no break good enough even for silage until late September. The outlay on plastic silage wrap (ex-oil) is expanding annually, while hay-balers are losing value.

You say “Who can remember a normal year ?” I’d point out that we are just at the start of the curve of climate destabilization, and what we see now arises from pollution released 30 to 40 years ago.

In this light, surely it is time that there was a formal end put to the absurd turf wars between PO & GW activists as to whose issue is a/. real, and b/. the more urgent ?



I guess agribusiness won’t be pleased until there are no actual farmers left. It makes you wonder what economic activity is for in the end, if there are few if any humans left to benefit.

It takes real-time time for the moisture on the inside of the corn to diffuse to the outside of the corn where it will dry off. Extra heat and air won’t do much to speed things up, and may actually cause exterior crusting that inhibits drying. Less heat, lower air flow and more time would cut overall energy use considerably. If the corn is slowly tumbling also, there is little chance of spoilage. With the current infrastructure, that may not be possible. But when upgrades are considered, lots of low-powered machines may be more useful in the long run than a few large high-powered ones.

E. Coli in spinach toxic corn. As the magic eight ball use to say “outlook not so good”.

I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a line something like : “the unexamined life is not worth living”. It can surely be applied to farming–if you can’t think about what you are doing, why and how you are doing it, what is our vaunted human intelligence good for? Why can so few people recognize (as you certainly do, Gene) the insanity of continuing to do the same things over and over when it is obviously not working. I have always thought that we should be able to learn more from failure than from success; failure should make you want to change your behavior, not hunker down and do it over again. Guess I must be mising something here…

I’m from the Canadian Prairie. Wouldn’t using all that energy eat up what little profit or increase their losses? Unfortunately Canadian Prairie farmers run into very similar problems but with a different crop, canola. This crop is practically all GMO, with contract stipulations that new expensive seed has to be bought every year and this crop requires very costly imputs. Sometimes a million dollars can sit in a field and Lord helps the farmer if the crop gets snowed on. Funny how agribusiness works, doesn’t matter which crop, which country, same problems for farmers.

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