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Why do farmers do that?

Q Why do farmers just leave their corn to whither and die in the fields? Shouldn't they be harvesting it while it's still green and lush?

A Of the corn your consumers see as they drive the state’s highways, roughly 99.3 percent of it is not the sweet corn they’re familiar with from your produce section, but the “yellow dent corn” used in livestock feed, processed foods and ethanol. That distinction is important because unlike sweet corn, which is harvested while the corn stalk is still green and the corn is immature and juicy, yellow corn is harvested only after the kernel has dried and hardened to a starchy stage. What appears to the average consumer as dead standing cornstalks in the field are actually considered mature, harvest-ready stalks by the farmer.

Yellow corn actually reaches that physiologically mature stage weeks before harvest begins. However, because much of the billions of bushels of corn American farmers grow is stored for months to years before it’s sold or used, it usually must be dried in order to prevent spoiling while in storage. Corn can be reliably stored at about 15 percent moisture without suffering quality losses. Corn standing in the field in mid to late September is typically about 35 percent moisture. So, farmers must dry that corn before storing it.

They have generally one of two ways to do that drying: One, they can use grain dryers that are in effect huge fans that heat air using propane and blow it through the grain one large batch at a time, drying the corn much as a blow dryer dries your hair. Or, they can let Mother Nature dry it for them—depending on weather conditions—by leaving it standing in the field for several weeks to months after it reaches maturity.

Typically, farmers use some combination of those two methods to dry corn before storage, and, as with many farming practices, it’s often a delicate balancing act that’s refined through years of experience and much research. Naturally, it’s in the farmer’s best interest to leave the corn standing in the field as long as possible, to take advantage of the natural drying and save on costly propane. However, it can be a huge gamble that risks an entire year’s crop. As the corn kernels are drying, so is the stalk that holds those ears of corn. As they dry, they become brittle. That brittleness brings the potential for valuable ears to fall to the ground, where they can no longer be practically picked up by today’s modern harvesting equipment, and thus go to waste. Fall and early winter winds also pose a risk to a standing field of corn, as does sudden rain and snow that prevents the heavy equipment from being able to get into the field.

So, farmers use a number of tools to help even out the demands for drying time, including different seed varieties that dry at different rates, different marketing tools that allow differing levels of moisture, and different combinations of artificial drying, natural drying and storage options—all based on the anticipated weather conditions for the season. Hitting the “sweet spot” is a good example of how, despite all its science, profitable farming remains an art form, as well.

Some data on modern egg-producing farms

"Industrial animal agriculture," writes world-famous agriculture critic Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, "depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert your eyes on the part of everyone else. From everything I’ve read, egg and hog operations are the worst."

But how accurate are accounts like Pollan's that paint egg farms as corporate-run factories that sicken and kill birds without regard to their well-being? USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System just released the first in a series of reports to come about the health and management practices of the nation's table-egg farms. The agency surveyed poultry farms from the 19 states that account for more than three-fourths of all U.S. egg farms with 3,200 or more layers and nearly nine out of 10 of the largest farms. Some of the findings include:

Ownership and control. Although more than half the farms in the western United States are now completely owned by vertically integrated egg companies, the majority of farms in the other regions--including the Central region which includes Nebraska--are "contract farms." Contract farms remain owned by the farmer, although the birds may be owned by a company, or eggs may be sold on contract to a company that does the marketing.


Who owns the egg farms?


Productivity. Overall, about three out of every 10 farms produced 90 or more eggs for every 100 hens each day.  A lower percentage of the largest farms--those managing 100,000 or more laying hends--produced at that high level compared with small farms--those with less than 30,000 hens, and medium farms--those with between 30,000 and 100,000 hens.


Who owns the egg farms?


Hen housing. High-visibility controversy notwithstanding about the need for "enriched" hen housing, or housing that gives hens access to the ability to roost and scratch, no farms in the Central region report using that type housing. At the same time, more than half of all farms in the Central region reported some use of cage-free housing. For the country as a whole, 27.6 percent of farms had at least one cage-free (certified organic) house, and 12.6 percent of houses were cage-free (certified organic).


Who owns the egg farms?


Health status. USDA's study points out the reality regarding one widespread misconception about poultry farms: Hens on the largest are not necessarily less healthy than birds on smaller farms. Smaller farms and largers farms shared nearly equal rates of some of the most common health problems hens experience. Meanwhile, hens on the smallest farms experienced higher levels of parasitism.


Who owns the egg farms?


Deathloss. The rate of loss to death didn't vary significantly among size groups, USDA reported, even though a lower percentage of small farms than large farms administered antibiotics to birds in order to either treat disease, prevent disease, or improve the productivity of hens.

