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Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 06:31 pm

The plague of corn

Another bountiful harvest, and everybody gets rich but the farmer


Illinois farmers have a big problem on their hands: They’re about to harvest a huge crop. The U.S. Department of Agriculture started the bad news when it predicted a few weeks ago that total U.S. corn production will be 10.9 billion bushels, nearly a record. To make things worse, the weather has continued to be so favorable to corn that the crop could peak at more than 11 billion bushels. About the only bright spot is that China is having its worst drought in 100 years.

After too much good news, corn prices declined sharply, down from a high of $2.68 a bushel earlier this year — so farmers, like Cubs fans, are already looking to next year, and the next. Exports continue to increase, and ethanol production is taking more and more of the crop. One optimistic commodity writer said stocks of corn could become so tight in another two to four years that prices will approach $4 a bushel. That’s assuming that farmers don’t increase the size of the crop appreciably beyond the current 11 billion bushels, but American farmers usually find a way to increase the crop enough to keep prices low so they won’t make any money. Some have started the practice of “corn on corn,” planting corn in the same field year after year rather than rotating with soybeans. This may be the solution for adding more corn acres and keeping prices down while increasing fertilizer needs and the risk of insects and disease!

Gov. Rod Blagojevich waded into the cornfield recently with a campaign proposal to invest $225 million in borrowed money to help build 20 ethanol plants and five soy-biodiesel plants. Judy Baar Topinka, who wants to mandate more ethanol use, claims she’s a bigger ethanol supporter than the governor. If the proposed new plants get built, in addition to the seven ethanol plants already operating and two dozen more being planned, it will increase the demand for corn and, theoretically, lead to higher corn prices. Already ethanol production uses 12 percent of the corn crop, and the USDA predicts that that figure will grow to 23 percent by 2014. Will taxpayers keep going along with subsidizing the ethanol industry, to increase the price of corn, which will make ethanol more expensive?

And is corn the best place to invest our alternative-energy money? Corn is cheap, but there are many hidden expenses, argues Michael Pollan in his new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Today’s high yields demand prodigious amounts of synthetic fertilizers, made from oil, coal, or natural gas. “Corn is sipping fossil fuel. It’s a greedy plant,” writes Pollan. “Every bushel of corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it — or around 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn.” More oil is needed to ship and process the grain, making corn, Pollan says, “the SUV of plants.”

Although farmers work to mitigate the damage caused by the runoff of pesticides and nitrate fertilizers, the environmental cost of producing cheap corn is still huge. When synthetic-nitrogen fertilizer evaporates, it acidifies rain and contributes to global warming. The runoff that flows down the Mississippi River poisons the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Wendell Berry says the motto of industrial agriculture should be “Cheap at any price.”

Some of these costs might be worth paying if the farm economy were thriving, with rural schools and communities growing. Unfortunately, they are not. Some farmers are doing well, but the fact that there are fewer and fewer of them shows that many are not. Heroically they produce more and more of the raw material, corn, only to see most of the profits go to the giant food processors who “add value” by changing it into soda and synthetic cheese.

“There’s money to be made in food,” every farmer knows, “unless you’re trying to grow it.”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at

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