The Kingdom of Corn


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From GENE LOGSDON

You can find a stunning photo of the kingdom of corn in, of all places, the Sunday New York Times travel section Jan. 7. I stared at that photo on and off for three days, transfixed by what it silently said for all of us who know corn. In the photo, taken in rural Iowa, there’s one lonely farmhouse, surrounded by winter corn stubble as far as the camera can see. Miles in every direction of nothing—nothing — but corn stubble on low rolling hills, as forlorn a sight of human habitation as an artist could depict to me. To a corn farmer the scene probably brings more good feeling than bad because the thickness of the stubble indicates a very good crop there last year. All that stubble also indicates that little erosion will occur there over winter and as it decays and is worked into the soil, the fodder will add to the organic matter content.

But there is an ominous message in that photo too. The photographer could easily have taken a similar picture just about anywhere in Iowa where the farmhouse would be abandoned. Corn has been replacing farmsteads for fifty years at least because it looks like an easy and comparatively uncomplicated way to make money but requires constant expansion to do so, like all industrial businesses. Over the years pasture and oats and even wheat dropped out of the kingdom of corn. Grazing livestock and fences disappeared. Woodlots vanished. Crossroad and village stores closed. The number of farmers dropped precipitously.  Over 60% of the land today is owned by non-farming investors. In fact, 21% of Iowa farmland is owned by people who do not even live in Iowa. What is particularly rankling about these figures is that some 40% of that corn is grown to feed piston engines. This is a travesty especially now that gasoline is so cheap. Everyone I talk to except corn farmers themselves admits it. Ethanol from corn is not a sustainable process. It is not profitable without subsidies. But our leaders, neither Republican nor Democratic, have the moral fiber to oppose the corn kingdom because they believe that without all that corn, the farm economy of the midwest would collapse at least for awhile.

That is the history of corn kingdoms. The Mayan civilization was a corn kingdom and it collapsed. The Mississippi mound building culture was a corn culture and then it collapsed. Corn is such a wondrously productive crop that we can’t resist growing more and more of it, even on land not fit for row crop cultivation, until it destroys the diverse ecology that keeps nature thriving.

I know parts of Iowa quite well because as a younger journalist I travelled there doing stories for Farm Journal magazine. I have friends there still and write for Draft Horse Journal which is based there. I don’t get homesick in Iowa because it is so much like my part of Ohio, only the houses in rural areas are closer together here. I would have difficulty in taking a picture of that much acreage of corn stubble here that did not include more than one house. But the story is the same in both places. We have a painting on our living room wall by local artist Pat Gamby which depicts a lonely farmhouse in our county surrounded right up to the porch with corn stubble. The barns are gone, the pasture is gone, the garden is gone, the people are gone and the house is abandoned.

Our hills do not generally stretch out as long as the ones in Iowa and so in the spring, runoff water on those Iowa hills can gain much more speed as it goes downhill.  I have seen gullies in Iowa, even in this so-called no-till era, that are plainly horrifying. This is the fallacy behind all the good talk and practice of winter cover crops and true no-till. In reality many of these fields, no matter how well protected in winter, are so often worked up fine and level and beautiful for good germination in the spring and then, if heavy rains fall, gullies open up than can swallow a tractor.

We have discussed this subject regularly on this blog. Responders to my posts have mixed feelings, as I do. I certainly couldn’t disagree with “daddio7” a few weeks ago when he pointed out that I was “probably wrong” in predicting the end of factory farms. As he reminded me, “we need factory food farms for the same reason we need factories for everything else.” As he remarked, we could no more survive on organic food from small farms that we can provide a handmade car for everyone.  But I also agree with Stanton in his rebuttal, that cheap factory food is more costly in the long run and that although small farms are not very profitable they can make some money and do it without government subsidy. And not-for-profit garden farming could provide a lot more sustenance if we really got serious about it.

