Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Iowa "Three Sisters:" Corn, Soybeans, and Hogs

When you visit Iowa, you're nearly guaranteed to see three things: corn, soy beans, and hog confinements. Those were the focus of the field trip I attended yesterday at the Community Food Security Coalition Conference To be totally blunt about it, maybe you've wondered: why are farmers so stupid that they keep growing corn and soybeans year after year? Or corn and corn year after year? And why on earth would anybody stink up their own farm with a hog confinement? And, as you may have guessed, it turns out that the farmers aren't stupid at all. Not one bit. I will explain below. There's also another great question I was asked on a recent visit to Lawrence University. In classic liberal arts professor fashion, one of the professors asked me, "Assuming the farmers are all rational, if they all plant GMOs, then wouldn't that mean that the GMOs are the best choice?" Gooood question. I'll address that below as well.

Welcome to Iowa

If you'd rather watch instead of read, you can view this video of George Naylor describing why GMOs and corporate giants win (thanks to Andrew Kang Bartlett for shooting and sharing the video).

We started yesterday on two farms owned by two very good friends. The woman (Chris) grew up on a farm. Her father mentored the other farmer (Jerry) so that he would know that his farm was being well taken care of when he retired from farming. Then, after many years away from farming, Chris decided to come back to it. If I have my numbers right, Chris has about 130 acres and Jerry farms 2500 acres (although he does not own all of it). It seems that the norm here in Iowa is that farmers raise corn and/or soybeans on an average of about 1000 acres, but they often only own about 160 or 320 acres. For the rest, they either crop-share (grow crops on someone else's land and split the harvest with the landowner) or cash rent (farm on land they rent for a set price they pay in cash, not crops).

What does this system have to do with all of the f*&$ing corn and beans grown in this state? Well, if your best, most certain path to a paycheck is corn and beans, then the price of rent will be set based on how much money someone could make using the land for corn and beans. And based on the maximum yield a person could make for corn and beans. In other words, it simply won't do to rent someone else's land and grow a crop of your choosing, or even to rent their land and grow corn and beans using a perhaps more sustainable but less productive method. If you're renting land, you're probably growing corn and beans and growing as much of it as possible. If you're not, you can't afford the rent. And if you don't rent that land to grow the max amount of corn and beans, someone else will.

Well how about the option of just growing on your own land? Nice idea, huh? You've got a nice little 320 acres, and you grow whatever you want, however you want on that land. First things first, let's say you're growing corn and beans on your land. George Naylor said people are motivated by either greed or fear. Either you're making it big and you want to grow as much as possible, or you're not making it big and you're scared you'll lose your farm if you don't make as much as possible. Perhaps that's the case. Maybe that's a cynical way of viewing it. But the entire system is set up to push farmers to grow more and more... if you can make an acre produce 300 bushels and you receive $3/bu, each acre gets you all of $900. Your 320 acres nets you $288,000. Out of that you have to pay for seeds, fertilizer, herbicides, equipment, and crop insurance, and still make a living. How you gonna do that? Better go get some more land and grow more corn and beans - or get a job in town to pay the bills and farm on the side as a hobby.

What about growing something other than corn and beans. Now there's an idea. Chris tried it. She wanted to grow food for people instead of for cattle and pigs. She decided to start by growing beans - black beans and adzuki beans - because they were compatible with the equipment she already had. She had a market for her adzuki beans, even. But there's no infrastructure around here for growing adzuki beans. There was nowhere that wanted to clean her beans. Oh, they've got the equipment for it all right, but they use that equipment for soybeans. Soybeans are white. Adzuki beans are red. And nobody who cleans soybeans wants to get little red adzuki beans mixed in with their soybeans. She looked into buying the equipment to clean her beans herself, but she found that she'd have to clean adzuki beans for one month out of the year and then clean soybeans for the other 11 months to make the equipment pay for itself. There goes that idea. Back to the drawing board.

Chris found a great idea, however. She registered 100 of her acres in USDA conservation programs. She planted prairie grasses and wetlands, and now her land serves as an incredible carbon sink, wildlife habitat, and a buffer to the entire community when heavy rainfalls come and the land floods. Flooding is a big deal around here (more on that in a minute). The government pays her what she would otherwise receive if she rented out her land and someone else grew corn and soybeans on it. She doesn't take a fiscal loss and the entire community and even world is better for it. On the other 30 acres she still grows corn and beans, but she still wants to grow other kinds of beans. Maybe in the future she can grow black beans to sell to the universities in the area, she says.

