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The Crop That Ate America

The Crop That Ate America thumbnail
Farmers who had long rotated plantings among a diverse group of grains are increasingly turning to a single one. Corn has always been a mainstay of U.S. agriculture, but its increasing profitability has driven up corn’s share of total production, while grains such as wheat, oats and sorghum have steadily fallen, according to a Bloomberg analysis of a half-century of crop data. This locks farmers, as well as machinery-makers including Deere & Co., to the rises and falls of one crop, as both domestic and export markets grow more and more tied to the dominant U.S. grain. That exposes farmers to greater volatility and greater trade risk if a major buyer, such as Mexico, were to decide to stop buying U.S. corn.

Corn will make up 68 percent of this year’s projected harvest of major U.S. grains and oilseeds this year, according to data the U.S. Department of Agriculture released Wednesday. That’s up from 47 percent in 1968. New markets and technology have made corn more profitable compared to other crops, which is why longtime farmers once devoted to competitive grains have switched to the nation’s number-one source for biofuels and cattle feed.

Corn muscles its way to dominate the harvest: 1987

Production in billions of bushels

Kevin Skunes is a fourth-generation farmer outside Arthur, North Dakota. On his 6,000 acres, he currently raises about 55 percent corn, 45 percent soybeans. This constitutes a big change since Skunes was a child in the 1960s. Back then, the farm was about 2,000 acres of wheat, barley, sunflowers and soybeans, with no corn.

Sunflowers disappeared in the 1980s. Skunes raised his last barley crop about 15 years ago, his last wheat about a dozen years ago. He started experimenting with corn in 2001, becoming such a convert that he’s now a vice president at the National Corn Growers Association. He’s also raised sugar beets, common to the Northern Plains and almost nowhere else in the U.S., and dry edible beans.

Kevin Skunes with his dogs, Jack and Ike, in front of bins full of corn.

Kevin Skunes with his dogs, Jack and Ike, in front of bins full of corn.
But corn’s spread is unstoppable, he said—the economic case remains too strong, even with prices now less than half what they were five years ago.

“It was mostly the price of corn, along with the yields. The yields on wheat were not keeping up,” Skunes said. “Corn just came up as the one that made money. It’s a little more work to grow, and you need some more equipment, but if you’re in a business and you see the money is there, that’s what you do.”

Corn yields catch rice: 1985

Yield in bushels per acre

Pushing along the economics were shifts in technology and markets. The U.S. approved genetically modified (GMO) corn and soybeans for planting in 1995. That reduced those crops’ risk of disease and simplified their cultivation, gains that weren’t matched in non-GMO wheat and other grains.

Ethanol also came on the horizon, with federal legislation in 2005 and 2007 creating new government requirements for biofuels largely made from corn. That led to a proliferation of ethanol plants, providing a new outlet for an ever-more-productive crop.

Bob Davis checks the monitor while planting corn on the Kevin Skunes Farm northeast of Arthur. The monitors tell him soil depth, seed spacing, moisture, seed count and fertilizer levels.

Bob Davis checks the monitor while planting corn on the Kevin Skunes Farm northeast of Arthur. The monitors tell him soil depth, seed spacing, moisture, seed count and fertilizer levels.
“The shift really came in the early 2000s. The corn varieties really started to improve, and you could see it rising. Biotech played a role in that. The biotech varieties of corn and soybeans kept coming, and wheat and barley didn’t have that,” Skunes said.

“Now we have quite a few ethanol options. Hankinson is about 90 miles south, Casselton is 15 miles. We have a pretty good nearby market for ethanol.”

Farmers typically rotate crops, and soybeans have long been a favorite in eastern North Dakota because of how the oilseed prepares the soil for grain crops. And it still is. But now, farmers are increasingly pairing soybeans with corn.

“Over time we went from wheat, barley and soybeans to corn and soybeans.”

Corn (and soybeans) eat wheat’s acreage: 1981

Harvested acres, in millions

Corn’s rise has transformed the American landscape. Rice, the only crop that can compete with corn in yields, has held on to its acreage in the regions where weather and soil conditions allow it to be grown, and sorghum has had a mini-revival on the Southern Plains, thanks to buying interest from China. But the U.S. Corn Belt has moved north and west, taking with it soybeans, the crop that tends to fit best in rotation with corn. The expansion has taken land away from wheat, once the top U.S. staple grain, and completely driven oats and barley from some parts of the country.

Farmers in Cass County, North Dakota, where Skunes lives, harvested 291,500 acres of corn last year—a quarter-century ago, they reaped 80,400. Barley, meanwhile, went in the other direction, with 13,700 acres of grain primarily used for beer last year, versus 109,500 acres in 1992.

