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Wed Aug 8, 2012, 12:11 PM

The Silver Lining in the Drought

FROM where I sit on the north end of America’s grain belt, I can almost hear the corn popping to the south of me. The drought threatens to drive up global corn prices beyond their level in 2007-8, when food demonstrations broke out around the world. But such crises often lead to change — and transformation is what is needed to make our food system less vulnerable.

We have become dangerously focused on corn in the Midwest (and soybeans, with which it is cultivated in rotation). This limited diversity of crops restricts our diets, degrades our soils and increases our vulnerability to droughts. Farmers in the central plains used to grow a greater diversity of food and forage crops, including oats, hay, alfalfa and sorghum. But they gradually opted to grow more and more corn thanks to federal agricultural subsidies and expanding markets for corn in animal feed, corn syrup and ethanol.

The virtue of corn is that it is one of the most productive crops on the planet, a characteristic that has been greatly amplified by years of research and development. Over time, this cheap and plentiful commodity found more uses and worked its way into more countries.

Cheap corn enabled the proliferation of high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that is almost impossible to avoid in the American diet today. Farmers also produced less fodder for their own animals as they increasingly purchased relatively inexpensive corn-based feeds. When the cheap price of corn alone could not open up new opportunities, government policies and quotas encouraged the development of corn-based ethanol production and markets, to the point where 40 percent of the corn crop is now devoted to this use.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/08/opinion/the-droughts-alert-for-corn.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120808

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Arrow 16 replies Author Time Post
Reply The Silver Lining in the Drought (Original post)
groovedaddy Aug 2012 OP
kickysnana Aug 2012 #1
newfie11 Aug 2012 #2
JoeyT Aug 2012 #3
Sentath Aug 2012 #4
JoeyT Aug 2012 #5
NickB79 Aug 2012 #12
JoeyT Aug 2012 #13
NickB79 Aug 2012 #14
roody Aug 2012 #15
seanpencil Aug 2012 #6
ag_dude Aug 2012 #8
seanpencil Aug 2012 #9
groovedaddy Aug 2012 #10
seanpencil Aug 2012 #11
roody Aug 2012 #16
BridgeTheGap Aug 2012 #7

Response to groovedaddy (Original post)

Wed Aug 8, 2012, 12:20 PM

1. Friend told me that hay in Sioux Falls was at auction for $10

He had had cold calls of speculators wanting to buy up any excess he has this year here in Central MN. He may have to go fetch his daughter's horse in MO as there is no hay there either.

Sounds like it isn't just the weather heating up.

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Response to groovedaddy (Original post)

Wed Aug 8, 2012, 12:38 PM

2. Hay in scottsbluff NE area over $200./ton

Glad I only have 2 horses and only feed hay in winter.

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Response to groovedaddy (Original post)

Wed Aug 8, 2012, 02:33 PM

3. There is no silver lining.

Poor people starving because they've been stripped of the cheap calories they can afford is going to make whatever lining we can find awfully thin.

I'd also love to know what crops we're going to switch to, since drought kills fucking near anything you can grow if it goes on long enough. Yeah, corn is susceptible to drought, but so is almost everything. And what few things aren't susceptible to drought are still going to die when you get six months of rain over a few weeks.

These thought experiments are always pushed by people that don't really consider poor people being able to survive a high priority and they usually know little to nothing about farming.

Edited to add: We had a wide combination of crops and almost everything managed to die or dwarf this year. The drought killed pumpkins, squash, peppers, and tomatoes. Two weeks of solid rain split almost every watermelon, rotted peas and beans, and killed the amaranth. And when amaranth starts dying, a region is pretty much shit out of luck for producing food.

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Response to JoeyT (Reply #3)

Wed Aug 8, 2012, 05:37 PM

4. Which part killed the Amaranth?

Anything that can kill a relative (cultivar? species?) of pigweed is impressive!

I wonder how much trouble I'd get into for ordering some seed here in KS?

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Response to Sentath (Reply #4)

Thu Aug 9, 2012, 01:02 AM

5. The flooding.

Nothing lives when its roots are underwater. This was Hopi Red Dye Amaranth: It's a pretty good ways removed from regular pigweed, though I think they'll still cross pollinate.

