Category Archives: industrial agriculture

Global Productivity Growth of Agriculture Developing vs. Developed

Productivity growth in agriculture enables farmers to produce a greater abundance of food at lower prices, using fewer resources. A broad measure of agricultural productivity performance is total factor productivity (TFP). Unlike other commonly used productivity indicators like yield per acre, TFP takes into account a much broader set of inputs—including land, labor, capital, and materials—used in agricultural production. ERS analysis finds that globally, agricultural TFP growth accelerated in recent decades, largely because of improving productivity in developing countries and the transition economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

During 2001-2010, agricultural TFP growth in North America and the transition economies offset declining input use to keep agricultural output growing. By contrast, declining input use in Europe offset growing TFP, resulting in a slight decline in agricultural output over the decade. In most regions of the developing world, improvements in TFP are now more important than expansion of inputs as a source of growth in agricultural production. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only major region of the world where growth in agricultural inputs accounts for a higher share of output growth than growth in TFP.

source: USDA

Do Corn and Soybean Farmers Feel Like Hamsters on Wheels?

Flickr CC photo by Asad.

Though we always hear that there needs to be more investment in agricultural research, an agronomy student once told me that his professors are frustrated by the fact that nothing they can offer in the way of agricultural advice will be adopted by farmers unless it increases their profitability. And, usually that comes by way of reducing labor, increasing yields, or through policy.

We have a situation today where the efficiency of industrialized agricultural methods are being challenged because of ever rising input costs as well as ever growing global production competition as more and more of the developing nations adopt our industrial methods of production. Additionally, whereas the U.S. used to be the world’s corn exporting powerhouse, we’ve relinquished export market share since mandated ethanol policy went into effect.

In recent years, the agribusiness giants have done extremely well and many corn and soybean farmers have just ended a cycle of great crop incomes, too. We all know how well the S&P 500 has done in the past five years, but Deere has done even better:

In part recent farm-related profits have been due to government policies of direct farm payments and crop insurance, and in larger part, because of the biofuels mandates. But, it looks like that good time period is about to end. A recently released FAPRI study forecasts breakeven crop prices through 2023 for U.S. farmers.

Furthermore, during the five-year corn commodity price bull run we’ve just experienced, the profits went to the top half of producers, while the bottom half was left out; the top 10 percent of producers made 10 times the amount of profits than the bottom 10 percent.

Approximately 97 million acres of corn and 78 million acres of soybeans were planted in the U.S. in 2013. Let’s take a look at profitability from the farmer’s perspective by using data provided by Mike Duffy of the Iowa State Extension Service, who provides ongoing data updates for the input costs per acre to grow corn and soybean crops in Iowa. His data shows that the machinery costs for growing corn rose 420 percent in the 46 years between 1968 and 2014. The cost for seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers went up over 1000 percent. The yield in corn bushels per acre went up 77 percent for an overall cost per bushel increase of 347 percent over the past 46 years.

My chart below helps demonstrate the numbers:

And the following chart by Chad Hart of Iowa State helps us more in visualizing input costs versus returns of Iowa corn farmers (note the number of years that the average cost of production exceeds the corn price):


Hart included this commentary with the graph above, “When we examine the average return to a bushel of Iowa corn over the entire time period from 1972 to 2012, it is a positive 5 cents per bushel. However, if you looked at 1972 to 2011, the average return was negative.”

Whereas the input providers can set their prices, the farmer-producer is always at the mercy of the markets. What the farmer has the liberty to decide, however, is his/her choice of methods.

As for benefits, a major economic benefit for the corn and soybean farmer comes from taxpayer supported policy programs which help to ensure that production costs are met each year. The new farm bill offers even greater support to the farmer when prices fall, putting a high floor under prices. Unfortunately, today’s policy also encourages farming on marginal land because of a guaranteed profit to the landowner.

