Garden Farm Skills

I am not a real farmer, my neighbors say, because I don’t do it for money. That’s almost funny because the economists are saying that nobody’s farming for money this year. Although the corn crop is good in most of the midwest, there’s not much profit in it. Some go as far as projecting that on average, corn farmers will lose $8 per acre over the whole midwest. If that is the case, I’m not a real farmer for sure because I figure on netting $550 an acre on my corn.

The price of corn as I write is $3.90 a bushel. Some farmers I talk to say they have to have $5.00 a bushel to break even this year because of the high cost of fertilizer, fuel, and weedkillers recently. Economists say the break-even price is closer to $4.00 a bushel. The price seems to be inching that way. Whoopee.

So how do I figure on netting $550 an acre from my corn? I grow only half an acre for one thing, but don’t laugh. My figures would hold fairly well up to thirty acres worth. Comparisons can be odious especially when someone with a feeble little crop like mine seems to be disparaging the professional grower of a couple thousand acres. Nevertheless, I am going to do some numbers because commercial farmers really aren’t thinking very well at the moment and some of them admit it.

Those ears of corn in the photo are from my crop this year. They measure up to 14 inches long, as you can see by the foot long ruler beside them. The longest one has 20 rows of kernels. It will shrink a little as it dries, but as far as I can learn from researching, this is as big as any ear of yellow dent corn has ever gotten and is almost twice the size of any of today’s hybrids. (There are strains of maize in Mexico that produce ears two feet long but are very skinny.) I’ve had in previous years one or two 16-inch ears but they were frowzy on the tips, with only 16 rows of kernels. The fatter, slightly shorter ears in the photo above contain 22 and 24 rows of kernels, and I know from experience that the kernels will weigh as much per cob as those from the 14-inch ears. There will be about a pound of kernels on each of these ears. If I had an acre where all the stalks produced one such ear and I planted 18,000 stalks per acre, which is about right for open-pollinated corn, (hybrid growers are planting as many as 30,000 stalks per acre) the yield would be 300 bushels per acre, right up there with the world records for corn. If I could live 200 years maybe I could produce a crop of all fourteen inchers. After all it took the Mesoamerican Indians thousands of years to get ears of maize up to five inches long.

I hasten to say that most of the ears on my corn are not as big as those in the photo. Most are still bigger than hybrid ears, but some smaller and quite a few nubbins. I will get fifty bushels from my half acre or a hundred bushels per acre this year. Commercial corn growers are averaging 160 bushels per acre, so my corn is deemed to be poor by comparison, giant ears or no giant ears. But let us look at the numbers. My fertilizer cost was zero. I rotate corn with three or four years of pastured clover so I don’t figure I need any more fertilizer. Surely it is significant when 14 inch ears of corn can be grown without any commercial fertilizer at all. My herbicide cost is zero. I control weeds with a hoe and a rotary garden tiller. If I were growing a couple of acres of corn or more, I would have to have a tractor or horse cultivator but that would add only a little to my costs. I paid zero for my seed corn because I save my own. Farmers are spending upwards of $300 now for a bushel of GMO hybrid corn seed, which is just ridiculous. I have no land rent cost because the land is my own. Farmers renting land are paying upwards of $150 to $200 a acre for it or more this year, almost guaranteeing a loss at today’s market prices. I count no labor cost because experimenting with my open-pollinated corn is my golf game and a whole lot cheaper than golf. I have no harvest cost other than husking the ears by hand and throwing them in the pickup. Farmers used to husk 20 acres or more by hand but if you used an old cornpicker instead, the cost would be minimal on 20 or 30 acres except for fuel. My drying cost is zero; the corn dries naturally on the cob in a crib that is so old it has long ago paid for itself. That could be true for larger acreages. Commercial farmers some years (this year for sure) have a huge cost in natural gas to dry their shelled corn. My hauling cost amounts to driving my pickup 500 feet from field to crib. Commercial farmers are hauling their corn in semi trucks half way across the county, sometimes farther. I do have fuel and machinery cost for plowing and fitting the land which I estimate at about $30 per acre. I put my total cost per acre at $50 to be sure to cover everything.

Growers of open-pollinated corn tell me, as I have also experienced, that livestock eat it more eagerly than today’s hybrids. And why not. Hybrid corn is bred today to resist injury from machinery, weeds, bugs, and adverse weather. Why wouldn’t it resist animals and humans trying to eat it? Commercial corn is dried by heating, sometimes overheating, with natural gas, which can reduce nutritional value. I don’t know how to put a dollar number on that kind of profit.

If my 50 bushels are priced at $4.00 a bushel, that’s $200 worth of corn or $400 an acre. With a cost of only $50 on a per-acre basis, my net profit per acre is $350. If I had to buy those fifty bushels from the elevator, the cost would be around $6.00 a bushel (the elevators charge for handling, especially for handling and bagging small amounts), so I can say that my puny crop has a net return of $550 per acre. Compare that with losing $8 an acre on 2000 acres.

Whose the real farmer? One I know well farms 200 acres. He has most of his acres in rotated pasture and maybe 30 acres of corn— a commercial model of what I do. He will have more machinery and fuel costs per acre than I do, but he will have no fertilizer, chemical spray, drying, or transportation cost to the elevator. He does not use high-priced GMO seed corn. His machinery cost are much less than that of typical grain farmers because he is using older, smaller tractor equipment. His total costs will be only a fraction per acre of the large commercial grain farmer’s costs. Then he feeds his corn to his cows to make organic milk and sells it at a premium price.

So I ask again: who’s the real farmer?


Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.

Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land), The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and just released: Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers.

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