Thursday, October 8, 2009

What I Learned this Week: I Need to be a Better, More Vocal Spokesman

This post is in response to blogger I follow, Musings of a Housewife. She recently published a post regarding modern corn production. My response was too long for the comment box. I encourage you to read it before reading my response.

It takes more than one acre, one season, one book, and one hour to learn and teach others about corn production, family farms and a safe, renewable commodity that feeds and fuels our world. I've been married to a grain farmer for ten years and an active participant in the agriculture industry for almost 20. I learn something new about our food system every day.

I've enjoyed reading your blog the last few months and learning about your perspective on food. I wish everyone around the world was a blessed as you to have the resources, both money and time to cook from scratch and support labor intensive farming practices. It makes me sad to write, that even if there were more people (consumers) with the time and the money, there are not enough industrious people (producers) or land in the northeast (This is where the Musings author is located, look at page four: Researchers will Explore...)to meet that demand and live a financially comfortable, comparable life to the people they feed.

Today, fewer farmers feed more people and fuel more cars with less land, less fertilizer and less pesticide than ever before. And, 98% of those farms are family farms. They may not look exactly like our great grandparents farms but everything changes over time. (Think back to my
I'm not your typical farm wife post. I am not the same farm wife as my mil was or my gmil but I am still a farm wife:).)

Today's farmers still work hard; really, really hard. I can't imagine having to give up the technological advances we employ today, especially the ones that ensure a safe, consistent product. I want my husband to live long enough and be healthy enough to retire, pass our farming operation on to our children and enjoy life.

I applaud your efforts to feed your family in the most healthful way you can. It has made me think more about our meals and helped me strive for greater balance in what I feed them. Have I given up HFCS? No, and I don't plan to. But I am more attentive to making sure we balance fresh vs. processed, eat out of the garden more and not over snack. I love the granola recipe you first posted and eat it for breakfast most mornings. I also realize that eating like this takes a lot of time, a lot of planning and a desire for cooking; things that not everyone has. There is a need for processed easy to prepare meals.

Before you turn up your nose at the amber waves of grain, keep this in mind - only 3.8% of the 2008 corn crop (look at page 8-9) went to making HFCS. 30% went to decreasing our dependence on nonrenewable foreign oil and 44% went to feed livestock. Everyone has their preference, but I prefer corn fed beef over grass fed any day. The keys are parental control, personal responsibility, a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.

I am incredibly disturbed that your picture of farming has been shaped by the clip you presented in your post. Knowing that you often go on PR junkets, I invite you to visit our family farm in northern Illinois. Learn about commercial farming from a family that has seen and been part of the evolution of farming practices and market creation for our crop for over four generations. Maybe you can join us for Thanksgiving. We will likely be having a picnic on the tailgate of a truck in a field because the weather hasn't allowed our crop to mature and we will not have finished harvest. A sacrifice we will gladly make to feed and fuel our world.

One last thought: I can't speak for all farm families but I would venture to guess that over 90% have a patch of sweet corn and garden they eat from in season and freeze the abundance for winter. Many of our farmer friends also raise a few head of cattle or pigs to freeze and eat throughout the year. Farm families can, and do feed themselves.


  1. Hi Amy. I appreciate your response, and I always welcome a different point of view. I'm open minded about all this as I'm learning as I go.

    You'd really have to see the movie; I don't think I did it justice. The point about corn is, it's in EVERYTHING. It's the main source of our diet, and yet, we were created to have a diverse diet. It feeds our meat, it's the oil our fried foods are cooked in, it's the source of sugar in our processed sweets, etc.

    I am certainly fortunate to have the resources to eat a more natural diet, but I'm hoping that as the demand increases, so will the supply.

  2. Amy,

    I am learning a lot along with Jo-Lynne and from similar sources, and I'm wondering: do you think, with your background and experience, that there are ways to farm a variety of crops and/or rotate them, instead of just a single crop (like corn or soybeans) if the food processing world changed its tune and created a demand for more variety? The same amount of land, even modern farming methods with chemicals and all, but just being more kind to the soil by allowing different kinds of plants to grow different years. That would be one step toward solving the monoculture of corn and the mineral deficiency of our soil.

