Corn and the destruction of North America's resources

I know in know, it is long past time for another post on our farm's rather deserted blog. I guess the problem is that a farmer's days just aren't quite long enough to blog frequently.

Here is an editorial from this past May's issue of the Graze magazine which is a magazine I really find beneficial and educational for our occupation. This aticle very well sums up our view corn and how it affects each of us. We believe grass farming and organic sustainable farming is one of the important answers to this serious issue in our country and even the whole world. There are numerous articles to be found online about the issues corn ethanol creates in its competition with our food supply. 

I believe your time spent reading the article will be well worth it!

-Dwight

Joel McNair

‘by graziers, for graziers’

Corn, erosion and the end of civilizations

Let’s talk corn for a bit. Corn itself is not evil. Indeed, most committed dairy graziers and a fair number of com- mitted beef graziers feed some to their stock, and quite a few even grow their own. Most of the dairy grazing farms that shine in economic analyses feed some corn and get some milk out of their cows, and to my knowledge the ma- jority of them either grow their own or have it custom done. Kiwi dairies in New Zealand, Missouri and Georgia grow corn and view it as a lynchpin of their operations.

We should have few problems with corn grown in a long- term rotation that includes legumes, cover crops, manure and grazing on land that can tolerate exposure to minimal cover for relatively short periods of time. Grown and fed

in moderation, corn is good stuff for the vast majority of graziers who live in or near corn country and who are not selling to a grass-fed market.

I respect those of you (particularly dairy graziers) who are feeding no grain without access to grass-fed premiums, as you are sticking to your principles and long-term goals rather than trying to maximize the bottom line. You are driving the covered wagons heading across untamed lands. But the great majority of you are indeed leaving money on the table by eschewing corn or any other grain. Corn is not evil.

What’s evil about corn is what we do with it and how we grow it. In the process of stacking GMOs we seem to be reducing corn’s feed value. GMOs have turned farmers into legal serfs, and common plants into superweeds. Overuse of corn in American diets is creating health problems for both livestock and humans. The dominant corn/bean com- plex has removed much of the real “farming” from farming, and in many places the great majority of rural culture from agriculture.

Corn the destructive force

Most importantly, corn as it being grown today is de- stroying our soils — and modern American civilization along with them. Rather than feeding the world as its back- ers continually trumpet, the corn/bean machine is in the

process of ending the world as we know it. Corn is killing us.

David R. Montgomery laid it out pretty well in his 2007 book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Montgomery, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, says we have seen this before, and it never ends well. War, natural disasters, climate change and societal degradation have no doubt played roles in the downfalls of history’s great civilizations. Yet Montgomery provides convincing evidence that the primary reason for the decline and fall of civilizations is that their soils were treated like dirt.

He notes that the great majority of civilizations, from Mesopotamia through Greece, Rome and the Mayans, lasted a few hundred years — at most a thousand — be- fore crumbling and collapsing. “Why,” he asks “should so many unrelated civilizations” die at such a similar age? The historical evidence, both written and archaeological, point to directly to the soil.

The life cycles have been heartbreakingly consistent. Peoples settle in productive areas and learn to farm them using largely sustainable methods. Population growth pushes agriculture to become more intense and migrate to more fragile ecosystems. Elite castes assume ownership of farmland from small-scale operators who lose their farms due to declining productivity. The absentee ownership demands increased production of cash crops.

Productivity declines further as soils erode and salts build on irrigated fields. The losses are incremental and hardly noticeable during a single lifetime. The pace is faster where the soils are thin, the topographies steep and the weather patterns most challenging, but even the most deep and fertile lands steadily lose much of their productivity. Eventually there is famine, disease, war and encroaching deserts.

Writes Montgomery, “Rome didn’t so much collapse as it crumbled, wearing away as erosion sapped the productivity of its homeland.” The only ancient society to live beyond the thousand-year window was Egypt, where the Nile River

annually deposits new soil. Or at least it did so until the river was dammed 50 years ago and the great Nile Delta started shrinking.

