Letter from Langdon: Corn Apologist

Is corn being demonized, and the corn farmer, too? Baby powder and ethanol, hog feed and the futures market -- Richard Oswald looks at the controversies behind his mainstay crop.

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When First Lady Michelle Obama told a group of school children they wouldn’t be growing corn in the White House vegetable garden, it raised a few eyebrows in corn country.

I understand her reluctance given all the bad press generated against corn, especially in the recently released movie Food Inc.

When Food Inc. made its debut, I figured it was high time someone exposed devious big food agendas and the way they take advantage of farmers.

Then they put the crosshairs squarely on me.

I’m a corn farmer. I’ve always been a corn farmer just like my dad and his dad. Growing corn was a natural thing to do here on our fertile northwest Missouri farms. Corn fields provided grain, bedding and forage for farm animals, and even fed the farmers themselves. I grew up eating corn bread, grits, corn meal, corn on the cob, having warm corn oil poured into my ear for earaches, even getting my bottom dusted with corn starch (but not lately). Corn starch helps prevent chafing even better than talc. It’s sustainable and renewable — and safe. They say now that talc, a mineral, closely resembles asbestos and is suspected of being a carcinogen. How bad is that?

Speaking of “bad,” I don’t like seed patents any more than the makers of Food Inc. do. For one thing, granting a seed monopoly to big corporations destroys farm diversity. All the corporations have to do is patent a few key genes proliferated through the entire strain and next thing you know, most advances for the next ten years will be in the form of PR — advertising the same old thing.  Winner-take-all seed patents simply do not promote healthy seed competition.

Unfortunately, the price I’ve paid for genetic modifications to my crop has been way too healthy because I pay more every year. Unapproved releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have cost me income through food scares, reduced exports and lower prices, even as the cost of my seed went up. And I’ve seen losses in the yield of what I grow when so called “improvements” ended up being not as good as what I’d grown before.

Few people realize that when I try to grow my own seed, I can now be sued in a court of law if patented crops cross-pollinate with my crop — or even if they don’t. That’s because the burden of proof always falls on the farmer.

One big corporation best known for its soybean-seed monopoly and lawsuits versus farmers spent years and millions of dollars convincing soybean farmers that the decreased yields they saw with their own eyes weren’t a by-product of genetic modification. Then, when a newly patented seed was released, they spent millions on advertising to convince soybean farmers that yield problems had been cured.

I don’t get it. With conflicting testimony like that, I can’t understand why these guys never seem to lose a lawsuit.

Just recently it was revealed that food companies working behind the scenes with regulators have been weakening organic food laws. If regulators can’t at least follow the rules, we all lose.

I used to feed to my own hogs and cattle the corn I grew. But in the ‘80s the politics of corn and livestock markets meant that as a small producer I had to make a choice. I could give my corn away to the big packers and grocery store chains through my cheap hogs, or I could get rid of the hogs, sell the corn, and make a better living.

Richard Oswald
The only thing that grows faster than a 13-year-old Langdon boy is good ole Missouri corn (the author’s grandson Ryan in the July 2009 crop).

Every signal the government sent me was that they wanted me to grow corn. Even though the farm program was advertised as the end to price-depressing surpluses, I was still being paid to grow more. They subsidized me even as they stopped defending my right to free and open livestock markets. That same practice continues today. That’s why a South Dakota beef producer named Herman Schumacher owes court costs of over $15,000 in a case where jurors found in his favor. The courts overturned the verdict, and U.S. Marshals have locked Herman out of his house until he pays Tyson’s expenses.

Sometimes you just can’t win for losing.

But the latest ploy has been for big agribusiness to claim the label of “sustainability.” Sustainable Agriculture has never been fully defined because no one is really sure what it is. (Hint: minerals mined from the ground are not sustainable; they run out over time. Growing things that recycle nutrients, sunlight, and air are sustainable for as long as life exists on earth.)

With adequate enforcement of fair markets, livestock and grain family farms that recycle nutrients endlessly from field to field are sustainable — big agribusiness that relies on consolidation, monopoly, factory-like production, and unjust market control without meaningful regulation is not sustainable by any definition.

When corporate models favored fewer bigger farms, Congress eliminated payment limitations so that those farms could profit even more, and big corporations expanded their control of markets partly through cheap supplies of feed grains and constant lobbying to reduce government oversight. They even started fattening livestock in Canada where U.S. regulators couldn’t see them.

With a steady, low-cost supply assured through government backing, corn became just another cheap resource like coal or oil. Suddenly we had corn to burn.

That brings up ethanol.

After a false start in the ‘70s a lot of corn farmers lost their ethanol investments when oil prices spiked and then collapsed. But as corn acres expanded and surpluses grew to new heights, ethanol came into its own, replacing methyl butyl tertiary ether (MTBE) in gasoline. (MTBE, a petroleum product, is not sustainable).

Map of  2008 U.S. corn production (shades of green) and productive ethanol plants, (red dots)

As all energy prices soared, more farmers bet the bank on corn-based ethanol markets. Then last year, some of them lost their investment when corn prices rose, mostly due to heavy speculation in corn futures – making ethanol more expensive to produce than the petroleum products it was to replace. Now the party is over; some farmer-owned ethanol plants had to be sold for pennies on the dollar to big companies like Valero, an oil company. Buyouts saved some of our wholesale market but cost us access to retail profits.

Food, Inc. shines the spotlight on a very old problem. American farmers like me,  all my neighbors, and our ancestors have been talking about it since the English Corn Laws took effect in 1660. In fact, it’s interesting to see how many times over the last three centuries laws have been enacted to influence corn production and the people who grow and utilize it.

It sounds good to say that we’re going to replace some current food ingredients with healthier things. I applaud that, even if it costs market share for something I grow. After all, I proved in the past that I can adapt my farming operation to whatever consumers and the markets demand. I would gladly do it again.

In fact, this year I’ve planted 400 tomato plants for just that reason. Farmers markets in cities around Langdon are offering tomatoes at $2.50/pound. That looks like demand to me. But change takes time, and the life of a family farm is fragile.

The bigger issue isn’t how we change, but if we can change at all. For people who really want to eat healthier, the alternatives are there. But we’ve built a system of food distribution reliant on corporate processors. I grew up watching my mother do things like stir up all manner of home baked goods, kill and prepare a live chicken for Sunday dinner, and can an entire winter’s supply of vegetables from our garden. I’ve butchered meat animals on the farm. I can still do those things, but a whole generation of Americans has been taught that food comes prepackaged, cooked, and passed from a drive-through window.

It is what they demand.

If change is to happen, what must come first is effective enforcement of existing law, and a thoughtful return to basic individual rights. Empowering farms once again with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the sustainable production of healthy food for fair markets is where it must start.

Toward that goal, I wish the First Lady well.

 

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