    Thank you for the hard work you and your family do! I don't envy your sacrifice, but I certainly appreciate it.

    Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship (the granola recipe) :)

  3. Katie! This is a great question. Crop decisions are based on so many variables and I want to do it justice. Give me a few days to collect my thoughts and some links.

    Jo-Lynne! I've been trying to track down the movie without having to buy it since last week. I've been limited to YouTube clips. Tomorrow I plan to call the library for that and Pollan's book. I appreciate your questioning the status quo. I did not grow up on a farm. I came into this business and way of life learning and questioning why things are done certain ways as well. I have found that it is important to look at both sides as well their underlying agendas. My invitation to visit wasn't snarky and harvest hasn't yet started. You are welcome to come out and ride in the combine!

  4. I’m glad I waited to respond to your question. The Omnivore’s Dilemma showed up yesterday. By your use of the term ‘monoculture’ I’m guessing that you have read Pollan’s work.

    The simple answer to your question is yes and we do. We rotate corn with soybeans. These crops are best suited for our climate and soils. We have made a significant investment in machinery, buildings and technology specifically suited to these crops. We have built a knowledge base spanning four generations and several college educations to successfully grow them. The infrastructure to support these crops is in place in our area. And, we can make a comfortable living and a life doing it.

    Why don’t we throw other crops into the rotation? It doesn’t pay. I’m talking about market prices not subsidy payments. Contrary to what the mainstream media reports, farmers do not receive subsidy payments to grow corn. The subsidy payments we received this year would have come regardless of the crop we grew and were less than what we paid in property taxes per acre. (Why we get them is a long post for another time.) If there were a market for another crop we could efficiently and profitably produce, we would. At the end of the day we need to make crop decisions that pay, otherwise we wouldn’t have a farm.

    Your assertion is that more crop rotation would be a ‘step toward solving the monoculture of corn and the mineral deficiency of our soil.’

    Mineral deficiency is not a problem on our farm. We can’t afford for it to be a problem because it affects yield. With each harvest we use GPS technology to tell us the exact yield in the exact location in each of our fields. This helps determine the amount of nutrients removed with each crop. The same GPS technology allows us to take soil samples on 2.5 acre grids. Those samples are analyzed and using university developed equations, we spread fertilizer based on 2.5 acre grid prescriptions on our fields.

    Overspreading fertilizer is not good for the bottom line either. Pollan’s farmer friend claims to put more fertilizer on than is necessary. This makes absolutely no business sense. No wonder his wife has to work off the farm to pay the bills.

    I borrowed this from your blog:
    "We all have been given the great gift of our earth and all its resources. Genesis 1:28 says that we should “fill the earth and subdue it,” and those first humans were also given the responsibility to care for the earth. They pass that on to us."

    Farmers are right there with you! Our intention is to pass our farming operation down to our children and hopefully our grandchildren. This intention brings with it incredible stewardship responsibilities. The land is ours to fill for a short time but those we love that will come after us need to fill it and prosper from it as well. Raping the land is not an option.

    I question if the monoculture of corn is really a problem that needs to be solved or if our ability to produce corn abundantly should be celebrated.

    Today 1.02 billion people are undernourished in our world. We have the ability to feed them a calorie efficient diet that includes corn and products derived from corn. We should celebrate the fact that you and I have so many choices at the farmer’s market and at the supermarket rather than demonize one ingredient. So many people in our world, and even our country have to make much more difficult choices (doctor vs. food, clothes vs. food, school vs. food). We should put our energy into breaking down the barriers of delivering food to people who so desperately need it.

    I appreciate your willingness to consider another perspective. I think I am pretty close to both you and Jo-Lynne in practice, we are just coming at the issue from different perspectives. As you continue learning I hope you continue to talk to regular, commercial farmers. If you do, use the term continuous corn rather than monoculture. You will make more friends:)