Thursday, March 7, 2013

Farming is a Way of Life, Not a 'System'

National Corn Growers Association President Pam Johnson, a sixth-generation family farmer in Floyd, Iowa, sent the following response to ScientificAmerican.com after an article on corn farming by Jonathan Foley. Click here for Foley's original article.

By Pam Johnson

As a farmer, one of the many whom Jonathan Foley regards as "the hardest working people in America" and as "pillars of their communities," I would like to speak out about how today's corn farmers, their trade associations and others whom Foley has vilified have not only rethought the so-called "corn system," but are continually improving it. Thanks to technology in the tractor and on the field, and smart agronomic practices like conservation tillage, things are only getting better. Here are a few thoughts from my field:

Versatility. Foley talks about the versatility of corn, and he's right. It's now in thousands of products. While some people don't like that, it makes perfect sense that we can produce a grain every year that meets all these needs. Farming is not just about food. It provides the cotton and leather for clothing and the wood for housing and paper. And, yes, it provides field corn for fabrics and fuels as well as food and feed.

Efficiency. In 1932, corn farmers planted 113 million acres of corn, and harvested 2.6 billion bushels. This year, even with a record drought, we brought in 10.8 billion bushels on 97 million acres, the eighth largest corn crop ever. We are using the best seed genetics, technology and agronomic practices to produce a corn plant that maximizes the use of sunlight, water and nutrients. Another measure of efficiency: Americans spend less on food than anywhere in the world. Our store shelves are filled with a variety of healthy foods for all tastes and preferences.

Sustainability. This efficiency means we are using our inputs more wisely. Between 1980 and 2011, corn farmers decreased land use per bushel by 30 percent, soil erosion by 67 percent, irrigation by 53 percent, energy use by 43 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent. A 2010 study from Stanford University says that advances in high-yield agriculture have prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere - the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. Another example of sustainability is ethanol, which provides a significant benefit when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases, compared to gasoline, of up to 59 percent.

Diversity. Corn farming is not a monolithic "system." Corn growers have a variety of different challenges to face and agronomic methods at their disposal. Farming in Florida will differ from farming in Illinois; in Minnesota, from Texas; in Oregon, from Virginia. Farmers are not victims of some faceless and nameless "system." As a corn grower, I do what's best for me and my family and base my planting decisions on what the marketplace tells me to produce, not because of any "system." I choose the seed. I choose the nutrients and the crop protection. I choose whom to sell it to. My trade association is run by family farmers, and its policies and actions are directed by us, the farmer membership.

Over the last 10 millennia, growing corn has been important to humans. It is even more so today. Farmers like me choose to grow corn, and we do so in the context of providing corn as a valuable resource to provide for the needs of Americans and a growing global population who has needs for more food and energy - needs that we are proud to supply.

Farmers have a great story to tell, and I encourage them and their allies to tell this story through great programs like the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (www.fooddialogues.com), CommonGround (www.findourcommonground.com) or the Corn Farmers Coalition (www.cornfarmerscoalition.org).

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