Who owns the egg farms?


Can the flaws of organic marketing behind painted over?

A newly released blistering indictment of organic marketing may be a wake-up call to grocers about the risks of promoting the healthfulness of such claims

A new report released in late April accuses the organic-food industry of building its 3,400-percent increase in sales over the last quarter century only by using deceptive marketing practices, a deception that involved the willing participation of the U.S. government through its U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 16-page research review commissioned by "Academics Review," a non-profit association of academic professors, researchers, teachers and credentialed authors from around the world "committed to the unsurpassed value of the peer review in establishing sound science in food and agriculture," according to the group's description, studied more than 150 existing scientific sources to evaluate the organic industry's health claims--both those actively expressed and those only assumed by consumers but permitted to stand by marketers. And the results are not pretty for anyone offering up the organic experience to shoppers.

"Our review," the authors write, "suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal."

"This review of published research, documented organic and natural produce industry practices, and advocacy collaborations shows widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities, both transparent and covert, disparaging competing conventional foods and agriculture practices." Those concerted efforts between product marketers and "independent" nongovernmental organizations advocating for organics, the Review article said, "...have contributed to false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions influencing food purchase decisions [which have]...generated hundreds of billions in revenues."

"Our review of the top 50 organic food marketers finds these practices to be pervasive throughout the industry and not simply by a few bad actors. This disparagement marketing via absence claims with direct and implied health risk allegations is found on food packaging and labeling claims, in-store marketing displays, online campaigns, media relations, and extensive advertising in print, radio and television. Additionally, research reveals that anti-GMO and anti-pesticide advocacy groups promoting organic alternatives have combined annual budgets exceeding $2.5 billion annually and that organic industry funders are found among the major donors to these groups."

Blindly following organic food companies into that shaky marketing scheme risks the grocer's reputation when studies like the Academics Review article reveal health claims to be questionable. Organics-industry critic Mischa Popoff, author of Is it Organic? a critical dissection of not only the business behind today's organics industry but also its not-so-attracive ideology, believes retailers may be especially vulnerable to the "cunning deception" of organic marketing.

"As the final 'entity' in the food chain just before the consumer, retailers should know they are the ones with everything on the line if the whole organic industry turned out to be a house of cards," Popoff, a former organic inspector who wrote Is it Organic? to expose the continual "cheating" he witnessed throughout the certification process, told Farmer Goes to Market. "And if they were paying attention, they could plainly see that without any testing, organic certification is indeed a house of cards."

But rather than join in and "beef up" the organic certification process, he argues, retailers have simply tried to take themselves out of that potential line of fire by positioning themselves as innocent bystanders in what he believes is a failed system.

"For years," he says, "I’ve wondered why every single entity in the organic food chain is required to be inspected and certified under the USDA National Organic Program. No exeptions! Everyone from the farmer, to the broker, through processing and packaging--even the truckers, for God’s sake; they all have to certified."

"Everyone, except for the retailer."

"A handful of organic retailers who became 'voluntarily certified' aside, retailers in the organic biz for the most part clearly took themselves out of the whole rigmarole of being certified precisely so they could claim they’re 'only the merchandiser,' and hence wash their hands of all responsibility. It’s kind of like when politicians pass laws on ethical behavior, but exempt themselves."

Popoff believes it's dangerous ground to be standing on as the claims about organic grow more and more questionable. Consumer studies almost exclusively show shoppers choose a retail location – and stick with it – because they trust the brand and the name. That kind of trust isn’t earned easily, and it is a highly perishable commodity that can be quickly lost by appearing to be playing loose with the true health and wellness claims of organic.

What's your opinion? Use the comments section to let your fellow grocers know what you think about this contentious issue.

Why farmers feed corn to cattle

"On feedlots, beef cows often suffer from severe digestive disorders caused by the unnatural diet they are forced to consume," contends the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"We put them in pens, called backgrounding pens, and we teach them how to eat something that they are not evolved to eat, which is grain, and mostly corn," says Berkeley journalism professor turned food critic Michael Pollan.

If cattle evolved to forage freely for grass, why do today's farmers feed them corn and other grains?

