Could King Corn Be Our Downfall?


From GENE LOGSDON

That is a perfectly ridiculous question, if you look at corn yields lately. Corn farming has never been so successful. Last year production soared to a new record high in the U.S., with an average yield of 171 bushels per acre. A new individual record-breaking yield was also set, an unbelievable 503 bushels per acre by a farmer in Georgia. He must have set the field up on edge and planted both sides of it. I’m sure that every agronomic aid known to science was scrupulously applied, every fertilizer and mineral added to absolute perfection as far as science knows, the crop irrigated so as never to suffer the least stress of dry weather, the soil used the very best available. What it cost to achieve that kind of yield didn’t matter; bushels per acre was everything. But that is still an achievement worth a gasp or three. Just how many bushels per acre are possible? Using estimates based on history, the experts say that corn production increases on a forty years basis about 1.8 bushels per acre per year on average. How far into the future will that be true?

More impressive from a practical point of view was the yield that David Kline reports in the winter issue of Farming magazine for corn on his family’s farm last year, because his was organically grown, without all those high-priced chemicals. Organic Valley representatives planted 17 test plots of various corn varieties on his farm and they averaged 223 bushels per acre. All the plots were over 200 bpa. With organic corn selling for around $10 a bushel and all he used for fertilizer was manure, that’s a profit per acre industrial grain farmers would die for. Since David farms with horses, it gives one pause. “Backward” farming,  such as the Amish practice, can be much more profitable per acre than “forward” farming. And having been on his farm many times, I know that his family maintains the soil’s fertility down through the years, if not actually increasing it. 

For reasons that have nothing to do with corn yields, I’ve been studying up on the history of corn and I’m beginning to have a sneaky little fear that corn may not be the godsend we are accustomed to thinking of it. In Mayan culture and in the Late Prehistoric Age of the mound-building American Indians, corn was the major crop. It’s what they mostly ate. Archeologists are finding evidence that this diet led to deteriorating health and maybe was the main reason the mound-building Indians seemed to mysteriously disappear about a thousand years ago. The collapse of the mound-building culture and the collapse of the Mayan civilization earlier coincided with an agriculture and diet dominated by corn. In both cases, rising population and diminishing soil fertility encouraged war and instability because the only way the people knew to maintain high corn yields was to find new land to grow it on.

Corn is so rewarding to grow (and tastes so good—almost all native Americans celebrated a “Green Corn Festival” in August—but its abundance requires large amounts of fertilizer and very careful cultivation to avoid depletion of fertility, erosion and compaction. We may learn as native Americans learned the hard way, that corn must be planted in long rotations with green manure crops as well as recycled fertilizers. That limits the number of acres that should be used for it annually, something modern farmers are loathe to do since it means less money. As we grow it more intensively and exclusively, the cost of maintaining its abundance continues to mount right along with the yields. We have learned to substitute manufactured fertilizers for moving to new virgin soil but what if the cost of mining and manufacturing fertilizer becomes too high to afford. I don’t want to sound overly melodramatic here, but will we go to war over fertilizers and fuel while our health dwindles from too much corn syrup? Have we actually done so already but don’t realize it? Will we follow the Mayans and the mound-builders to extinction?
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18 Comments

If we look at history, corn has invariably been grown in association with beans and squash in Native American societies. I know a farmer in KY who lived for years in Guatemala and who learned the native agriculture during that time. She grows corn without tillage, without tractors or horses. The area that will be next year’s cornfield is mulched heavily in the fall. In the spring, the mulch is parted to plant the corn in rows. She plants by making a hole with a “planting stick” in one hand and dropping the seed with the other. When the corn is up and growing she comes along and plants a bean seed next to every healthy cornstalk. At the same time she plants winter squash in the row where corn did not come up. Now obviously, the scale of this operation is limited, but the inputs are minimal. There is no weeding involved. I understand that she does very well selling heirloom seed corn and cornmeal, and she has recently erected a mill on her farm.

Comfrey is a good feed supplement for poultry and livestock. And it is not as labor intensive as growing grain because it is a perennial. It improves the fertility of the soil. It is a good plant for the small farm.

“Will we go to war over fertilizers and fuel while our health dwindles from too much corn syrup?”

It’s a definite possibility. The world is running out of phosphorus. The mines are running dry and we don’t put manure on fuels to put the phosphorus back. Add to that the demand for phosphorus going up every year. Worse still is the fact that only like 5 countries have any phosphorus reserves and something like 80% of it is in Morocco…held by a king…and most of it is in an area that’s contested by another country thus making it not easily accessible. I smell war on the horizon. You forgot water Gene. The United States and Canada have 25% of the world’s fresh water. As droughts continue and or worsen and access to clean water dwindles, the United States and Canada are starting to look like big targets, especially when desalination is so expensive. In the past California has tried to buy Great Lakes water and were promptly told “no”…is a civil war possible? It is far easier to go to war then it is to change ones ways and abandon poor farming practices (i’m looking at you California, stop farming in the desert).

