High Fructose Corn Syrup and Corn Planting Decisions

High Fructose Corn Syrup (something I’m going to refer to as HFCS the rest of this post), gets a lot of attention today.  I had a very interesting conversation last night that really made me consider what many folks focused on healthy living/lifestyles may think of me planting corn.   I think there’s some misconceptions that I want to talk through with this post.

First, I want to make very clear that I am rather neutral on the whole “HFCS is it bad for you” issue.  This post stems from the discussion I had, and for the ease of telling this I am just going to refer to the person I was talking to as Sue.  Sue is very focused on healthy eating, and the whole idea that something in it’s natural state is healthier.  (The concept that you really can’t improve on what God created).  I cannot be opposed to that view, and at some level share the philosophy.  I also appreciate and use technology extensively in my life, and so there’s a balance required, but I have no problem with someone seeing that balance a little differently than I do.

I don’t claim to know much about HFCS, but it’s my understanding that it differs very little from the common sweetener white sugar.  Fortunately Sue and I agreed on this point.  Her opinion is that white sugar is just a little worse (or maybe a lot worse) for you than I happen to believe, she believes you need sugar in it’s more natural state (and yes, she has hand harvested sugar cane and created molasses so she “walks the talk”).

Most importantly, the discussion turned to me as a corn farmer, why I grow corn, etc.  There’s a couple of points that I want to make very clear.  First, only a small fraction of the billions of bushels of corn grown in this country is used to produce HFCS, according to the USDA it is estimated that less than 5% of the yearly crop is used for this purpose.  The vast majority of corn is used for animal feed and ethanol.  And from what I understand, even for the small sliver of the crop that is used for HFCS, a number of different products are produced from each corn kernel.  So the key point is that when I make the decision to plant corn, I am not deciding to add sweetener to your diet NEAR as much as I am deciding to help grow the meat and milk you will consume, as well as provide ethanol to help bring a little relief to ever rising gas prices.

My second point is even more important to understand.  When I decide to plant corn, I’m really not thinking about how that corn is going to be used, I’m thinking about how I can make good business decisions so that I can continue to farm for hopefully many years to come.  Lets walk through this example a bit.

1)  The number one requirement I have as a crop farmer is land.  You have to have land to grow a crop, simple as that.  Like most farmers today, the majority of the ground I farm is rented.  I pay the owner of the ground for the right to farm it.  Like anything else, the price I pay is subject to the basics of supply and demand.  In the case of land there’s a limited supply, and many, many farmers interested in farming the land.

2)  This causes a situation where any farmer who is doing a poor job of managing his operation tends to lose land over time as his neighbors are able to pay higher rent rates than he can afford.  (As a side note, this economic reality is cause for much, much discussion and debate in rural coffee shops across the country, but that’s a whole different subject).  The important point here is that if I can only afford to pay $50 an acre to rent a farm, and my neighbor can afford to pay $100 per acre for the same piece of ground, over time no one will be very interested in renting me their ground and I am out of a job.  This may be dramatically simplified for all the nuances that go into the highly charged issue of ground rental, but the basic principle and concept is simple market economics.  (And over a long period of time, purchasing ground instead of renting it is no different, the people that can afford to pay the most for the ground will purchase it)

3)  So,  how does all this relate to high fructose corn syrup?  Well, I grow corn b/c it happens to be the most profitable crop for me.  We grow a two year rotation of corn and soybeans.  I could just as easily grow a two year rotation of wheat and soybeans, or oats and sunflowers, or many, many combinations of rotations and crops.  However, none of them would be as profitable, it would be much harder to provide for my family, and over time, my ability to continue as a farmer would be at risk.