Play it again

For all of our GMO crops and our GPS equipment, for all our CRP set-asides and NRCS efforts, nothing is really different here in modern America. We lose far more soil than is produced. You can look at any number of statistics as proof: One of my favorites is the estimate that Iowa lost half its topsoil in the first 150 years after its prairies went under the plow.

No doubt we do a little better in that regard today than in decades past, what with somewhat less tillage and corn rows generally on the contours. Then again, this year will likely see the most U.S. corn acres since the mid-’30s, and of course soybean acreage far surpasses the plantings of that time. The volume of soil loss from bare fields in this very wet spring is a crime against humanity.

And our government doesn’t care. Montgomery notes that USDA’s acceptable soil erosion “tolerance” (T) levels are at least double and often up to 10 times greater than what should be allowed if our soils are to maintain their productivity. And federally subsidized crop insurance, now our primary crop support program, does not require conser- vation compliance. With the push for exports and ethanol in full bloom, we are solidly in the midst of the “elites want cash crops” phase of our civilization.

Of course our technology will save us. Haven’t corn yields been steadily rising, especially with the biotechnol- ogy revolution of the past decade and a half?

Well ... no, they haven’t. U.S. corn yields have fallen below the long-term trend line the past three years — the longest such stint since the advent of hybrid varieties in
the late 1930s. The introduction of GMO varieties in the 1990s did not change the trend line, as corn yields stayed at the same 1.9 bushels per acre increase trend seen since the introduction of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers 60 years ago. And most crop analysts are saying that 2013 will be the fourth consecutive year in which corn yields fall below the long-term trend.

Volatile weather has had something to do with this, and placing more marginal acres into production is likely caus- ing some yield drag. It’s probable that a good weather year would send U.S. corn yields to a new record. It’s not like all the soil is going to be washed away in our lifetimes.

Still, four years in a row should cause some people to sit up and take notice. As Gabe Brown (see page one) told me, “It’s ridiculous what we’re doing to our resource.”

Put soil first

renewable fuels mandate and allow the ethanol plants to survive on their own. Subsidized crop insurance should be available only to those with production practices that truly bolster soil health and limit soil loss to actual replacement levels. Basically, the entire federal crop support program should be based on the long underfunded Conservation Security Program (CSP). As is happening in Burleigh County, North Dakota, NRCS programs should move away from building things in an effort to minimize the damage of continuous cropping, and toward improving soil health by demonstrating the benefits of alternative production meth- ods.

The bottom line here is that it is simply not sustainable to continuously grow row crops in monocultures. Period. Whether it takes five years or five hundred, eventually the productivity will be a mere fraction of what it once was.

The answers are not rocket science. Crop rotations, cover crops, manure, managed grazing — all have been there since the beginning of recorded history, and all are mainly in need of updates. They are shoved aside by greed, but ignored at our long-term peril.

Such answers mean less corn. Less corn would be fine. Our livestock don’t need as much corn as they are currently consuming, and neither do our vehicles. Huge volumes of corn are not essential to the survival of the human race;
we are omnivores, after all. Same goes for soybeans. The “feed the world” argument for the dominant cash-cropping/ feedlot livestock model is a smokescreen created to protect the profits and power of Monsanto, ADM, Cargill and the lot. Over the long run their ideas for feeding the world will starve it instead.

Paul’s writing in 1 Timothy is often misquoted as say- ing that money is the root of all evil; the actual quote says that evil’s roots lie with “the love of money.” Corn is not evil, but we love it too much. (Soybeans, on the other hand, are very close to being evil.) Unless we change our ways, some archaeologist a couple of thousand years hence will be pointing to evidence that soil degradation caused the de- cline and fall of the American Empire. Let’s cause change.

In addition to publishing Graze, Joel McNair grazes dairy heifers and sheep on a small farm in southern Wisconsin.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of GRAZE, a magazine about managed grazing and family-scale livestock agriculture.

For more information about GRAZE and how to subscribe, go to www.grazeonline.com, or call 608-455-3311.

The first thing that should be done is to eliminate the