Cornstalks Floating Down The Highway


Surely we are into the Great Era of Unintended Results. A most recent example: the folks who helped bring us 300-400 bushel corn per acre thought they were saving the world even though, worldwide, people are starving to death as fast as ever. The plant breeders would not have believed, nor would anyone else, that someday their souped-up corn would be the reason a highway would have to be closed temporarily. I wasn’t traveling Interstate 75 near Dayton, Ohio when a heavy spring downpour precipitated (how’s that for a pun) this startling event. But I believe it because a few weeks later a similar rain here in our county coated some country roads with enough cornstalks that the county workers had to clean them off. So now we not only must contend with blizzards closing roads with snow but spring storms closing them with cornstalks.

I can hear readers say, well, you dumb writer, the cause was the rain not the cornstalks. When you get four or five inches of rain in an hour, all bets are off. But road builders take into account hundred year storm records in their designs so blaming it all on climate change is not the whole answer. There are extenuating circumstances. First of all, farmers are planting 35,000 to 40,000 corn plants per acre where just twenty years ago 25,000 was considered plenty and twenty years before that you could lose or make just as much actual profit with 18,000 plants per acre. Secondly, good soil conservation now requires that those stalks get spread out over the ground to reduce winter erosion, not buried by moldboard plowing. So inevitably, we have a farm flotsam problem rearing its ugly head over the roads. As I understand the deal on Interstate 75, the stalks first plugged the culverts in the road ditches, causing the water to flood up over the road. Even after the water went down and the road was open again, cornstalks hung from the bordering guard rails.

In many cases here in our county, part of the problem, if you don’t want to blame it all on the weather or the corn, is that road ditches are becoming a thing of the past. Many of them have been filled in because who needs ditches anyway especially now when semi-trucks line the roadside along corn fields during harvest time, handy for the combines to unload their harvested cargo. But in hindsight, it appears that those old ditches made handy reservoirs to catch the water and cornstalks floating off the fields. Now the flotsam can just ooze out on the road whether there’s a Democratic climate change cloudburst or an all night traditional Republican drizzle.

Also some farmers will plow as close to the county roads as the county engineer will allow and sometimes closer, so that the grass strip along the road grows narrower with each passing year. Even a milder shower can send the water out onto the road. Carrying some of those 35,000 cornstalks per acre with it is inevitable.

I’ve written before about how these cornstalks, now bred for greater strength, possess a woody texture to them that is actually wearing out farm equipment faster than anyone foresaw. Tire manufacturers are building special tires to cope with the situation. And while the stalks can be used to make cellulosic ethanol, harvesting them is almost too costly to make it practical.

I have an idea to turn this problem into pure gold, at least in those millions of acres of corn next to rivers and streams. These fields could easily be contoured so that after corn harvest, heavy rains would carry the stalks to the waterways and hence downstream to strategically placed ethanol refineries. We could harvest and transport the stalks with hardly any cost at all, just like we floated logs down the rivers in the good old days.  Sure beats floating them down the highways and byways.


I’m a few counties away from you in Logan Co, OH. I don’t farm; I pastor in a little village, Belle Center, and have for almost thirty years. We have the flooding on county roads like you describe. Too, here in “town” we have corn detritus blowing onto lawns all over our big “city” of 800 people or so. Our own parsonage back yard is quasi-protected by an abandoned old railroad right of way. Nothing blows or floods in there from the northwest. Front yard, however, gets it blown in from the southwest by times, and that’s six “blocks”.

The corn stalks are in the road because of the run off it’s an infiltration problem not a quantity of stalks problem! the joys of no-till

I’ve another example of unintended consequences. Several weeks ago I was returning home, driving on a state highway. I noticed the gravel on the side of the road had become pink. I slowed down enough to determine the pink color was caused by seed corn! There were places where it was difficult to see the gravel for the corn. This pink color lasted for ~three miles, and as suddenly as it started, it stopped. I had to theorize that the clean out door on an auger had popped open, allowing the seeds to flow out. I asked around, and people told me that seed corn is around $300/bushel now. That’s a lot of money, but what bothered me the most was when I was young, the stuff that was used to innoculate seed corn was pretty nasty, as I remember. Can anyone tell me what they use now, and what kind of environmental impact this event might have had? I thought about calling the state EPA, but historically they dont’ get out of their chairs, in my experience.

“…whether there’s a Democratic climate change cloudburst or an all night traditional Republican drizzle.” Still laughing!

Gene, while the entire essay is enjoyable and as usual chock full of food for thought, the first sentence is wonderfully and enormously thought provoking. Anyone with a camera can typically produce an image that can serve in place of a thousand words, but it requires truly extraordinary talent on the part of a writer to prompt a thousand words – or more – of thought on the basis of a sentence of only ten words. Your title for these times could aptly serve historians along the same lines as the moniker Industrial Revolution so readily evokes another period. As always, thanks for all you do.

Sure hope you and all your family are feeling well these days. And the same sentiments to all those who weigh in regularly with their own insights.

With all good wishes to all for a satisfying and enjoyable summer working with dirt,

When I was growing up on the farm, my dad would try to run the corn chopper through the stalks after the husking was done and just blow it on the field to be plowed under next spring. Since our rotation called for oats after the corn, this made the plowing a whole lot easier.
I came up with a good use for our sweet corn stalks last fall. My garden is on a slight slope, divided into an ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ garden with 2 rows of asparagus between them. Last spring’s torrential rains caused some minor erosion in the lower garden. To try to eliminate the problem, I stacked my spent stalks between the asparagus rows instead of putting them in the compost heap. Lo and behold, I have had no erosion this year through several gully-washer storms. In time these stalks will enrich the soil for the asparagus. The industrial farmers can’t seem to find solutions to the problems that no-till causes. Corn stalks washing down the road is really future topsoil, so where’s the benefit?

I wonder if these woody corn stalks work like the industrial hemp everyone is talking about growing in KY and IN. Maybe we could have a choice of corn stalk or hemp vodka!

Seriously, if you take the stalks away from a crop you take away a lot of the soil nutrients with it that have to be replaced one way or another. That is a receipt for soil depletion if you ask me.

Why not bale, process and pelletize 50% of the stalks. Grain processors can make vodka abd ethanol out of grain dust just as easilt as grain. Process and pelletize corn stalks and sell it.

Do every 6 or 8 rows and and still enough stalks for precious conservation.

Don’t think it’s possible? One of the big grain companies sends barges of grain dust pellets up to Peoria from the gulf and makes ethanol and vodka.

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