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Impossible Farming


There is Successful Farming, Progressive Farming, Organic Farming, Natural Farming and an awful lot of Wishful Farming. I would like to add to the list one more kind: Impossible Farming.

I just ran across another example of it. Pat Hill, in her always interesting weekly blog on Progressive Farmer online, mentioned recently an interesting statistic or two when she was discussing the challenges that grain elevators face these days. A twelve row corn combine can harvest 20,000 to 24,000 bushels of corn a day. A modern, state of the art grain dryer can dry 6000 bushels of shelled corn from 20% moisture down to 15% in an hour. (Corn has to be that dry to store safely.) But with corn at 25% moisture, that drier can reduce moisture to 15% of only 3000 bushels in an hour. At 30% moisture, which was the case for a lot of corn coming to the elevator this harvest, it can dry only 1500 bushels in an hour. That means that the cost of drying, which amounts to plenty at 20% moisture, nearly quadruples at 30%. Going at full blast, the dryer can dry 36,000 bushels of 30% moisture corn in twenty four hours. The farmer whom Pat Hill was interviewing was running two twelve-row combines or hauling in 40,000 to 48,000 bushels a day. In other words, just one farmer could haul in more wet corn to an elevator in a day than the dryer could dry in a day. If there were, say, forty farmers hauling in corn, I would not want to be the manager of that grain elevator. Some of them were so pressed this year that they actually ran short of electricity and natural gas for their dryers. Can you imagine the horrible nightmare of keeping all that grain from heating and ruining before it could be dried properly? To top that off, the farmer told Ms. Hill that he planned to add a third 12-row combine to his string next year. No doubt other farmers will do that too. They do not want to be caught with corn still standing in the field in a foot or two of snow as happened quite often this year.

I try to envision a continuation of this kind of farm gigantism. The farmers buy bigger or more combines. The elevators buy bigger or more dryers. The farmers then can buy bigger or yet more combines. So the elevators have to install bigger dryers yet. This also means investing in more semi trucks to haul the corn because traffic regulations do not allow for bigger semis. To pay for it all, the farmer must expand acreage. The enormity of numbers that result as technology becomes capable of handling more enormity is just mind-boggling.

Of course, in a “normal” year corn will dry to 20% moisture all by itself in the field and so lower some of this awful cost of artificial drying. But how many “normal” years can you remember? And keep in mind, this is just a small part of the cost of corn production.

And the story doesn’t end there. In corn country, a strange word is on the lips of all farmers these days. Vomitoxin. The wet weather caused an outbreak of moldy corn, especially a disease called Gibberella corn ear rot. The rot produces vomitoxin, which is toxic to both humans and animals. So even though we enjoyed high corn yields in 2009, some of the crop, after finally getting harvested at enormous cost, is not fit to feed. If vomitoxin is discovered in the stored corn, there is no fungicide that can contain it say the experts. Hog and livestock feeders are scrambling to find clean corn to feed. Even for ethanol, corn with more than 7 parts per million vomitoxin is not being accepted.

One corn grower who is also a knowledgeable seed dealer, tells me a strange theory. Corn does not usually get infected with this kind of Gibberella rot. He is convinced that the new genetically-engineered corn varieties won’t mature and dry down the way more natural corn varieties do and that is one reason we have such a wet corn problem this year. If this story gains traction, I can hear Monsanto howling in protest. But what if it is true?

Whether or not it is true, to be a farmer in these days is to practice Impossible Farming. Agribusiness has become so unnatural that it is pricing itself out of the food market. We can always multiply numbers, but not the real things that numbers are supposed to stand for. Nature always bats last, we like to say. More profoundly, nature always bats first too.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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