There is surely something to be said for both opinions. All I know for sure is that something significant is happening  in the way society looks at food production and it does not favor large scale industrial farming. I wonder, if 30 years from now, endless stretches of corn stubble and abandoned farmhouses will be as common as they are now.
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25 Comments

Waverly School Farm January 31, 2016 at 9:21 am

Beth, I’m thinking along the same lines as you. Just googled the ingredient list for an Egg McMuffin. It’s over fifty ingredients long! Pretty sure grandma didn’t use partially hydrogenated soybean oil or twenty odd preservatives in her breakfast muffin. I don’t much like foodies either, they are annoying for sure. Who wants to eat foam? But removing (almost) all of the processed foods from my diet has resulted in great relief from joint pain. And I don’t find that my grocery bills are any higher, either, what is required is that you find the time to prepare the food yourself. Fortunately for me, I find cooking and gardening relaxing!
I manage a small, one acre farm at my kid’s school. Our kids love to eat what they grow, and we often cook together right in the garden. My hope for our students is not that they will remember every technique I show them, but that they will have the idea that growing delicious food yourself is possible. Small stones in a pond.

Gene, you stirred up some really good discussion here! I love it that we all have such differing perspectives.
Chris, you make many good points, as does Tim. On the other hand, there are plenty of “food desert” places with inner city gardens, and you can grow a heck of a lot in a suburban backyard — you’re watering it anyway, so why not water veggies? Farmers markets are also held in many cities on a regular basis. As for canning, canners and canning jars can be found quite cheaply at yard and garage sales. You’re right that I have acreage; it doesn’t make me superior, but it does mean I chose to spend my money on things other than designer fashions, electronic toys and the newest automobiles. Once you get past the point of basic survival, spending money on fast food is more likely to be a matter of convenience and habit. Many of those who choose the fast foods because it’s convenient (based on my experience and observations) are middle class, driving their own cars, going to the gym for a workout and spending their evenings in front of the tube.
Two major points on which you and I differ. First, on the surface an egg McMuffin may contain similar ingredients to grandma’s sausage biscuits, but it’s like the difference between a zircon and a diamond. Golden Arches food seems cheap intially, but it has long-term costs: obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer. It’s typically high in sugar and unhealthy fats, even the “healthy choices.” Second, those “fresh vegetables” at the grocery store aren’t as nutritious as what you can and freeze yourself; the way they’re harvested, shipped and handled means they’ve lost many nutrients before they ever get into your shopping cart. In many cases they’re shipped from thousands of miles away (talk about carbon footprint!) and grown in countries that use much more toxic chemicals than I suspect you do. Even so-called “organic” foods may not be any such thing, and if the grower is in Mexico, how would you know?
Folks like us can help. We can share open-pollinated seeds (just one of my extra tomatoes can provide enough free seed to help a family get started growing their own). We can educate the younger generation(s). My husband and I have spent time with several other couples showing them how to butcher. We teach the kids in the 4H club how to cook by making meals for the community pantry, and instill a sense of responsibility for those who don’t have our advantages. I talk about these things on my blog all the time, helping my readers understand why it matters that you grow your own and know how to cook. My grandkids have been known to get into debates with their classmates about the nutritional and taste difference between Maybelle milk (Maybelle is our milk cow and we drink it raw) and grocery milk. One small stone, dropped in a pond, spreads many ripples…

I really don’t think most people can prepare a steak dinner with choice of potato, vegetables, baked roll, salad with any number of toppings and a dessert for nearly as cheaply as a place like Golden Corral prepares it. You can holler the food isn’t as good, or it is out of a can, or whatever, but a balanced healthy meal can be had if you choose. How do they do this? They buy in bulk. A McD’s Cheeseburger and small fries, as much as they may be scorned, is a cheap meal with calories for energy if you need it. An egg McMuffin is no different than Grandma’s egg and biscuit with country sausage fried in bacon grease that fueled Grandpa to work until noon dinner. I raise my own vegetables in my garden and freeze most of them. I eat them all winter, but cannot pretend they are as tasty or as nutritious as fresh vegetables at the grocery store. They are just cheaper (for me). People in “food deserts” are sneered at for buying fast food, but where is the land to garden, the money to input in the garden, the freezer to freeze the vegetables, the equipment to can the vegetables, the water bill for watering the garden, the electricity bill for canning (believe me, I can tell when I have been canning when I look at my July and August bills)? I think sometimes there creeps in a sense of superiority from people who manage to have an acreage and who feel that justifies sneering at people who are eating what is familiar, cheap and most importantly, available. Foodies are annoying enough. Let us not be like them.