“If you drive around Arthur now, you’ll see a couple of wheat fields, and the rest is corn and soybeans. Thirty years ago, you would have seen sugar beets, wheat, barley, soybeans, edible beans, a few sunflowers.”

A 36-row corn planter working on the Kevin Skunes farm northeast of Arthur, North Dakota.

A 36-row corn planter working on the Kevin Skunes farm northeast of Arthur, North Dakota.
Skunes doesn’t see anything displacing corn on the horizon. At this point, the infrastructure, from combines to grain bins to ethanol plants, has become entrenched. Still, farmers are always willing to experiment, he said. And some farmers who don’t want to be locked into corn markets and who have the right equipment are growing alternative crops.

“We’re getting better at raising wheat, and the farmers who do raise it around here raise a really high-quality grain,” he said. “Navy beans and other legumes are also attractive in the northern climate and get high demand from local buyers,” he said. “Edible soybeans are also getting some attention. You can use the same equipment you use for other soybeans, you just have to keep the edible beans separate to make sure they don’t mix with the GMOs.”

The view from the top of one of Kevin Skunes's 30,000-bushel corn bins.

The view from the top of one of Kevin Skunes’s 30,000-bushel corn bins.
“What corn has done is give us much more profit” because of the higher yields and expanding markets, Skunes said. The effect has been a boon to the local economy, he said. “Farmers share the wealth. We buy new equipment, we add storage. We have a hard time hanging on to our cash.”


12 Comments on "The Crop That Ate America"

  1. onlooker on Thu, 11th May 2017 4:37 pm 

    Biodiversity, natural resilience are so passe.

  2. Jerome Purtzer on Thu, 11th May 2017 5:16 pm 

    I live in S. Cal on a giant strawberry farm. Every now and then they will plant some cilantro or lettuce or celery but they are just waiting on the berries because that’s where the cash is.

  3. twocats on Thu, 11th May 2017 5:46 pm 

    don’t ignore the ethanol aspect which is even spreading to marginal lands that weren’t supposed to be used for fuel.

    i can’t find evidence why but I’m still shocked that for the past two to four years almond milk is cheaper than soymilk at most grocery stores I go to. but I suspect it has something to do with soybeans not keeping up with demand due to corn/ethanol.

  4. makati1 on Thu, 11th May 2017 6:30 pm 

    Mono culture. The farm killer. Corn is to fatten pigs. Wait! Isn’t obesity the number one health problem in America now? Oink!

  5. Newfie on Thu, 11th May 2017 6:46 pm 

    Corn is fed to livestock but is not digested very well and causes intestinal problems which requires antibiotics which leads to drug resistance in bacteria which make humans increasing sick. Connect the dots … …

  6. Go Speed Racer on Thu, 11th May 2017 7:49 pm 

    Solve the problem.
    Go to the most expensive Yuppie grocery
    store you can find, and fill your cart with
    organic foods. Prepare to pay five times
    more money. Buy Quinoa macaroni, etc.

    Vote with your money that you don’t want
    diseased cheap Monsanto corn products.

    And find yourself an ethanol-free gas station,
    they exist in Joe Sixpack areas. Study the web.
    The price is 20% more, but you drive 10% further
    on pure gasoline.

    This is no drill. I told you what to do. Go do it.

  7. Sissyfuss on Thu, 11th May 2017 11:36 pm 

    I loves me some high fructose corn syrup but can’t figure why my pants don’t fit no more.

  8. Dooma on Fri, 12th May 2017 12:03 am 

    The sweetener cartel.

  9. Davy on Fri, 12th May 2017 4:59 am 

    I grew corn 2000-2004. Year 2000 in the Missouri River bottoms 10mi from Jefferson City, MO. I had 600 acres of it and 350 beans. We never grew winter wheat but some did. They double cropped the wheat with (soy) beans. This is all you see around central Missouri except or some dry ground in the hills where some grow sorghum.

    Corn is difficult to grow. We deep ripped the soil because compaction was such an issue in the bottom ground. River gumbo soils compacted very badly then you would have water ponding issues and poor root growth profiles. That required lots of diesel and a big tractor. You need to add the fertilizer. We did the anhydrous in early spring. Fertilizer is a significant cost. You have the herbicides once the corn comes up around a foot. You then have a lot of product to harvest. Combines, Trucks, and small tractors with carts to get the corn out of the field to the trucks. We had a grain bin to put it in. Corn equals lots of chemicals, diesel, equipment, and time.

