Planting sideways

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

They were just getting into the beans last week at the edges until it rained Monday. They were kept from it on Sunday by the Knights of Columbus Omelette Breakfast at, of course, the KC Hall. They think the beans look excellent and the corn not so excellent as it suffered so from an extended drought. The beans might hit 60 on a lot of acres, and the corn might come in at 175 bushels — a testament to the power of genetics against drought. Long and short, you might make a few bucks on the soybeans and lose a few bucks on the corn.

Another sideways to backtracking year in The Tall Corn State.

You get enough of them and it starts to hurt — the state treasury is broke, for example, and rural communities aren’t feeling so much better right now.

Twenty years ago — sorry, the old guy comes out in me more and more these days, as I have become an old guy at 60 — 175-bushel corn certainly was nothing to sneeze at, unless you have hay fever in October.

Thirty years ago, 175-bushel corn was a record-setter. A bin-buster, no less.

And the farmer and the state are still pretty much broke.

If you don’t get 200-bushel corn nowadays you aren’t making hay. You are treading water or worse.

Twenty years ago you would have staged a barn dance for 200-bushel corn. Think of the money.

The yield goes up and so does the rent. And the land auction. And the input costs. If you can’t keep up you get out.

Yields have increased 33% around here over the past 30 years but farm income is flat.

The farmer has bigger machinery and more acres and bigger operating loans and a bigger bill for fertilizer. He is planting more plants in an acre and is applying twice as much anhydrous ammonia as he was 50 years ago to reach that magic 200 number, while the price creeps back to $3 or below.

Whether the price is high or the price is low, the incentive is the same: Get as many bushels as you possibly can, because these margins are razor-thin.

Unless you own the land. Then you can make it, maybe, at 175-bushel corn at $3.

The renter gets it coming or going. When prices go up, so does the rent.

“That’s farming,” says my old guy farmer friend. “Always betting on the come.”

The world is awash in corn. It does not value our corn. We shove it at them, because we really have no choice but to plant corn. We tried rapeseed. Didn’t work. Tried tomatoes, too, under plastic. Didn’t work.

If you could take a quarter of our land — those marginal rolling acres we plowed up about 25 years ago — out of production and plant it to native grass for grazing you could make money again on 175-bushel corn. You wouldn’t need all the inputs and fancy seeds tailored to chemicals to protect against every sort of risk genetically, which eventually fail against those risks as Nature adapts. If you could save that soil and build its tilth you will get better-quality corn with a higher feed value. If you keep losing soil and replacing it with chemicals you get lower-quality corn while deceiving yourself with a steady yield that is reflected in its value.

But the Agriculture Department and the Farm Bureau decided long ago that a mandatory acreage set-aside is a fairly Communist idea because it denies Monsanto (in which Farm Bureau is heavily invested) acres to which they otherwise could apply Roundup. Our aim is to feed the world with ever-increasing yields built on a Wall Street foundation.

The farmer carries that burden without the weight of increasing wealth.

The heretic in me, or just the town kid, suggests that livestock unlock the key to sustainable prosperity. If you graze those set-aside acres you keep soil in the field and happy cattle roaming the edges. You reduce corn acreage that brings up the price. You stop nutrient outflow, you depend less on export markets. You sell more pickups and gator boots. But I was told at the Iowa Ideas Conference in Cedar Rapids last week, where I was a panelist, that there are flies and manure and who wants to work 365 days a year with no guarantee of profit? “You’re looking at him,” I said, as I sat amid defenders of the Iowa Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program, who have or do rely on a government or non-profit paycheck to say amen to the gospel.

I did not sit amid flies and manure, just hip deep in ink and solvents for 22 years, often on Saturdays and Sundays and late at night.

I do not know a thing about raising cattle or how hard it is. The clean farmer in the plaid shirt doesn’t know a thing about wrestling a newspaper press. But one of the richest men I know stayed in cattle year in and year out, through high and low, farming 700 acres by himself with a hired man. And, he ran a full-time vet practice on the side. He got through school washing his one pair of underwear in the sink over the dairy barn in Ames every night. And he made his money in cattle, not in doctoring. They don’t breed many guys like that anymore.

We got rid of our press because we were too lazy to run it. But if you suggest that farmers are too lazy to save soil and make money and build rural communities by raising livestock, they think you are crazy. Or worse: a town kid who just doesn’t get it.

I wonder if it is crazier to run on the wheel in the cage built by the integrators run by the investment bankers or break out into the pasture so you can see where you don’t need every last bushel of corn to make certain you don’t starve. We would rather crush ourselves under the weight of rent and chemicals than forego our sacred mission of feeding the world, which means feeding the beast.