THis has got to be one of the most fascinating and dear to my hear threads I’ve seen in a long time.Hearing of someone getting high yields with open pollinated corn and organically grown is almost as good as my birthday and christmas !=)I believe to be practical and profitable in today economy we need to be able to occaasionally replace machinery,pay property taxes and our health care on top of the other exspenses to get along. I’m sooooooo encouraged to hear my favorite way of farming is being competetive in todays economy.I’ve wondered about using dried down sweet corn that one couldnt sell or pick fast enough for human consumption for feeding animals. I wonder what the nutritional value would be on the dried down seed?

Fascinating post and comments. Again, I don’t understand how conventional farmers survive with all the inputs they have to buy. It’s like they just keep working only to pay their debt at the company store. Jason, your experience with open pollenated corn is encouraging.

    betty,
    at one time our chiropractor was a farmer’s son.
    he had farming mags in the waiting room.
    i was astonished to read an article about how much debt you should start out the year owing!! it was thousands. mind boggling.
    from the article i got the idea that farmers are never free of outrageous debt. an eye opener to be sure.
    deb h.

How good to hear of such productive organic corn crop. But there are very few farmers with the talent and gifts that David Kline has.

    Actually there is. They may not all be amish or even organic. But there is a lot! THe biggest thing is to have the courage to pursue your OWN ideas and talents .While we can send soil samples off to be tested and diagnose the strengths of your soil . We are still at the mercy of our things we cannot change. Location.climate,weather, best seed for the soil type,drainage and such.I’ve seen two farmers right across the fence from one another with identical soils and one produce bin busting yields most of the time and the other just scraping by!

We also grow open pollinated corn here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Our variety is an 87 day maturity type that is also very short in height. The idea is to have a corn that will mature in a short season of 3000 feet elevation and will also not lodge from the wind on this plateau. Our yields have also been in the 200 bushel range. We grow it as part of the rotation as we plow down old sod that has been invaded and dominated by fescue and bluegrass from long term mowing for hay and then fall grazing. We have spread all of our horse manure on this ground for over thirty years now. The land is very naturally fertile and produces a good crop when corn is grown for two years and then the land is put back into small grains as a nurse crop to return to improved cold season grasses and legumes, namely Timothy and Birdsfoot Trefoil and medium red clover along with some perennial ryegrass. This mix produces a good volume and quality of horse hay for our Suffolk Punch Draft Horses. We leave it in hay and fall grazing until the stand quality declines to lower yields and then do it all over again. This work is done in strip contours plots of approximately an acre each. We have been selecting this corn seed for the earliest maturing and shortest height set ears for many years. It is fed whole and as corn and cob meal to our work horses. It is also feed whole as scratch grain to laying hens. The nutritional values of this corn is far better than hybrid varieties. The input costs are a fraction of that for conventional farming of corn, including the use of our own seed for years. If you are a small scale farmer why grow for bushels and bins when you can put more food value in a smaller space with O.P. corn? It’s planted on a 36 inch row width at around 25,000 seed per acre. By planting in fall plowed sod the weed control is simple mechanical cultivation with a riding one row cultivator pulled by a team of draft horses. These is all good sound proven traditional farming practices. We have a you tube video that shares this years crop from beginning to end.

Again Gene puts a worldly perspective on quite common activities. Thank you sir.

    Mr. Rutledge: What a great video showing your rare Suffolk Punch horses at work! I particularly like that you have not docked their tails. That center horse looks like a real puller!

The really crazy thing about corn is Taxpayers subsidize the growing of corn while much of the harvest we burn in the form of ethanol and worse yet feed our economic enemy China’s
slave labor to compete with our industries.Of course Fruscose corn syrup isn’t exactly a great health aid either.When Big Gov’t runs out of $$$$ Big Corn will run out of gas.

Corn can be good and bad, like most everything else. Sweet corn fresh picked from the garden, boiled a couple minutes and rolled in butter is the best food on earth. Growing up on the farm, we always raised 2 hogs to butcher in the fall. The very finest pork came from pigs we finished with the left over sweet corn. We did the same with the 50 chickens raised every summer for the freezer. Such wonderful tasting meals as Ma put on the table for the 6 of us can’t be bought today for any price.

I have never fed my chickens cracked corn from the mill. They get our excess sweet corn but that’s it. Fat chickens don’t lay well. Being retired, I supplement mill feed with forage beets, that I grow in the garden, and sprouted field peas. Seems to work ok for me and the birds are healthy. I try to not subsidize ‘big corn’ if possible. We should’nt fall for something just because it’s cheap and easy.

Did you see that DesMoines IA. Is suing the surrounding farm townships for nitrate pollution in the drinking water they take from the river? This might change the way Big Ag has to farm!

Here is how it all works…
When it is sunny it is never going to rain, when it is raining it is never going to be sunny… The metaphor could be the cartoon car that hits a brick wall at 90 mph, the wall collapses into a pile of bricks, the car explodes, the toon character unfolds out of the rubble and staggers off in a sideways direction… That is the real cycle of life in the human existence.
Boom/bust/different direction and it starts all over again.