Then, there is also the labor saving benefit of today’s row-crop farmer. Compared to the old rotational grazing systems, the grain farmer’s time commitments have fallen dramatically, offering a better lifestyle and the opportunity to work off the farm for additional income.

What does this all mean and where is the corn and soybean farmer headed?

First, precision agriculture may be another method to increase production, but it comes with a large price both in dollars and in trust of the technology, creating a new set of risks and challenges. Second, integrating cover crops into cash crops can make row-crop farming more ecological and more productive in the long run. And, third, it is expected that by planting closer together, and by further improving genetics, crop yields per acre can continue to increase, but that, too, will come with higher input costs of seeds, fertilizer, and machinery for farmers – which brings us once again to the hamster on the wheel situation.

The farmer who can reduce his/her input costs and produce a product of value, such as providing organic products to answer consumer demand, may do well, and, the younger farmer demographic is looking into new alternatives and ideas which challenge the status quo. Perhaps this is all best summarized by a CNBC news headline that I spotted over the weekend, “There’s a growing discontent around farming in America.”

Water Used to Produce Ethanol in Nebraska

Do you notice any similarities between the two maps below? The top map shows us the corn production regions in Nebraska in 2012 (a drought year), the dark green areas having the highest production.

The red stars represent the ethanol plants in Nebraska.

The second map from year 2005 shows us the regions of Nebraska which irrigate most heavily using groundwater withdrawals. As you can easily see, the regions which irrigate most heavily, are the same as those that were most productive for corn in 2012.

Nebraska ranks as the third highest corn producing state, and it is also the state that is gifted with the most underground Ogallala Aquifer water. Seed corn companies prefer to use Nebraska’s irrigated corn acres for reliability during drought years and ethanol plants also like the reliability of corn production that Nebraska’s irrigated acres can provide. In 2008, 3.6 million acres in Nebraska were irrigated using center-pivots, and that number has surely grown since then.

According to a 2011 article out of Columbia University: “In Ohio, because of sufficient rainfall, only 1% of the corn is irrigated while in Nebraska 72% of the crop is irrigated. It takes 19 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn in Region 5, 38 gallons in Region 6, and 865 gallons in Region 7. (Region 5 includes Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri; Region 6 includes Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; and Region 7 includes North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.) The Baker Institute estimates that producing the corn to meet the ethanol mandate for 2015 will require 2.9 trillion gallons of water.”

Nebraska ranks second of all the states in ethanol production. I was curious to find out what percent of Nebraska’s corn was turned into ethanol. The clearest and most recent numbers that I could find using a non-drought year belong to 2011.

To do the calculation, I used data provided by the National Corn Growers Association:

1,536,000,000 bushels corn was produced in 2011 in Nebraska
2.089 billion gallons of ethanol operating capacity* in 2011 in Nebraska
(if) 1 bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons ethanol
then the % of corn going to ethanol in the state of Nebraska in 2011
= 49 %

From the University of Nebraska’s website, the issue becomes is it worth it?

Life cycle analysis (LCA) of ethanol production from corn grain has yielded a net energy ratio of 1.2 to 1.45 (Liska et. al. 2009). This represents just a 20 to 45% positive energy balance when producing ethanol from corn. This number has been the criticism of corn ethanol because of the large amount of fossil energy used to produce ethanol.

Yes, I know, the ethanol industry would argue that today’s conversion factor is more efficient, however… irrigated corn requires higher energy inputs even if the price of the water is considered to be free. It is possible that the energy returned on irrigated corn converted to ethanol in Nebraska is negative or about 1:1.

Where is the outrage on that, I ask the Nebraskans who proudly protested the Keystone pipeline to protect the state’s water?

In conclusion, the majority of the corn produced in Nebraska is produced by using irrigation water. And, around half of the corn produced in Nebraska is being converted into ethanol. Given ethanol’s negligible energy return, it looks like a hamster on a wheel that gets nowhere, a frivolous thing to do with this precious fossil water.


