After 40 years of farming, I think I’ve finally gotten it right: I’m about to produce my best crop ever.
I won’t have the numbers to prove it until we harvest in another month or so, but it looks like our farm in Iowa will yield corn at a rate of 240 bushels per acre, up from a 10-year average of about 187 bushels per acre.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that American farmers will grow more than 14 billion bushels of corn, an all-time high.
Good soil and good weather explain a lot of our success. Yet the difference-making ingredient is the man-made miracle of technology. The genetics that help our crops grow and thrive benefit farmers and consumers alike.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of our success this summer is pure luck. We’ve enjoyed humid days and cool nights, which are ideal for growing corn. A little bit like us, corn goes through 24-hour cycles of work and rest. This year’s conditions have let corn convert sunlight to energy during the day and then recover at night.
Farmers also have to work hard—and unlike the corn, we’re not genetically programmed to flourish. We need to learn from our labor and strive to improve.
In his book “40 Chances”, Howard G. Buffett says that most farmers will live through 40 growing seasons—and so they’ll have 40 chances to get better at what they do. I’ve now had my own 40 chances, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that our biggest improvements come from technology.
The genetics behind our seeds allow us to grow bumper crops in years like the one we’re in. They also boost performance in more stressful years, when the nights are too hot or the days too dry. Root systems are much larger than they were a generation ago, helping our corn stalks stand tall against the high winds that can blow them over.
I’ll never complain about the kind of good weather we’ve enjoyed this summer, but it’s important to note that good weather for crops also can mean good weather for harmful pests. Through technology, however, we’re able to fend off the bad insects as never before. Instead of relying on crop-protection tools that wipe out even the beneficial bugs, we can breed plants that resist the destructive ones specifically.
Bumper crops excite farmers, but they make us anxious, too. The laws of economics say that large supplies lead to lower prices—and right now, corn is cheap. This is excellent news for consumers. Corn goes into thousands of every-day grocery-store products, often in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. We use corn for oil, sweeteners, and livestock. Inexpensive corn means less expensive food.
It also means cheaper gas because we transform corn into ethanol. This year’s huge harvest should end the food vs. fuel argument. We can produce plenty of both.
Nobody wants prices to drop so low that farmers struggle. One of the best ways to help farmers is to promote exports. We already ship about one-third of our corn to other countries. Yet we can always send more, and our federal officials play an important part in making this possible.
This year, for example, we’re on track to sell more than 130 million bushels of corn to Colombia, comprising about 95 percent of that country’s corn market, according to the U.S. Grains Council. Our brand-new dominance is a direct result of a free-trade agreement negotiated by the Bush and Obama administrations and approved by Congress three years ago.
We need more trade agreements, starting with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that would drive the sales of goods and services to customers around the Pacific Rim. We would all also profit from upgrading our infrastructure, which lets us move food by road, rail, and river.
I won’t have another 40 chances to keep on improving, but I do plan to farm for a bit longer. With better trade and technology, I intend to keep on getting things right—and to have my best crop ever a few more times.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).