Ummm, Gene, they’d have to actually cook — No Hamburger Helper, no frozen peas in cream sauce, no biscuits in a can…

I think for our kind of farming to succeed is for there to be a continuing good economy. As long as buying organic is more expensive and considered an extravagance to most people ,most are supporting with their words but not the dollars.Untill more people value quality food and can afford it the stores will continue to be full of the salty,sweet , cheap and easily prepared foods that they can afford .If the price of one input such as corn or soybeans rises most manufacturers will be able to adjust their recipes so cut back on the commodity ingredient or find substitutes.We have to be able to cover our costs as farmers and make enough profit to pay ever increasing inputs such as electricity, health,liability and vehicle insurance , yet sell cheap enough to get this food into John Q Publics hands and leave them with money for the lifestyle they’ve been taught is acceptable.Not only are we competing with Big Ag and Big govt but also rising prices of houses,cars,education and vacations they’ve been taught to be able to expect on their incomes.

    tim henslee, I certainly agree with you, tim, but there’s another facet to this situation that sort of says something else. I keep thinking about all the people at the lower end of the economic scale, who say they can’t afford organic food, who nonetheless frequent fast food restaurants where they gorge on food that costs them much more than if they ate at home. If they can afford fast food restaurant food regularly, they can afford to go to farmers’ markets and get good stuff. Right? Gene

      I agree to a certain extent. People first have to have the knowledge of how to select and purchase good food. But they almost have to be exposed to it as kids at home.Most peoples pallets are formed on institutional school food for 12 years plus what two working and very tired parents could drag home in a bag from the store or fast food joints.With one or if they are lucky both parents in the house and if both have jobs.getting to a farmers market to try and buy foods they have had little exposure too and very little training in school and life of how to prepare.I’ve worked since i was 10 -12 years old on the farm then driving trucks.My mom and /or grandmother cooked out food but i was usually gone working somewhere and did not get to see how to prepare it. Both were excellent cooks!I’m hoping to find my grandmothers recipes and hoping the mice havent turned them into bedding.My grandmother did not like to have anyone messing around in her kitchen . Plus boys werent supposed to be interested in that. Truth be told they need to have both girls and boys taking home ec now.Most people now are doing good to know how to make a balanced meal with canned or frozen store bought items. Most of the kids of an age to really learn how to cook a home made meal are instead up to their elbows in intense schoolwork to learn careers that will hopefully still be there when they are out of school.Not only did they not have a home studies for boys when i went to school,we didnt even have an FFA.My mom was shocked to find out the same school she had went to ,had one when she was there but had dropped it when i went to the same school.I( have been trying to learn some from my mom for when i can finally live on my farm, but she is now realizing how poor an education i got.,I drove semis for years then she realized i never went to a truck driving school. lol Most people now tasting food as we think it should taste think it tastes yucky or funny.I’ll admit i had some open pollinated sweet corn, a shoe peg type that tasted like field corn to me. lol It’s a viscious cycle. Most are too tired from working 1-2 jobs to prepare a scratch meal .IF they know how. transportation to a farmers market is difficult for many here in the city where i am at right now.Sorry this is so long. I should focus on editing sometime. lol But The biggest obstacles are KNowledge of how to find,select,cook these foods and time and energy to do it all. I’ve thought about selling vegetables like they used to driving up and down the streets . Trouble is the kind of people we need to reach around here might also rob and kill you. Or they have little money especially cash to pay with, IF you can get them to pay. Or the people are all gone at work and school and there is nobody home to sell too.Quite a challenge. Wish i was younger,more energetic and niave (SIC) .This is not even touching on all the special interests.THat are trying to sway people to eat their (tasty) meals of frozen or semi prepared food, or trying to get folks to eat raw or vegan or any number of fads. Damn I’m long winded and boring. lol Sorry so much info and like a stop sign, these things have so many sides. lol

      Gene,
      I used to think in the same terms – if they can afford McDonalds they can afford organic farmer’s markets.