*note that this number should be quite accurate because ethanol plants were operating at near 100% capacity in 2011 in Nebraska.

See previous post: Pivots and Loss of Habitat in Flyover-Country

Anti-Ethanol Policy AP Story: “They’re Raping the Land”

Rick, the photographer from North Dakota, who is documenting the destruction of the Dakota’s former CRP lands, just sent me another photo which you see above. With it, he wrote, “Most of the newly planted corn fields from the converted CRP lands just have yield strips combined through them — for their insurance company. Then they are abandoned.”

That is what Rick is observing.

His E-mail was well-timed, because it gave me a photo for today’s subject.


I’ve felt a bit like a lone voice in the wilderness. The agricultural writer-activists like Michael Pollan and much of media, too, have been wasting their time by promoting anti-GMO legislation, blaming many of agriculture’s ills on GMO crops because they hate Monsanto.

But the real problem has been ethanol policy.

Many of the unsustainable agricultural environmental problems which the U.S. is guilty of today, name any one of them, stem from it. In just the few years since mandated use of corn ethanol has created a new and unprecedented demand for corn, the detrimental environmental consequences have been enormous while most of America has turned a blind and apathetic eye.

So finally today, a lengthy story by the AP — which has lambasted ethanol policy and Obama for endorsing it — is splashed prominently across the pages of every newspaper in America.

See: Making corn-based ethanol badly hurting environment: AP and DO NOT miss the corresponding time-line of ethanol policy A Timeline of Recent Ethanol Events.

The AP story hits Obama hard. They blame him for this ethanol mess and rightfully so. You can’t be a good effectual president and keep claiming that you weren’t aware of “the problem” — whatever the subject may be.

Not to leave Bush II off the hook. He enacted the policy under his watch.

Me? I’ve tended to pick on Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture, for not speaking up, for not being a watchdog protecting our soil and water.

But the AP is demanding leadership from our president. Obama’s the one who appointed Vilsack. And this mandated ethanol policy intersects across the departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Defense as well as the EPA. It is embedded into our nation’s governmental powers that be.

Which brings me to another bone of contention that I have. I’ve wished that our nation’s presidents would start appointing good qualified candidates to the position of Secretary of Agriculture — individuals with PhDs in Agronomy, like we’ve been getting for our recent Secretaries of Energy, and more like the EU has in Dacian Cioloş — instead of small-town lawyers from Iowa or Nebraska.

Agriculture is the number one cause of environmental destruction in the world, so shouldn’t the person in charge of its leadership in the number one agricultural producing nation in the world have someone who understands the science behind it? If we mine our topsoil for no good reason, we are robbing the productive capacity of our nation to produce food and have clean water for our future generations.

If a president appoints a lawyer from Iowa to be their Secretary of Agriculture, they are appointing nothing other than the success of D.C. lobbyist special interests from the Midwest to have control of our agricultural policy. Like corn grower lobbyists. Like biofuels lobbyists.

Because we are the nation with some of the richest arable land in the world that the whole world watches and emulates — our policies go beyond our borders.

Today is a day of opportunity to “change” things.

As our farm bill waits to be rewritten, let’s put our subsidies towards rewarding the farmer who has conservation reserve program acres. Let’s strive for new high numbers in total CRP acres, paying a floating rate that keeps the marginal and good unfarmed lands in the CRP program. Let’s quit paying the farmers who choose to plow up their marginal lands — which are guaranteed to erode and destroy what was previously wildlife habitat — when their crop fails. Let’s put our subsidies towards farmers who practice rotational grazing, who grow organic corn and soybeans, who raise grassfed beef, bison, and other livestock. Let’s put our subsidies towards a pasture raised poultry program for the health benefits that these meats and eggs offer over corn-fed. Let’s put our subsidies towards helping the small eat local organic farmer survive and prosper.