I don't think you can get into any trouble for ordering regular amaranth there, as long as it isn't pigweed. Pigweed would get you in a lot of trouble. Having dealt with it that's understandable. We've got the thorny kind and the only things that will kill it are Roundup or spraying the fields with something flammable and setting them on fire. Then it comes back twice as thick.

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Response to JoeyT (Reply #3)

Sun Aug 12, 2012, 02:31 AM

12. There is work being done on perennial crops, such as hybrid hazel and chestnut

Much more drought-tolerant than annuals such as corn or soy since they send down deep roots, AND they can survive flooding for periods of time.

For example, Badgersett Nurseries here in MN is working on such crops: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/9358

A very topical advantage: as we write this, the US is in the grip of a broad and severe drought, already affecting crop prices and raising great concern. Our neohybrid hazels, growing under the same conditions which have destroyed neighboring corn fields, are nearly unaffected- except they are ripening their seed crop ahead of schedule. Experience in a similar drought in 1988 showed they could bear the crop, and also bear their crop in the next year.

Woody crops are also more tolerant than row crops to the other end of the weather spectrum; flood. Flood water that covers young annual plants will generally kill them; but woody plants, with their tops above water, are essentially unaffected.

As we proceed into global climate change, this broader tolerance of environmental variation will prove increasingly desirable.

One additional energy related advantage: woody agriculture can produce food; on the same scale as modern agriculture. But because of the 3X energy capture aspect the same crop can simultaneously produce a biomass fuel component. In the case of hazelnuts, our top recorded experimental yields, based on multiple single-bush data, indicates that food production exceeding soybean averages is attainable, with the nutshell component of the crop available for fuel, annually.


I can remember the drought of 1988 very well; we almost lost the family farm here in MN as the land turned to dust. If their hazels could survive that, they blow other crops out of the water.

I actually have planted a few of their plants on my property, and plan on ordering more for next spring as well.

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Response to NickB79 (Reply #12)

Sun Aug 12, 2012, 11:34 AM

13. That's pretty interesting.

There aren't many things that will kill a hazelnut, and I don't know of anything that will kill a hickory. I wasn't even aware it was possible to cross hickory with a pecan. I certainly never considered people might switch over to nut based agriculture; even though it makes sense because you can grow a heck of a lot of nuts on one tree and nuts have a lot of energy.

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Response to JoeyT (Reply #13)

Sun Aug 12, 2012, 12:42 PM

14. Plus, the plants only have to be planted once per generation. nt

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Response to JoeyT (Reply #3)

Sun Aug 12, 2012, 05:01 PM

15. Agreed that there is no silver

lining. How much of that corn feeds starving people? Isn't most of it fed to cattle?

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Response to groovedaddy (Original post)

Thu Aug 9, 2012, 01:22 AM

6. " an ingredient that is almost impossible to avoid in the American diet today."

 

unless you read food labels and don't buy it.

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Response to seanpencil (Reply #6)

Thu Aug 9, 2012, 06:29 PM

8. Agreed.

I've never understood people that say they 'have to eat' something. There are options everywhere. The healthy options may not be as convenient as stopping at that McDonalds on the way home but they're most certainly there.

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Response to ag_dude (Reply #8)

Fri Aug 10, 2012, 01:07 AM

9. yup

 

and the options are more readily available than ever. Reading labels isn't hard.

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Response to seanpencil (Reply #9)

Fri Aug 10, 2012, 08:03 AM

10. Unless you're trying to avoid gmo products. Labels won't help

much with that.

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Response to groovedaddy (Reply #10)

Fri Aug 10, 2012, 12:21 PM

11. Labels do help re: GMOs

 

Some are labeled specifically regarding no GMOs and rBST.
Labels show companies and sources of product. (Some will be conventional and not mention it at all).
Certified organic is organic.
One hidden source of GMOs appears to be the corn sugar used in many products.
Buying from certain companies and suppliers definitely helps.

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Response to groovedaddy (Reply #10)

Sun Aug 12, 2012, 05:05 PM

16. If it is not USDA organic

or stated GMO free, the chances are 80% that the corn is genetically engineered.

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