So, the message I want to leave is this. I think it’s great that Sue wants to go hand harvest sugar cane, and despises HFCS.  I have no problem with those that choose to exclude the meat and milk from their diets that corn also makes possible.  And if enough people make those decisions, it will become more profitable for me to do something else with the land that is so vital to the job I do.  While it’s great to talk about “what-ifs” at times, it would be foolish of me to lose sight of the reality that for now, and for as far as I can see into the future, a global population is demanding that I grow corn, and I will respond.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by workingcollies on June 4, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Great post, so true. Is the concern that somehow by choosing to plant corn that you are “forcing” the world to eat it, and thus doing something bad for humanity, versus if you chose to plant something deemed “healthier”, to force the world to eat better? I’m not sure that’s your responsibility; but it seems like that logic is sometimes in the underlying debate? Like somehow, rather than supply responding to demand, some people are hoping that supply could dictate demand, and thus help people make healthier eating choices? But I dunno, it didn’t work during Prohibition! 😀
    Michelle

    Reply

  2. Posted by eliav on June 4, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Darrin, very thoughtful post on a complex topic. I am curious about your thoughts on the role government subsidy plays in all this. USDA purchases of milk and meat, tax credits for ethanol, crop insurance for major crops, all must feed into the economics– right? Or maybe not– how does it play out in your economic decision making process?

    Reply

    • Good questions.. Hard to answer in a couple of sentences, but I provided an answer over on Quora a while back, that includes a link to another blog post as well. If you have questions after all that, let me know. http://www.quora.com/What-would-be-the-effects-of-eliminating-federal-corn-subsidies

      I guess the bottom line summary is this, no different than any other business government policy has an affect on what I grow. But the differences are pretty slight nowdays. Contrary to wide-spread belief, there is very little direct subsidization of corn, and its hard to see too many government policy shits that would actually significantly shift my acreage mix. Weather, soils, and specific crop knowledge still drive most of what we do

      Reply

      • Posted by Charles on June 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm

        Darin you have a misspelling that resulted in an incorrect word the correct word would be shifts.

  3. Posted by glass half full on June 4, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    i disagree that “something in its natural state is healthier.” that is a very romantic concept of nature, but not a very realistic one. check out this article link for a longer exploration of these ideas:

    http://www.utne.com/print-article.aspx?id=2147487870

    also, while i agree that “you can’t improve on what God created,” the natural world is no longer in its original state as God created it. it is now fallen and cursed. so nothing in this world is currently as it was meant to be. the natural world can be improved upon – to a limited degree by human efforts, and eventually, it will be fully restored by God himself.

    see genesis 3: 17-19 and romans 8: 18-23.

    Reply

  4. Posted by stephen nally on June 5, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Hi Darrin,

    Very interesting post. For me it raises a few points:-

    1. The government subsidizes corn heavily. So this is not a free market. You are effectively planting what the government tells you to plant. The government could just as easily be subsidizing a variety of organic produce.

    2. Corn is not the most efficient feedstock for ethanol by a long way. Especially without government subsidy.

    3. I would think the land rental system discourages long term sustainable farming.

    Reply

    • Thanks for your comments. I am not going to claim to have the expertise to debate the most efficient feedstock for ethanol. I do know there is a lot of logistical nightmares when trying many of the supposed alternatives and the marketplace has judged many such efforts harshly.

      Regarding points 1 and 3, I think my post on why I grow corn addressed a lot of the same things: https://daringrimm.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/why-i-grow-corn/

      And I will just say this, I think you tend to underestimate the inherent knowledge of the soil that most landowners have to think they don’t realize that the true value of their asset lies in its potential as a productive tool and not in minor fluctuations in yearly rental rates. They “get” that land health is a long term thing and in our area the perfect example of that is the massive investment in the last 40 years in conservation structures (terracing) that have no and probably negative short term value

      Reply

  5. […] High Fructose Corn Syrum & Corn Planting Decisions […]

    Reply

  6. “any farmer who is doing a poor job of managing his operation tends to lose land over time as his neighbors are able to pay higher rent rates than he can afford. (As a side note, this economic reality is cause for much, much discussion and debate in rural coffee shops across the country, but that’s a whole different subject).”

    Can you expound on this a bit? Perhaps even in a new post? I’m newly relocated to the mid-west and trying to understand that which now dominates my line of sight – corn.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Doug on October 24, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Here is a great link to answer some of the common “myths” about HFCS from the Corn Refiners Association:
    http://www.sweetsurprise.com/

    Reply

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