Letter from Langdon: Finite

The main questions about grain today are establishing a fair price and handling leftovers. Do we keep exporting them or plow them back into the soil?

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Futures traders say “Rain makes grain,” but it takes a whole lot more than rain to build the heads, pods and cobs of everything we grow.

Growing a crop is much the same as building a factory. Both take energy and material. And any factory will wear out if it’s not kept up. Crops, like factories, require maintenance. In order to pay that cost, farms and ranches need to earn a fair return on investment and labor.

That can’t happen without fair competitive markets.

It’s popular to criticize farmers for collecting subsidies and growing grain for ethanol. Critics say that we’re burning food too valuable to waste, that grain sales for ethanol drive up feed costs and force livestock producers out of business. The truth is without a realistic evaluation of food and energy policy, we’re just using up valuable resources, tearing down factories that future generations need.

But to survive, we farmers must take our profits where we find them.

When I was a kid on the farm, Dad told me that organic matter (stuff grown on the land like grass, corn stalks, and wheat straw—even weeds) maintain fertility when we return them to the soil, like a factory recycling its own waste. That’s because not all, but a large percentage of nutrients that a growing crop uses remains behind after the grain is harvested.

During Dad’s day, average corn yielded about 80 bushels of grain per acre. Today’s national average corn yield is projected at more than 160 bushels per acre. That means this year’s crop will be producing twice the grain Dad’s average crop did in the ‘50s. Whatever the nutrient withdrawal of his crop was, mine is nearly doubled.

Biofuel critics say that growing food is better for land and people than raising feed stocks for bio-fuel. Fact is, no matter where it’s used, very little of what we grow today returns to the soil where it was born. That’s one reason why markets for fertilizer mined from the earth as well as recyclable plant nutrients from grain (manure) are rising across the country and around the world.  In many areas of corn country, manure from CAFOs used to build soil fertility is a by-product that represents more profits to hog contractors than any they receive from integrators for growing livestock.

On the other hand, in livestock feeding areas less suited to grain production than to corporate expansion, toxic manure is a clean-water liability.

Getting grain back into the land (as manure), to sustain fertility

Maintenance of the grain factory in Dad’s day meant plowing down a legume or even weeds, adding lime, and spreading manure back on fields that fed home grown livestock. Now that we have fewer farms and bigger CAFOs producing more hogs and chickens, crop farmers must purchase phosphorous and potassium for grain factory maintenance instead of recycling them as waste from their own products.

Almost the entire agricultural system we have devised and live with today fails one basic test: Little of what we do in food OR bio-energy production is sustainable. When we fail to address basic loss of fertility and harm to our environment, then like the song goes, we’re just another day older and deeper in debt.

We’ve been mining the soil the way coal miners cut down one mountain and move on to the next. Unfortunately, none of our fuel or food natural resources are infinite.

It’s not all bad, because regardless of how much grain we convert to fuel, we don’t burn all of every bushel. Plant nutrients—they aren’t the energy in ethanol–remain behind in distillers grain (DDG) to be utilized by livestock producers as animal feed both here and abroad.

The carbon cycle: grains returned to the soil replenish nutrients and trap carbons.
But export sales of food or feed export both energy and fertility. The basic nutrients in those products are gone from our farm fields for good.  Energy generated through photosynthesis in growing grain recycles carbon brought back down to earth regardless of whether it fuels people, animals, or cars. The most irresponsible behavior isn’t the way we use grain — it’s the way we handle the leftovers.

While the total amount of carbon in the world is limited to whatever we have, it’s where we put that carbon that matters. We live in a finite world. Mountains of coal and oceans of oil used as energy turn the world upside down by removing carbon from the earth and putting it into the air.

The same is true of the way we treat markets for farm goods. Lax enforcement of laws like the Packers and Stockyards Act and misguided spending of producer-funded check-offs have turned the world of agriculture upside down.

Current methods of livestock production are relocating basic fertility. If manure is more than 20 miles from a parent cornfield, chances are those nutrients may never see home again unless they pass by as runoff.

The top food producing regions in the world are shown in yellow.

Unfortunately, they don’t grow much corn in Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf of Mexico. Oil refineries consume enough energy to power ¼ of all American homes. As farmers, our own energy use will never equal what refiners use just making oil saleable. Fact is, natural gas, the stuff they still burn off at wellheads, is mostly what ethanol plants use to cook their product. And shipping grain to an ethanol factory squanders no more energy than shipping it from the Midwest to southeastern chicken factories, west or south to export markets, or even up the road 50 miles to corporate hog confinements.

When grain was priced below what it cost to grow, supplies seemed infinite. Rivers of corn, sorghum, and wheat flowed to opaque markets that didn’t recognize true worth. Farm prices were forever cheap as a benefit for big agribusiness. Our government paid farmers subsidies because the market had failed to return the true cost of grain to its source. In the meantime large processors, subsidized by those seemingly limitless supplies of grain could charge whatever they wanted.

Cheap raw materials for the sake of abundant food and corporate profits are no more sensible today than having cheap crude oil. The cheaper it is the more irresponsibly we treat it and the more ways we find to abuse it.

The population of our finite world continues to grow, demanding more, more, more. But there’s more competition for food, more competition for fuel, more demand than ever before, with fewer people actually competing in fair and open markets to produce it.

Like the cattle auctioneer I used to know who banged his gavel and asked reluctant bidders the question, “Hey! What are we doin’ here!!?”– an honest evaluation of public policy is called for.

Even digging a hole requires soil, and there’s only so much of that to go around.

 

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