      Since then a friend pointed out how his mother and brother live. They are so strapped that they mostly eat bulk rice dishes, or bulk bean dishes, etc. when your living budget is $60/day and you have a cigarette habit and lots of meds to buy because you have eaten too many lousey meals, even McDonalds is too much to pay, even farmer’s markets are too much to pay.

      there are lots of folks in this situation.

Your opening thoughts, Gene, reminded me of my response to the excellent documentary film “Troublesome Creek” when I first saw it back in the 90’s. For those unfamiliar, it was about an Iowa family trying to hold onto the family farm amid mounting debt and changing times. The most poignant of many poignant scenes for me was when the family revisited the farmstead where the patriarch and matriarch of the film had begun married life as tenant farmers before taking over the family farm later. What had been a sanctuary of life and activity for animals and family was now a deserted and decaying eyesore waiting to be “disappeared” so that another couple acres could be put to productive use. There was this unsettling sense of a creeping desolation. You have evoked that similar observation.The ability to change and adapt is necessary and even enriching but rapid change driven almost solely by economic consideration seems a path to unnecessary loss. We smaller scale producers with a different understanding of true wealth remind me of ant colonies. Individuals can get squashed pretty easily but they can’t get all of us and we keep coming back.

Here are references to the picture that Gene is referring to, I believe. Hopefully they work.

Iowa farm house picture

Article
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/travel/iowa-caucus-donald-trump-hillary-clinton.html

Gene,I have a question for you, only nominally on topic. You said, “woodlots vanished.” If you look at a satellite picture of say Ohio, you see the checkered pattern of grain fields. Also in corners, here and there, fairly regularly spaced are woodlots. What was the purpose of those woodlots when the land was originally cleared?

    Rick, In earlier days, the rule here was to keep one-tenth of the farm in woods and for years something like that was followed almost religiously. The practical reasons were for fuel wood and lumber for construction. Then the craze came, starting in the 50s, for clearing all for corn. Most of the wood lots that survived were because the owner wanted to keep the woodlot for sentimental reasons, or, more likely because the woodlot encompassed that part of the farm that contained swampy ground too hard to drain, or hillsides and ravines not easy to farm. These woodlots survived the clearing craze. I live in one of them. Another I bought to keep it from going to corn. Gene

My wife and I are in our early 70’s and we raise as much of our food as possible on a small farm. Probably 60% or better. The idea that it would be more efficient to get food from industrial agriculture makes about as much sense as thinking that our children could have been more efficiently conceived by robotic artificial insemination.

Today I drove past a friend’s farm–it had a “for sale” sign out and she is having to sell off 100 acres of her land. Her husband died mysteriously in one of his barns a couple of years ago and she has been renting their land to other farmers since then. I’m wondering whether she is a victim of the past difficult year for conventional corn farmers? I am embarrassed to admit that we rural people do not ask one another these hard questions. Maybe we think we are preserving someone’s dignity? I don’t know. Part of me hopes that some young family will buy the land and farm organically and outside of the commodity, company-store model. There are a lot of these types moving into our area and while I see them as a blessing and the hope of the future, I really feel for my friend.

I suspect that what will probably put the nail in King Corn’s coffin will be the end of cheap oil. Yes, it’s cheap right now, but this is a temporary blip of oversupply. Anyone who read the Hirsch Report can see that we aren’t going to be able to continue our fuel-intensive farming or transportation systems forever. It took Saudi Arabia 30 years to drain their aquifers and go from being a wheat exporter back to being a wheat importer — it’s a lesson we should all take to heart when it comes to finite resources. Wind, solar and water can’t pick up the slack without a lot more supporting infrastructure, especially in the matter of transportation. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on building up my soil and the ranch systems I need to feed my family…

It’ll be a miracle if humans are still around in 30 years. Maybe some tough homesteaders, but the way we’ve been messing with water, pollution, and climate change I think David Kline was right when I drove him home a few years ago from that conference in Wooster when he said he was very concerned about not just the Amish life, but all life.

the kingdom of corn /wheat is now so big that it’s demise would cause a collapse of the US economy and mass hunger throughout the land. The world of modern food revolved around corn/wheat. Almost everything that people eat is ultimately corn/wheat.