So glad to hear that David had such great yields. Those dairy cows who supplied the fertilizer should get a celebratory extra ration treat! I remember how beautiful his soil looked when we took a wagon ride around his fields some years ago and how alive it seemed. So unlike the desert looking fields I see in late winter up here in NW Ohio.

Tickled to death to hear someone has done yield test plots on organic corn.Even better to hear he broke 200BPA. I had heard someone did great with an open pollinated corn called Greenfield 114 but never saw any figures.I need to back order that issue so i can see all of the various details Such as row width, plant spacing, planting date.I know as a farm kid i was always playing with ears of corn. Even walking almost a quarter of a mile with a little red pull behind wagon to get a few more ears of corn to play with from who ever was picking ear corn in the field.Back when there was a lot of small farmers around and guys would take the time to exchange a few ears of corn with a corn and tractor crazy toddler. I know for some of us corn has always been a wonderful part of life till the big corps got crazy greedy and are trying to turn it into some frankencrop that will probably need to undergo some kind of treatment before it is safe to handle with human hands in the future.Like sports or anything else ,we manage to ruin it.At least for now ,if anything we can always afford a few seeds to plant in gardens if not acres of it to enjoy what once was a wondercrop for this nation.

The huge dead zones in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico from allegedly too much fertilizer and sediment discharging into the Gulf from the mouth of the Mississippi River argue that we are already there.

I’m trying, although it is hard , to minimize all grains in my diet such as Atkin’s or Paleo diet guidelines partly for health reasons but also because until grain production in general follows a more sustainable model such as Masonobu Fukuoka tried to develop via “Natural Farming”as described in the: ” One Straw Revolution ” book it is hard to justify reliance on grain for our lifestyle support, at least in my opinion.

Alternatively the Wes Jackson’s Land Institute approach of developing perennial grains is also worthwhile, but I don’t see perennial grain products crowding the store shelves yet. The permaculture folks might have some viable options but a lot of folks still consider such permaculture concepts as :”Out There”.

However, for reasons of full disclosure, I still use regular grain (Corn or Wheat) to feed my poultry, inasmuch as I’ve not yet found a more sustainable replacement product to feed them and it seems if the poultry have sufficient access to enough grit for their gizzards they can digest raw whole grain well, as evidenced by body growth and egg production. Morrison’s feeds and feedings also indicates this to be so. If there is a truly sustainable alternative to grain for poultry I would like to learn about it.

I do have Black Walnuts covering the yard. I’ve read about a farmer even more frugal or poor actually cracking the walnuts in his yard to feed his chickens but I don’t yet have enough time or energy for that. Maybe I’m not that poor or frugal YET. Now if there was a way to crack a bunch of walnuts and extract the nuts for poultry feed that didn’t cost a fortune that would probably be viable for poultry feed, but it would be tempting to sell the nut meats for a higher price for human food. I once had a large sow who with a bit of urging ate the black walnuts like we do sunflower seeds. I cracked nuts by hand and fed her some until somehow she put it together and learned to crack them herself. When I butchered her at an advanced age (for a brood sow) I noticed her teeth were worn and cracked nearly to the gum line.

I’ve read of some work with using hazelnuts for oil extraction for fuel and other uses . I suspect the nut flour left from pressing oil should that industry actually develop would make a good feed for poultry and hogs but I still don’t see hazelnut meal at the local feed store. I also suspect a variety of meals left as residue from pressing oil would make good feed but I suspect oxidation leading to rancidity would decrease palatability unless some of the same technology used to preserve soybean oil meal quality was equally applicable.

I still can’t fathom why we’ve gone down the path nationally of using corn for ethanol to add to gasoline. I’m willing to bet the dead zones I described emit far more greenhouse gases from decomposition of carbon and nitrogen than what is saved from ethanol production That is if indeed there is any real reduction in greenhouse gases from ethanol use.

I’ve even read about using corn as fuel for pellet stoves which boggles my mind as extremely wasteful; somewhat akin to steam ship captains of yore using bacon as fuel to fire their ship’s boilers, which I’ve read actually happened.

So it seems that our society has already become over-reliant on corn, just as we’ve become reliant on fossil fuels. Indeed there may be reasonable alternatives to relying on corn, but if you try to find them in the local supermarket or the local animal feed store success is far less than assured. I strongly suspect that truly addressing such concerns of over-reliance on any one resource will ultimately be attributable to the efforts of homesteader-researcher-garden-farmer-inventor-entrepreneurs such as read Gene’s Blog.

In times past people have fought over nitrates, the war in South America in the early 1880s between Peru, Chile and Bolivia.
And considering that nitrates are now formed with petrochemicals, I’d say that several wars have been fought over petrochemicals: Japan’s seizure of the Dutch oil fields and the two recent gulf wars.

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