By: Gretchen Zdorkowski, Senior Lecturer in Agronomy
Modern corn culture came to Iowa with the settlers that moved across the United States. Farmers, hopscotching westward to Indiana, Illinois and Iowa from the valleys of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, brought the agriculture of the Upland South with them- Dent corn and hogs. By the start of the Civil War corn-hog agriculture was already well established in Iowa. Part of its attraction was the amenability of the land and the climate– but corn yielded twice as many bushels. And therefore pounds, per acre than wheat- an impressive ratio only further enhanced once hybrid corn opened the door to yields soaring to 3-3.5 times that wheat. An additional impetus to pairing corn and hogs was that they allowed for two market opportunities: corn sold as corn, and corn concentrated into and sold as livestock—and even the earliest Iowa farms had their eyes on cash sales or trades for goods they could not produce.
Markets developed right along with swelling production. By the latter half of the 1800s, railroads were moving commodity products faster and more cheaply than wagons to the river and barges to centers like St Louis, and the telegraph quickly and effectively connected distant markets with sellers. Chicago was the locus of meatpacking as early as the late 1880s, and corn was always needed there to feed and fatten the country’s beef and hogs. Corn became easier and easier for a farmer to sell, as grain elevators gathered regional products and whisked it along to service the country’s seemingly end- less desire for meat.
With these factors at work, it’s not surprising that corn production rose, periodically creating destructive lows in prices. This pitch and yaw led Roosevelt’s 1933 New Deal administration to put the first commodity subsidies in place—primarily for the purpose of controlling overproduction and stabilizing price—but also creating the first of a long line of structural encouragements for farming the crops that are protected in this way. Non Recourse loans through the Commodity Credit Corporation sheltered corn and other farmers from low market prices, conservation programs tied payments to production controls for targeted crops and later, loan deficiency payments, direct payments and counter-cyclical payments made growing these designated crops increasingly attractive as they reduced financial risk. And as these programs set payments based on yield, the more corn or other supported commodity a farmer grew, the bigger the support check in the mailbox. Alongside the farm programs, 1980 and 1994 crop insurance acts added premium subsidies for crops with lobbies large enough to make a splash in Washington, and for crops grown in sufficient abundance to provide information for actuarial analysis.
Commodity crop production became economic engines in states like Iowa and the focus of research and development through the USDA, through Agronomy departments at land-grant universities and in private companies. Seed companies improved germplasm to heighten yields and sales, chemical companies directed energies toward providing inputs that enabled those heightened yields to be fulfilled, and companies specializing in agricultural machinery enlarged their lines, attachments, and the sizes of their machines to service the lucrative market of commodity agriculture. Rivers of funding, intellectual capital and innovation converged to enhance the production of commodities—most particularly, corn. Synergies between the research, teaching and outreach arms of the USDA, the land-grant universities and Cooperative Extension facilitated the movement of the ideas and information developed from laboratories and field plots to the class- room out into the countryside with training provided by the county Extension agent, land-grant faculty with Extension responsibilities, and advice from the local co-ops and their agronomists. And as all of these drivers interacted to increase productivity, opportunities for new markets and new uses opened up; in the case of corn, from ethanol to sweeteners, to components of crayons, plastics and wallboard, all in turn, enticing further production. The trade-off for this bonanza of infrastructure for farmers has been that farm size has had to increase, both to manage small margins by increasing the number of units for sale and to spread out the fixed costs of increasingly sophisticated, extensive and expensive inputs.
Farm families have grown corn in Iowa for 150 years now, many families passing down the evolving culture of corn production from generation to generation. Now, accumulated information and varieties and inputs and machinery facilitate management to such an extent that a single family has the power to farm thousands of acres. The external resources they need are easy to find, and a market, as close as their co-ops, is readily available. Crop prices have been problematic, to be sure, and land prices can be a headache, but underneath them, there is a safety net, nearly 80 years old.
One of the skills Girl Scouts of my vintage learned was how to take common string like jute or binder twine and turn it into high quality, strong rope. The key to success was twisting multiple strands first around themselves, then ‘tripling’ the line back on itself to make a rope whose strength came from the many strands as well as the degree they spiraled around one another in the twist. I see this rope when I think of corn production in Iowa and I wonder how it is that a farmer would grow anything else. And if it is important for them to grow something else, this is what we must first understand.