Watching corn grow can be nerve-wracking

A few weeks ago, I went with friends to Cedar Rapids for some minor league baseball. The bar-hopping was major league. And on Sunday morning, as we headed home, I was in the back seat sleepily watching Iowa corn fields roll by.

Field after field looked splendid. Deep, vibrant green, table-top even. They were just starting to tassel, and every tassel was going to pop out the same day followed by every silk a day later. They were as perfect a corn fields as I have ever seen.

During a lull in the front seat conversation, I said to Messrs. Schmid and Miller, “Boys, look at those corn fields. At this age, a field of corn like that is at least as exciting as a gorgeous, scantily-clad woman.”

Those of us who grow corn pay attention to the crop all over. The price we’ll get and our bottom line are in the balance. By all accounts, the heart of the Corn Belt has had near perfect conditions this year. This is from central Iowa across into Illinois. Their crops went in early; temperatures and rains have been as if they were scripted since then.

Every year I plant 300 bushel an acre corn in my mind. Unfortunately too-hot, too-dry, too-cold, or too-wet days chip away at that number. A perfect season is my dream. It is an ephemeral and elusive dream.

I can’t complain much, though. There have been recent summers when we here in the northern Corn Belt have grown the best crops in the nation. Any time the Midwest is hot we do better than our farming brethren closer to the equator.

I don’t know what to make of global warming. (As for “climate change,” yes, it does. It always has.) But if you just took the middle of North America and raised the average temperature five degrees, we would be the new center of the Corn Belt. I suppose that would be until the temperature rose ten degrees and Fargo would take our place.

That may be in our future. But this year three distinct cold fronts came through in July giving us September-like temps. It was refreshing for members of our species, almost too cool for members of the corn species. Down in Illinois our cool temps meant spot-on, bull’s eye perfect days for corn pollination and kernel development. There are rumors that several counties there will AVERAGE 300 bushel an acre. Oh my.

For American farmers, that means we’re looking at a surplus. That would not be unusual for any farmer over thirty. Or for their fathers. Or for their grandfathers. Cycles of price-oppressing surpluses are a constant in the history of American agriculture.

Two quotes I heard long ago help explain the phenomena. Writer Wendell Berry said at a talk in the early eighties, “There are two things that will cause a surplus: high prices and low prices.” A few years later I heard marketing guru Al Kluis say, “The best way to market well is to grow the biggest crop you possibly can.”

Those quotes imply that the only thing any farmer can do in the face of low prices caused by too much corn is to grow as much corn as possible. I suppose that is like continuing to dig in order to get yourself out of hole.

The fact that a burdensome surplus appears imminent is amazing when one looks at where we were just a few years ago. Then we were looking at record usage and a growing world population that seemed to guarantee tight supplies for years to come.

I’m not very good at marketing. Over the years, you could have made lots of money doing the exact opposite of me. But there was one time I was prescient. In 2005 and 2006, ethanol plants were breeding like cottontail rabbits. Ethanol went from skimming off the top of the corn supply to ravenously consuming a third of the nation’s crop.

The corn market continued to float along in the low twos (dollars) as if that li’l ol’ ethanol thing would pass like 1970’s gasohol. When the trains finally did collide, corn ran up to record prices.

Not to say I saw it coming. But, I saw it coming. Did I go buy a bunch of corn futures to cash out and retire filthily rich? Nah, I’d probably be living in a gated community sipping fruity rum drinks by the pool right now if I had. And I’d much rather be here writing this column. Ahem.

The period of tight supplies was going to end someday, but it’s surprising how soon we filled that gap with more corn. How did that happen?

Much credit has to go to the corn breeders and the magic things they are doing with genetics. (Some would call them “scary” instead of magic. Notice I am gingerly side-stepping the debate over first, ethanol and now, GMO’s. Call me a wuss.)

There are other sources of our new found corn glut. The Conservation Reserve Program had succeeded in taking a lot of marginal acres out of production over the last 20 years. Marginal for crops, much of this land was benefitting native plants and all sorts of critters. Sadly, thousands of those acres are back in row crops.

Worse are grasslands out in the Dakotas that never were plowed before. Friends that hunt out there report great swaths of land growing crops that never had before. If that were strictly a function of the marketplace, well, fine. But much of the incentive to plow those acres came from the farm program and subsidized crop insurance that removed much of the risk. That’s not the marketplace; that’s unintended consequences from a dysfunctional Farm Bill.

Maybe we need to look at this biblically. You’ll recall that Pharaoh had a dream about seven fat cows followed by seven scrawny cows that ate the fat cows. Joseph told Pharaoh that his dream was portending seven years of abundant crops followed by seven years of abject drought and famine. Joseph went on to head the Egyptian Department of Agriculture and wisely guide the nation through their rough patch.

So. We’ve had about seven years of high prices. Joseph, are you out there?

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