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?