Corn beef – Organic farming

The world’s biggest exporter of maize finds itself importing the stuff

FLAKES of dried chicken droppings blow through the air as Jared Gubbels supervises the transfer of the stuff from an agricultural truck into the fertiliser spreader trailing his tractor. It infiltrates clothes, hair, nostrils. The smell lingers as Mr Gubbels drives away. Twenty minutes later he is back for another load. Chicken droppings are excellent fertiliser for organic corn. But it takes 5,000 pounds (2.3 tonnes) of the stuff to prepare an acre of land for sowing season, compared with just 300 pounds of chemical fertiliser for conventional crops.

“I don’t eat organic,” says Mr Gubbels as he guides the tractor down the field. “We do it strictly for the profit.” Mr Gubbels’ father, Greg, started growing organic crops in 1998, enticed by juicy margins. Yields for organic corn are about 70% of those for the conventional variety, but it sells for well over twice as much, more than making up for the shortfall.

Yet of the 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) cultivated by the father-son duo, only 300 are organic. America is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of corn, but it is a net importer of the organic sort. Between 2015 and 2016 the number of acres devoted to organic corn grew by 28%, to 214,000. That is less than 0.5% of the 90m acres of corn in America. In the same period imports of organic corn jumped 42%, to $160m. In 2014 that figure was just $36m, according to the Department of Agriculture. Most of it is used for animal feed—all those cows producing organic milk and turning into organic steaks must themselves be raised on an organic diet.

There are three main reasons farmers have been slow to convert to organic production. The first is investment of both time and money: a piece of land must be cultivated without chemicals or contamination for three years before it is certified organic. In effect, that means putting in all the effort required for organic crops with none of the payback. Moreover, it often means buying separate equipment rather than risking contamination through shared use with machines handling the conventional crop.

Second, it is riskier. Pollen floating over from a neighbouring farm can render some of the crop uncertifiable. Inclement weather or weeds can wreak havoc. “Mother Nature can easily beat you at the game of organic,” says Greg. Third, it requires more labour, which is both expensive and, given the seasonal nature of the work, tricky to find.

“I wouldn’t want to take on another 1,000 acres,” says Jared, while the older Mr Gubbels is more bullish, having seen two decades of ups and downs. But there are factors beyond the control of either farmers or the market. The supply of fertiliser, which comes from a massive poultry farm in nearby Wakefield, is limited by the prodigiousness of its chickens’ bowels. They produce about 130 tons (118 tonnes) a day. “I don’t know how many million birds they got over there but it’s a shitload,” says Greg. Even so, the suppliers have been turning down orders from new buyers.

Source: Corn beef – Organic farming

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