Jerry also has some of his land in prairie grass. Want to see how tall the grasses are?

And the roots go down 8-12 feet! These plants are what made all of the wonderful topsoil here in Iowa - the topsoil that makes it possible to plant monoculture using soil-depleting practices year after year without running out of soil (yet). Here's a picture of his prairie that isn't so close up, to give you a fuller view of it:

He also raises grass fed, forage fed Angus beef on his land. Just 11 cows, right now:


The cows aren't a major source of income, but Jerry is experimenting with ways to produce food that are more sustainable than your classic Iowa corn-and-soy combo. He's still a conventional farmer, he still uses GM seeds and sprays his crops, and he farms a whopping 2500 acres. (You should have seen the eyes of the man from Uganda I sat next to on the bus pop out of his head when he heard that. He asked me "Two thousand five hundred acres?" just to be sure he was understanding correctly. Where he comes from, he told me, many farmers have an acre, half an acre, or even a quarter of an acre to farm.)

Despite his conventional farming methods, Jerry is quite progressive for an Iowa corn and soybean farmer. He told us that he applies his nitrogen right when the corn needs it so that he can apply less (because the corn gets to use more of it and less runs off). That leads to less pollution, as well as a financial gain for Jerry. He doesn't spray unless he has to. If he hears a rumor that aphids are attacking the crops from a neighbor, he actually goes out and looks at the crops to see if there really are aphids on 'em. He told us he doesn't like aerial spraying, even though he sometimes does it. As for GMO's, he gets so much Roundup drift on his crops from his neighbors' spraying, that he doesn't have much choice. If his crops weren't Roundup Ready, the neighbors Roundup spraying would kill them.

Some of Jerry's GM corn

Those of us on the tour yesterday learned a new word: Triple stacked. The corn is from a "triple stacked" GM seed. That means it is Roundup-Ready, resistant to the European Corn Borer, and resistant to the Corn Rootworm. There's talk of future GM seeds that have four, five, or even six traits stacked into them. George Naylor told us that he went to buy seeds this past year, and they showed him a number of GM varieties, and then they showed him a non-GM variety (George doesn't use GM seeds) that out-produced all of the GM varieties last year. Wow! For all of that technology, a non-GM seed outproduced them all. The salesman told George he better get his order in fast if he wanted that one. George decided to do so immediately, and then he found out... they were only producing that high-yielding seed as a triple stacked GMO this year. In other words, George says, if a GMO yields higher than all of the non-GMOs, it's not necessarily as a result of the GM traits. The seed might've just had wonderful genetics to begin with, even before they inserted the genetic modifications.

Corn and soybean farm #3 was the farm of George Naylor. You might know his name from The Omnivore's Dilemma, because Michael Pollan wrote about him. I've known George for about 3 years and I like him a lot.


George's soybeans

I can't even do justice to all that George said yesterday. Fortunately, I have a long interview I did with him that I have transcribed but not yet posted. He was up harvesting soybeans until midnight the night before I visited his farm (so was Jerry), so it's no wonder that he's been too busy to work with me on blogging. When your boss is Mother Nature, you don't get to procrastinate your work.

Back when I lived in Wisconsin, I naively stared at the corn, still in the field all the way into December, wondering if the farmers perhaps forgot to harvest it. As it turns out, the farmers must wait until the corn and soy are dry enough before harvesting. The alternative is to pay to have your corn dried (if you harvest it to early). Back in the day, farmers used a "corn crib" to dry their corn. George still has one on his farm, but no longer uses it:

Corn crib

The night before our tour, the soy was dry enough for harvesting. The corn was still too wet. But snow was in the forecast, which would make the soy too wet all over again. So the farmers were up harvesting into the wee hours of the night. Then, after the morning's snow, they were unable to harvest soybeans, but free to give us a guided tour of their farms. By 2pm that afternoon, the soybeans were once again dry enough to keep harvesting them.