    You can make money if weather and prices are good but you can also loose it quicker because of the higher investment. Beans are easy and they grow on less fertile land. They don’t need fertilizer. They do need P&K as corn does. Prices are higher for beans but you get far fewer per acre. Actually most farmers plant corn and beans in succession because it helps stabilize fertility and reduces weed and pest issues. Beans fix nitrogen and corn and beans have different pests. You create problems when you plant corn year after year.

    Corn may be more important one year over another but the trend is not towards corn exclusively. Not all land is good corn ground. Bad weather can really hurt corn and the farmer. Beans are better able to grow in difficult weather and the losses are less in a bad year. Corn has some critical periods when drought and high heat are very bad for it. I think the trend may be to corn and beans and less of the wheat, sorghum, and specialty grains but not corn solo.

    I think this article is hype. Yes, if we look from the 80’s to today there has been a big move to corn but also beans. You are not going to see much more changing year to year going forward. In fact with the wild swings of climate change ahead who knows? Maybe a few years of optimum corn growing weather then bam bad shit comes with heat and drought. Rain makes grain so don’t worry about the wet years. It is the heat and drought that are the crop killers. Worry about wet and cool starts with heat and drought middles and then wet ends making harvest hard. What’s ahead long term with climate change is not good corn weather. I think corn’s long term outlook is bleak at least at the level it is grown now.

  10. deadlykillerbeaz on Fri, 12th May 2017 5:17 am 

    Corn yields are anywhere from one hundred twenty-five bushels per acre to 300 if you raise corn in Louisiana instead of cane.

    Corn at 6 dollars a few years ago meant a good income per acre. Corn hit a high of over 8 usd per bushel, so corn was a money maker. You’re going to need a 250,000 dollar combine if you are growing 1500 acres of corn. Makes the harvest go smoothly.

    A fifty bushel wheat crop at 5 dollars per bushel is 250 dollars per acre versus a minimum of 750 dollars per acre from corn.

    One corn grower had a yield of 167 bushels per acre in a year of high corn prices. Easy to see why corn is the choice crop to grow.

    Of course, you have to have Roundup Ready GMO corn seed so when the corn emerges, the Roundup won’t kill the corn when applied at a quart per acre, but it will kill every weed in the field, more than likely. Increases yields considerably, saves fuel, saves money, and you’ll be in for a loss if you don’t do it that way in today’s world.

    Corn will be the choice for commercial growers because it is currently where the money is. Yields make the difference.

    Pinto beans, beans are good too when you are producing 3000 lbs per acre and the price is 35 cents per lb. Canola about the same. It has to be Roundup Ready GMO Canola.

    What has really improved is potato yields.

    Record lbs per acre in 2016, 33,000 pounds.

    You can sell for ten cents per pound and still make 3300 dollars per acre gross. You can sell the potatoes wholesale at 20 cents, so it would probably gross 6600 usd per acre.

    Much more work, the net will be more but not a lot.

    Corn will get you some pure alcohol too, ya know. Everclear is 190 proof corn liquor. There’s an ear of corn right on the label. Drink too much, it’ll be pink elephant time.

    It’ll burn, that’s for sure. Use it for an alcohol lamp, but drink it before you mix it with gasoline. Harvey Wallbangers with Everclear for the distilled spirit will be a good choice for a drink laden with alcohol. You can’t drink gas, but you can drink corn liquor.

    I guess you can make vodka from potato peelings.

    Stolichnaya vodka is good stuff.

    There is a lot of land out there that goes into crop production. Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and numerous other states, translates to millions of acres in corn, soybeans, wheat, canola, sunflowers, whatnot. The equipment these days can plant at an amazing pace and can harvest crops with ease.

    Colorado is good potato country, lots of potatoes grown there.

    You have to plant so people don’t starve to death.

    What else does it take to grow those crops? Water, one foot of water is required to grow one acre of corn, 300,000 gallons.

    If it doesn’t rain, yields decrease.

    Enough ground water, probably, even if it doesn’t rain that much, you’ll still get something. Pump it out from wells and irrigate.

    When you reach retirement age, you can raise horses for the fun of it.

  11. kervennic on Fri, 12th May 2017 9:52 am 

    These fields are pretty ugly. We shoukld nuke this place.

  12. farmlad on Fri, 12th May 2017 10:42 am 

    Corn is hog and chicken feed not cattle feed. True cattle are finished/fattened up on corn but for most of their life they are fed grass and hay. Hogs and chickens in cafos never go a day without corn being the majority of their diet. Think about that the next time you have some chicken pork or eggs. They are basically from corn soybeans and multivitamin/mineral supplements.

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