And let’s scale back the ethanol mandate — gradually over the future — so our Midwestern producers have a soft landing — while at the same time creating new policies which steer them in new directions, which reward them for conservation methods, and healthier food that is produced more humanely, and more respectful of the land.

Creating the right policies could also allow today’s modern farm producers to reduce their sky-high input costs and hefty energy needs — while conserving soil and water, and while still making a decent living.

And last but not least, new aesthetic values represented in a better farm bill could provide our badly hurting rural communities with a new energy and vibrancy from the younger generation of people that it would attract back to farming, a generation which would love to participate in agriculture, if given the right opportunity.

This AP story is a call for action from President Obama. It is an opportunity for him to lead.

Observations While Driving Across Nebraska

Photo by Phillip Capper @Flickr CC

In late August, I did the infamous drive across Nebraska on I-80 from Colorado to Eastern Nebraska. Some call the road I-GO-80, and the trucks indeed used to, making those of us in small cars feel threatened, but trucks have slowed down these recent years in the interest of fuel economy. If ever there was a stretch of road that could serve as the 1978 trucker movie song “Convoy” this would be it, and I’ve been trapped in convoys on I-80 in Nebraska before. Today, trucks in these parts continue to dominate the road, and on this particular trip, at one point in West-Central Nebraska, I estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the vehicles on the interstate were semis.

The drive across Nebraska on I-80 is also what the average U.S. citizen knows of Nebraska, and they’re never shy about telling you “Oh, I just drove I-80 and was through Nebraska. It’s boring. It’s really flat….” Well, yes, I-80 through Nebraska IS flat, because it follows the wide and shallow Platte River valley, just as all river valleys are flat. Geographically, Nebraska is richly diverse with very different biomes in each corner of the state. So many times I’ve had to explain this to people.

Each time I do this drive to return to my roots in Eastern Nebraska, I try to make observations about what has changed, and I try to observe how quickly those changes are occurring.

On this road trip, I kept a notepad and pen next to me and jotted down words like “wind, sunflowers, onion truck, tumbleweeds, round bales, power lines, 98 degrees F, windy, pivots, large pick-up trucks, Behlen, Kent Feeds, prolife bumper stickers, more wind, more sunflowers, more pivots, more pick-ups, more power lines,” and the like.

It was remarkably green everywhere across the state, especially as compared to the drought conditions of last summer. The rivers were extra-high, too, compared to many years in late summer when they get very low or dry up from irrigation demands. The crops looked outstanding, both the irrigated ones, as well as the crops in the dryland farm belt that I hail from. This year’s main harvest concern is the ability to mature the crops before the first frost, as they got planted late due to wet weather, not only here, but in a wide swath across the corn belt.

The subject that I spent a lot of time thinking about on this trip was that of the ongoing changes in demographics and the depopulation that is occurring in rural Nebraska and across the rural areas of the Midwest. I tried to come up with the best guess as to how this trend will play out in, let’s say 50, 100, or 200 years.

With the coming age of robotic farming, will these regions continue to depopulate as farms trend yet larger? Or, might this century-long depopulation trend be reversed with small and energy independent farms of the future, along with revitalized small rural communities, as a new generation of farmers replaces the old ones while searching for security, independence, and missing meaning in their lives? Might they bring with them a societal change, a new holistic value system in food production? As the populous southwestern states become more and more water stressed, might urban centers grow larger in Nebraska due to its abundant aquifer water resource? Or, will the Popper’s predictions of a buffalo commons come true at last if a failing economy or other resource constraints end policy support of today’s over-produced commodity crops?

The extreme weather of this driving day in late-August reminded me of the inhospitable climate that the Midwest is for people. It felt like Hades as I walked the dog at a windy rest stop near North Platte with the car thermometer reading 98 degrees and the wind at 40 miles per hour. Extremes in weather occur both in winter and in summer in much of our crop producing heartland. The heat comes with humidity and wind, the cold is a damp cold, and snow comes with wind, too, blowing it into high drifts. The corn loves this day’s weather, however, and so do the insects. “But I’m not corn,” my Mother-in-law used to say. She grew up in tiny Oakland, Nebraska and eventually settled in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is a weather Shangri-La by most Nebraskan’s standards.