Despite the uses of corn/what , we have figured out how to grown corn so efficiently that we don’t know what to do with it. Voila ! an ethanol mandate from the government. A wasteful use. However, without ethanol corn would be $1.50/bushel, and its production would have to be cut back.

Ultimately, all industrial industry and most commercial industry collapses down to THREE dominate companies and a few additional ones that supply niche markets and craft production. The classic example is the auto industry of the 1970s. If left unchecked
this will happen in farming.

Under this scenario, three companies will OWN 90 percent of the farm land in the US – at least the corn belt. The biggest one will own 60% and the others will split the rest. In the end, the government will probably nationalize the whole thing and own 90% of the farm land.

I don’t see big farming and king Corn going quietly away. the only things that could displace it. might be.

1. A massive back to the land movement – this is unlikely since most young people abhor the country life – better to sip lattes and play with cell phones.

2. A collapse in oil and gas production. High energy prices would be deadly to big Farm. This might happen someday, but not this year.

3. Some super weed or super pest or soil erosion/compaction that requires people to do the work rather than machines.,

4. A long, long lasting collapse of the power grid.

In short the only thing that will displace big Farm, big Food, big Monsanto and king Corn is a national disaster. Yuck!!

I’m no fan of subsidies and would like to see them yanked cold turkey. Neither do I care for the abominable practice of monocropping hundreds or thousands of acres. That said, I really do believe that every kernel of that genetically modified corn should be made into ethanol. Certainly it’s not fit to eat.

A comment about comments. I noticed that any comments I make are listed as coming from “Just Farmers”. I’ll try to figure out how to change that to my name. I think that you might consider printing comments only from those of us (unlike me in the past) who give their actual, true, corny names. Curt Gesch, Telkwa, British Columbia

Just because we “need” factory farming does not guarantee that it will succeed. It only guarantees that, if/when it fails, we will fail with it.

Iowa born, I have seen the change in my home state taking place over some 70 years. An article in National Geographic (I think), some time ago, described Iowa as most likely of all of the states to have experienced the most dramatic and extensive “landscape” change.
With prairie and woods very reduced and with corn and soybeans in place, rural social ties and communities have changed greatly, songbird diversity is way down, and, of course, it all means that it will more difficult to address our abundance of carbon pollution and climate change. Oh yes, large hog sheds that foul the air, ground water, not to mention the animals themselves, are now the predominate, landscape feature (once you work your way through the corn and soybeans).

Ron M

I keep thinking about the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico allegedly caused mostly by nutrient and sediment runoff from agricultural lands into the Gulf. I’m thinking the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the decaying material in the dead zone probably far exceeds the amount of greenhouse gases “saved” by ethanol production, which I’m told is subsidized by the government. That is not even considering the loss in production of such things as fish, crabs shrimp etc. which were formerly produced in the dead zone. Then there are the arguments for loss of biodiversity (whatever that actually means) associated with both the corn monoculture and the dead zone.

I keep thinking that truly sustainable corn production is still in the infant stages of development, if it is even that far. I still think corn inter-cropped with a multi-species grass and legume sod would be a lot better in terms of sustainability as compared to what is now being practiced , even if yields were less. Also, integrating livestock into such a scenario, in my opinion, only helps with moving towards a truly sustainable agriculture.

I read recently that new homesteaders to the prairie who didn’t have time to plow or lacked the means to actually plow the prairie alternatively chopped slots in the sod with an axe to plant corn. However, I didn’t see any follow-up in regard to yield from this practice.

