As a crop, corn is highly productive, flexible and successful. It has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades, and there is no doubt that it will be a crucial part of American agriculture in the future. However, many are beginning to question corn as a system: how it dominates American agriculture compared with other farming systems; how in America it is used primarily for ethanol, animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup; how it consumes natural resources; and how it receives preferential treatment from our government.
The current corn system is not a good thing for America for four major reasons.
Those reasons, he writes, are: 1) “The American corn system is inefficient at feeding people.” 2) “The corn system uses a large amount of natural resources.” 3) “The corn system is highly vulnerable to shocks.” And 4) “The corn system operates at a big cost to taxpayers.”
His expounds on each of these in his article, which is really worth a read, and concludes by suggesting what an alternative system might look like:
This reimagined agricultural system would be a more diverse landscape, weaving corn together with many kinds of grains, oil crops, fruits, vegetables, grazing lands and prairies. Production practices would blend the best of conventional, conservation, biotech and organic farming. Subsidies would be aimed at rewarding farmers for producing more healthy, nutritious food while preserving rich soil, clean water and thriving landscapes for future generations. This system would feed more people, employ more farmers and be more sustainable and more resilient than anything we have today.
As Laskawy describes in his Grist post,
color me pleased when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced at an agricultural conference that his agency was going to make a big push to increase crop diversity in order to make American agriculture more resilient in the face of a changing climate.
The term he threw around was “multi-cropping,” or growing a set of crops in sequence, rather than a single crop over and over (aka monocropping). Vilsack described some policies the USDA would need to adjust in order to, as he put it, “reduce the man-made barriers to multi-cropping.” He also held up as an example Ohio farmer David Brandt — a “mainstream” conventional farmer who has a national reputation in farm circles for his multi-cropping and soil-building techniques.
Of course, there’s one major human-made barrier to multi-cropping that may present the greatest challenge to Vilsack’s plan. And that’s $8-a-bushel corn. If you’re multi-cropping, you’re growing less corn — which means that while multi-cropping may be a more resilient system, given current federal subsidy, crop insurance, and market levels, it’s likely to be a less profitable one.
The current issue [PDF] of grow, the thrice-yearly magazine from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison, includes a report from Erik Ness on how changes in weather patterns, likely due to global climate change, have been posing challenges for area farmers.
The growing season in Wisconsin has lengthened by two to three weeks over the last half-century—a big change over a short time. But because spring can be cold and late one year and early the next, some people tend to chalk it up to variability.
Agronomy professor Chris Kucharik BS’92, PhD’97 has no doubt that it’s climate change. Simply put, the earth is like a giant car, and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide is like rolling up the car windows on a sunny day….
Kucharik knows better than most how dense the science can get, but he is adamant that evidence for climate change is clear and overwhelming. In fact, he can even show how it’s helped agricultural productivity in some locations in Wisconsin over the last few decades. It’s not easy to tease out, because crop genetics and management practices have significantly improved over the same period. But trends in precipitation and temperature during the growing season from 1976 to 2006 explain more than a third of the variability in corn and soybean yield trends, he says.
The bad news is that this productivity trend might be hurt by continued warming without adaptive measures. Indeed, for each additional Celsius degree of future warming, corn and soybean yields could potentially decrease. With luck, modest increases in summer precipitation could offset this. Unless, of course, it fails to rain at all.
As the quote above suggests, Ness first considers the effects of difficult weather on major commodity crops like corn and soybeans. He also looks at the impact of this past year’s weather on cranberry growers:
On a sunny day in early June, Ed Grygleski’s cranberries are in bloom and the bees are busy. Two semi loads of hives arrived the previous week and already are settled in. Some of his fellow growers weren’t so lucky, and their bees are still in transit from other states.
Grygleski has never gotten bees in May before, but he’s also never seen a cranberry blossom on May 15th. “If I didn’t have all my bees right now I’d be screaming on the phone,” he says. “This is perfect weather for pollination.” The more blossoms the bees visit, the better the harvest.
Grygleski’s relaxed demeanor belies a crazy year. The mild March awoke his plants, but then it got cold again and stayed cold. He struggled for more than a month to protect the early vines—not always successfully.
“You can tell the color’s different, the vines just look sick,” he says, pulling up to a damaged bed. “The buds don’t grow out.” The bed will recover, but he estimates an 80 to 90 percent loss this year.
Head here for the full story.
Current drought conditions are wreaking havoc on farms. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker,
It is now corn-sex season across the Midwest, and everything is not going well. High commodity prices spurred farmers to sow more acres this year, and unseasonable warmth in March prompted many to plant corn early. Just a few months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture was projecting a record corn crop of 14.79 billion bushels. But then, in June and July, came broilingly high temperatures, combined with a persistent drought across much of the midsection of the country.
“You couldn’t choreograph worse weather conditions for pollination,” Fred Below, a crop biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Bloomberg News recently. “It’s like farming in Hell.”
Rob Schultz reported the local version of this story last Friday for the Wisconsin State Journal:
As the drought in southern Wisconsin was re-classified as severe Thursday, much of the area’s corn crop could be lost if significant rain doesn’t fall here in the next seven days. And it looks like neither Mother Nature nor Uncle Sam are going to help.
“It’s pretty dire,” said Landmark Services Cooperative agronomist Joe Speich, who estimated 2 to 3 inches of rain was needed in the next week to salvage southern Wisconsin’s corn. Just 0.31 inches of rain has fallen since June 1, and the National Weather Service forecasts no drought-busting rains in the next week, although there is a 50 percent chance for showers and thunderstorms Friday and Saturday.
Speich said the lack of moisture has shut down the field corn’s pollination process in the critical 10 days after it tassels. “If it doesn’t pollinate, there’s no ear,” Speich added. “That’s the reason it can become a total loss. You’ve got that 10-day window and that’s it.” Farmers without crop insurance are learning they have little chance of receiving any financial help because federal provisions for drought relief expired last year.
Like the suffering corn fields, livestock pastures are bone-dry and may force local livestock farmers to think about selling off their herds, as Bill Novak reported yesterday for The Capital Times. For more on the impact in southern Wisconsin, check out Karen Kerzog’s recent piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Also, see the longer-term outlook posted today by Alex Sosnowski at AccuWeather, suggesting that the little bit of rain we just had may not be enough to make a big difference.
What’s the source of this drought? Kolbert’s article pins the blame on global climate change, something she’s been writing about for quite some time. Her 2006 book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, is available in paperback or e-book. (Check out this review at Grist.) For a more recent and shorter piece, take a look at her list of the Top Ten Signs We Are Living in a Warming World: 2011 Edition.