Only the tough people stay in corn country, not the softies, and not the dreamers, like myself. We eventually vote with our feet. As long as other people can be relied upon to produce our food and get it to our nearest grocery store, given our druthers, the rest of us tend to opt for more moderate climates in crowded coastal, desert, or mountainous regions.

After driving through town after town in which I marveled at the quietness, the emptiness, the ghosts of their former selves, I stopped in the town of North Bend to grab a shot of main street on a Sunday afternoon. Not much was happen’n.

Edward Hopper-esque scene of North Bend, Nebraska

Back in Willa Cather’s day, these small Nebraska towns were vibrant. The best theater troops and opera in the country passed through, traveling by rail, to entertain the members of these newly formed communities that were so rooted in a hope for the future. Now the rail spurs are gone and the old opera houses have long been abandoned.

Today, instead, we have very aged rural communities. Growth, if any is occurring at all, is in the nursing homes and hospitals.

Farmers that are 60, 70 and 80 years old are reluctant to retire and pass their land on to the next generation, making it about the most difficult business that there is to transition. Finally, when a farm does sell, sometimes for the first time in two or three generations, the old farm place and shelter-belt gets bulldozed and burned, to make way for more corn acres. This very thing just happened to the long standing place next door to my own family’s farm just two months ago. The buyer was a neighbor who is trying to expand his operation.

Because of these currently high priced land values, it is difficult for the younger generation to begin farming unless they are given land. The next generation also is reluctant to settle in an area that lacks the latest in quality health care, schools, internet and cell phone service, reliable roads and electricity, postal service, quality grocery stores, and like-minded community members for friendship. It is necessary for taxpayers and urban centers to help subsidize needed services, roads, and utility upgrades in the rural areas.

Small town services like grocers and hardware stores left many years ago, replaced by Walmart’s and Orscheln’s in hub towns sometimes 60 miles away from what is now nowhere. A significant number of people who are residing in these rural areas commute to jobs that are also often an hour or more away. Who’d have thought that my Mother-in-law’s birthplace of Oakland would eventually become a bedroom community for Omaha, over an hour’s drive away? As the millennial generation desires walkable urban communities in which to live, our rural areas are requiring ever-greater commutes for work, schools, goods, and services.

Something’s gotta give and it’s gonna.

Currently the movie producer, Alexander Payne, of “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” fame, who hails from Omaha, has a new movie out titled “Nebraska”. Payne is a brilliant film editor and producer, and because everybody knows everybody else in the small state of Nebraska, somewhere in my files I’m proud to say that I have a photo of myself taken with him.

Payne has the ability to capture the spirit of a place and people dwelling in this region of the country by way of painful truth, the likes of which I’ve only seen elsewhere from the genius storyteller, Garrison Keilor. Keilor also knows how to exhibit the qualities of a Midwesterner by using the true-to-life conflicting emotions of funny and sad to an audience. His portrayals of irony are so real, that some rural people listen to him and simply don’t even get it.

I’ve watched the reviews and movie trailers of Payne’s movie “Nebraska”. One British viewer said, “It’s like everything is in the rear view mirror. There’s nothing ahead.” No, the comment wasn’t about the state of Nebraska, but it refers to the seasoned life of the movie’s main character, played by Bruce Dern. One could certainly wonder whether the quote might pertain to these little rural Nebraska towns, too.

In my own life, Nebraska is truly in the rear view mirror. These days I return to Colorado following my visits. And I’ve got the bug juice on my windshield to prove that I’ve been there. But, perhaps, less bug and butterfly juice than there used to be, another observation that I was contemplating on this latest trip back home.