As an example of what such axe wielding corn farmers might have produced:, I’ve had corn volunteer in my pasture for many years now from tossing out feed corn for the poultry and goats. When the pasture was fairly new the corn was rather puny but as time goes on those few stalks I’ve managed to protect seemed to do pretty well. I don’t really have land space to do much experimentation in this regard, but I sure wish there was more research towards a truly sustainable model of corn production. Dr Ken Albrecht of the University of Wisconsin at Madison has done some good research toward such a model.

I would like to think I don’t really need corn, but I use at least a ton per year to feed my poultry and livestock and I freely admit I compromise my low carbohydrate diet with a bowl of delicious bean soup flavored with onions and ham . That ham also represents a fair amount of corn. I thoroughly enjoy corn bread on the side, which is usually slathered in butter, which also most likely represents a fair amount of corn. I wash the bean soup and corn bread down with cold milk, which if it originated from local dairies also represents a fair amount of corn. I strongly suspect that most of us are similarly, strongly dependent on corn for our normal daily lives to continue in the manner to which we are accustomed.

Alternatively, managing for sod-based corn production integrated with grazing livestock production most likely would preclude absentee landlords because of the amount of hands-on work needed.

In contrast, smaller farms operated by the owners could probably manage to actually implement such a sod- based corn production model. I keep thinking that although total cash generated would likely be less than the current corn production model, that is compensated by the concept that expenses would also be less, so the farmer could in fact end up with money in the bank instead of constantly borrowing to cover operating expenses.

Can Gene’s blog followers possibly help make this happen?

Gene,

The picture you are referring to reflects what modern business aspires to: an economy without people. Every move conventional wisdom wants to make is an attempt to lessen the number of people involved. The height of perfection would be if we could have robot tractors and harvesters and grain handlers and self-driving trucks, etc. The only people needed would be the commodity traders-oh wait, they could be replaced as well. Now all we need would be consumers. But where will they get the money from?

Don R

The best use I’ve ever seen for corn is the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Build stuff out of it🙂 Hey, it’s better than feeding it to animals (who then get sick and we eat the animal meat and then WE get sick), much less eating it ourselves in the form of HFCS and all the other junk made out of mostly genetically engineered corn. If we (the people) would stop buying corn and corn-made products, in about 45 years we’ll see less corn planted. That’s about how long it takes for anything to soak into the heads of our ridiculously idiotic brainwashed society – and our “leaders”.

Dont forget wheat. I’ve seen pictures of the hillsides they grow wheat on out west and they look like mountains to me.They keep farming slopes out there that i wouldn’t try to stand on much less drive machinery on. Considering the fact they have to have special hillside combines to harvest the wheat and I know a lot of the land doesn’t yield well. (In fact if it was here in the midwest, would be considered a crop failure.I think it is like Bob Rodale said back in the 80s that we will keep on this down hill slide of having fewer bigger farms and lots of smaller part time farms. Just like he predicted the middle class would disappear and the rich get richer.I think the trend will continue until in the future the govt. because of an outcry from the public will try to preserve the remaining acres more for the defense purpose than for the food purpose although it will still be farm ground producing food.This on top of a population that will also be clammering more places to play and shop nearby and real estate agents who will be salivating over the potential sales of that ground for commisions. To sum it all up i think the present trend will continue to bigger and fewer full time farms. But sooner or later the population will have to look around and decide on what is important. What they will choose is still up in the air.Will they be content to import most of our food produced in south america by poorly paid labor or will they keep over producing corn and wheat on fewer acres and pushing the crop growing acreage to the west onto poorer dryer soil.I think the economics ,lack of available water and land will put an end to ethanol.

I think that “profitable” where it is used to consider which crop, or crops, to grow needs to be redefined. It is profitable to grow a lot of corn, assuming your acceptable definition of the term involves money received for the crop. It’s also profitable to grow many other crops on homesteads so long as your definition of the term considers the view from your porch, the health of your soil and those who dwell on it, the cleanliness of your watershed and the air you breathe. Myself, I’ll go with the homestead definition.

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