First, let's straighten out a couple of points:

  1. Virtually all U.S. beef cattle, with the exception of veal calves, eat grass for a portion--in fact, most--of their lives. So even "grain-fed" cattle are mostly grass-fed over the majority of their lives.
  2. Even when those cattle arrive at a confined feedlot, where they are then "put on feed" in order to prepare them to become beef, that diet is never just grain. Depending on the cattle and the stage of their production, it is a careful mix of not just corn or other grains like milo or wheat, but also forage-based ingredients like chopped young corn plants (silage), hay, or hulls of oil-seed plants like soybeans, cottonseed and others. Those forage portions, which would be similar to fiber in the human diet, approximate the "natural" forages (or grass) that critics like Pollan claim cattle are no longer provided. They generally will make up anywhere from under 10 percent to one-fourth of the diet.

As to why farmers use grain in the diet, adding grain is an economical tool to increase the energy level in the animal's diet, which is important for it to not only grow rapidly, but also to add the all-important fat marbling within the meat, which gives it the flavor and tenderness profile American consumers come to expect. Just like people, cattle basically need two general nutrients to grow and grow well: protein and energy.

  • Protein is generally created in the calf's pre-stomach known as the rumen, where it has the unique ability to break down fibrous plant material into raw materials that can then be converted into protein.
  • And althought the rumen is also capable of converting that fibrous plant material into energy, as well, the system is much less efficient at doing so than it is in getting energy from starchy feedstuffs like grain. Extracting energy from grains is a much more biologically efficient process than extracting it from forage during rumen digestion, which in turn makes the animal more efficient in growing, gaining weight or reproducing. Efficiency in production equals lower cost of production, which translates to lower costs for consumers at the meatcase. Only when the starch content of the diet becomes too high do cattle have problems, a problem feedlot nutritionists are trained to watch for and remedy by increasing the level of forage.

Have a question about why farmers do that? Use the comment section to ask.

Why do farmers plow the soil year after year

"Soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces," Cornell professor David Pimentel once told the media. Although many factors contribute to the resulting loss of soil necessary to grow food, one of the most controllable is the tillage practices of farmers on that land. So why do farmers till the same fields year after year?

For nearly as long as civilized man has grown rather than gathered crops, he has tilled the soil for those crops prior to planting. Today's farmers continue that practice, for several reasons:

  • To improve the bed for seed to be deposited. Most soils in this part of the world naturally compact, settle or crust over, so tilling helps break up the soil structure, allowing water to soak in and air to penetrate, which prepares the soil to better nurture the seed once it's planted.
  • To reduce the number of weeds. Turning existing weed plants under by tilling kills them without resorting to chemical weed controls, and has been the most common method of weed control for millenia. Unlike in your lawn, effective weed control isn't just a question of attractiveness; actively growing weeds compete for water and sunlight with crops and can easily overwhelm them, leaving ground less productive.
  • To incorporate fertilizer, weed killer and manure. Tilling mixes those nutrients provided by fertilizer and manure and the chemical carried in weed killers so they get beneath the surface of the soil and into the "root zone," where they do the most good. Incorporating those elements also helps prevent a heavy rain from washing them off the surface of the soil and into streams and lakes, where they can cause a pollution problem.
  • To create beds, furrows and other specific surface configurations needed to accept the plants. Planting crops in orderly arrangements helps make other productivity-enhancing practices like weeding, irrigating, covering and harvesting possible.
  • To control insects and other pests. Turning over the soil to either bury and smother pests like weed seeds or, conversely, to expose them to the surface where birds and weather can destroy them contributes to natural control of those pests that can rob fields of productivity by competing with or parasiticizing crops.

Tillage can occur anytime between harvest of the previous year's crop and spring planting. In the Corn Belt, most tillage is usually done between March and May for corn, and can be as late as early June for soybeans. Tillage is often done in the fall, after harvest, as well, either to conserve soil moisture, to take advantage of natural cycles of weeds and insects, to better use farm labor or any combination of those. The best time to till to protect the soil from erosion is immediately before planting, although wet spring weather doesn't always permit.

In recognition of some of the problems traditional soil tillage may cause--not the least of which being it is the second most energy-hogging direct practice a crop farmer engages in (surpassed only by drying grain after fall)--more and more U.S. farmers have moved from conventional tillage to so-called conservation tillage systems. Conservative tillage includes several types of revised tillage, such as "no-till" "minimum till" "ridge till" "chisel plow" and "mulch till," all of which aim to preserve some amount of the plant material from the previous season's harvest on the surface of the soil, where it works as a natural blanket to help protect the soil from erosion caused by rain and wind. Conservation tillage is basically any system that keeps at least 30 percent of the crop residue on the soil surface at the time of planting. USDA estimates that for crop year 2009, more than one-third of acres representing the vast majority of the nation's cropland had now moved to no tilling operations prior to planting. Almost half of all soybean acres and almost 30 percent of corn acres were planted with no-till in that year.

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