Posted by: trevormeers | November 16, 2009

Mt. Corn

DSC_0218This time of year, the Iowa landscape rapidly changes, sprouting something like the newborn volcanic cones that arise after a fresh eruption in the South Pacific. The mounds that suddenly appear are corn, small mountains of it like this one, which has raised its head beside my daily commute on Highway 65.

My relationship with corn has grown rapidly sour over the last couple of years as I’ve learned more about this giant grass that has pushed pretty much all other flora and fauna out of Iowa’s landscape.

In one sense, things have never been better for Iowa corn, as evidenced by all the “Corn Everests” (as Allison is calling them) piled near every small-town grain elevator. The 2009 corn harvest—both in Iowa and across the country—is on-track to produce an all-time record. The latest USDA reports predict that Iowa farmers will produce more than 2.4 billion bushels, leading the nation in corn production. The entire country will produce almost 13 billion bushels, up 7% from last year.

In the end, all this productivity seems like disastrously bad business. Farmers who rent any portion of the land they farm, which covers most of Iowa’s corn farmers, will lose between 7 and 37 cents per bushel this year, according to Wallace’s Farmer. Farmers fortunate enough to own all of their lDSC_0258and will make money, but they’ve seen their profit drop from $2.87 per bushel last year to around 29 cents per bushel this year. Thank goodness for all the government subsidies that keep farmers afloat as they churn out mountains of this unprofitable crop.

My free-market conscience aside, I’m also having issues with corn due to the massive amounts of nitrogen farmers dump on fields to facilitate such huge yields in a state of monoculture. And, then there’s the impact on the national diet. The Corn Everests must go somewhere, and since the corn grown in the majority of fields within 200 miles of my house is basically inedible to humans without processing, most of the corn mountains become some variation of corn syrup. Allison’s third-grade class is celebrating the wide uses for corn this week, and her assignment was to go to the pantry and catalog every product containing corn. I’d say we eat healthier than most American families, yet she still came up with about 20 items. Most of them include high fructose corn syrup.

If she’d included products without ingredients labels, she would’ve also listed the beef we ate last night since it was almost certainly fattened on corn in a feedlot. (The problem? Cattlemen pump the cows with massive amounts of antibiotics to keep these grazing animals alive on an all-corn diet.) When you combine that beef with the barbecue sauce (high fructose corn syrup) we put on it and the ketchup (more HFCS) we put on the fries, you have what author Michael Poulan calls a meal of “corn with a side of corn.” No wonder the stars of the King Corn documentary discovered dominant signs of corn in the results of their genetic testing. We truly are what we eat, and that makes us mostly corn.

It’s maddening and scary and frustrating. My stomach grew tight at the state fair this summer when I heard some corn industry shill leading a pep rally for kids in which she was counting off all the fantastic uses for corn. “How many of you have ever drank corn?” she yelled into her Garth Brooks mike. “All of you have!” And she held up a bottle of cola with a big smile. All the overweight little kids smiled in amazement.DSC_0256

I’m not sure what to do about my relationship with corn. Our state is going broke as it is. Where would it be without all the federal money pouring in to support the farmers producing Corn Everests at a record pace, even as the free market penalizes them for every bushel? I’m bothered by how thoroughly corn has infiltrated our diet, yet our family hasn’t rejected the system in exchange for pricier, less convenient alternatives such as eating nothing but grass-fed beef.

Perhaps I’ll climb to the top of Mt. Corn late some night when the co-op guard is sleeping. Maybe I’ll find answers on the mountaintop.

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