A combine harvesting corn

A vehicle driving alongside the combine

A frontal view of the combine

They told us you can now harvest without stopping all day long. You get another vehicle to drive alongside the combine and you empty your harvested corn or beans into there. That way, your combine never fills all the way up and you never have to stop and leave the field to empty your load. George told us that you can now get combines that have GPS so they automatically drive straight through your rows. You don't even have to steer, except for when you make turns at the end of a row. You let the machine do the work, then make your turn, and when you are 75% through with your turn you can let go and let the machine and its GPS take over once again. George said he knows someone who fell asleep while doing this.

You may wonder: Why bother? Why do they still farm? Or why don't they all rise up together and decide to grow something else? George says he still farms because he likes being his own boss and he loves living in the country. Plus, these are the skills he has. What else would he do? Jerry added that he grows corn and soybeans because government policy tells him to. Between subsidies, tax incentives, and government subsidized crop insurance, corn and soybeans are the surest way to a paycheck (and a roof over your head and food in your mouth) if you're a farmer. Farming is a risky business because you're dealing with Mother Nature. You're also a price taker on both ends - you pay the market price for equipment and seeds, etc, and you receive the market price for your crops, so that adds to your risk. With corn and soy, the risk is mitigated immensely.

Nowadays farmers buy crop insurance. This is a relatively new phenomenon as no private insurers wanted to insure farmers' crops until the government stepped in with a subsidy for it. Farmers are pretty much required to purchase crop insurance, but it adds stability to the price they will receive for their crops - even if they lose their entire crop due to flooding or another disaster. Then of course there's the government subsidies which provide more money to help you along, should the free market fail you. And there's the fact that you get a much bigger tax incentive for buying a new machine than you do for hiring somebody to work on your farm. Corn and soybeans require much more machines than manual labor. All of this doesn't add up to a big paycheck every single year - you can lose a lot or make a lot in every given year - but it seems to be the best way to keep your farm and to keep farming.

So why does the government do this? They know full well that they are encouraging farmers to grow as much corn and soy as they possibly can, and nothing else. Any farmer could tell them if their own experts can't figure it out. They certainly know. The result is that the environment and the nutrition of our food are the big losers, but we've got a major supply of very cheap corn and soy. Who wins? Agribusiness and the food industry. They get artificially cheap inputs for their products, just like they want. The oil companies aren't doing too bad in the deal either. Ethanol was initially considered a fine form of economic development around here. Unfortunately, when locally owned ethanol plants began to go bankrupt, oil companies came in and snapped 'em up for pennies on the dollar. Farmers lost a lot of money. So now we have an extra place to put some of this cheap corn and soy we're producing. It may not be sustainable, but by golly we can call it renewable and make it sound like a path to liberating ourselves from Middle Eastern oil (even if it takes nearly a gallon of oil to produce a gallon of ethanol, and ethanol is less fuel efficient than gasoline or diesel).

Last, lets talk about the flooding. George told us that a major problem around here is soil compaction. If the soil is too compacted, the crops don't thrive. Water stays on the surface of the soil and doesn't seep in. That means if Iowa gets 7 or 8 inches of rain, it all sits there on the surface instead of seeping into the ground. Of course, it may also run off into their waterways. But those are basically its two options for places to go. To deal with soil compaction, farmers till the soil each year. The tilling breaks up any fungi that might be living in the soil, and the day a farmer tills is a very bad day for any earthworms living in his or her field. I believe tilling also releases carbon into the atmosphere. But if you don't till, you don't get the same yield. And as I've already explained, you need to get a high yield if you want to keep your farm. And even if you till, the soil is still compacted enough that a heavy rain creates problems. (George pointed out areas covered in weeds within his fields, where a heavy rain had made lakes that killed his corn.)

Chris and Jerry's prairie plants are a wonderful prevention measure for flooding. The roots go deep into the soil, and no chemicals are applied to kill the soil life. Plus, without any tilling, the fungal hyphae (long strands of fungi) and other critters aren't disturbed. The life in the soil, along with the plants' roots, improve the soil texture so that water can seep in instead of sitting on the surface or running off. When a flood happens, the water that falls on (or runs off onto) the prairie grasses and wetland plants will seep deep into the soil instead of contributing further to the flooding.

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