Weekend open thread: Iowa sweet corn edition

This thread is for anything on your mind this weekend. Anyone volunteered for an Iowa Democratic candidate lately?

In honor of the Iowa State Fair, with its multitude of cooking competitions, I want to hear Bleeding Heartland readers’ favorite ways to cook Iowa sweet corn. I don’t ever get tired of eating plain old corn on the cob: shuck corn just before cooking, while bringing a pot of water to a boil, add corn, cover, turn off heat and leave for 5 minutes. If it’s fresh and sweet, it doesn’t even need butter or salt.

If I have lots of ears to use up, I might add fresh instead of frozen corn kernels to my favorite chili or any risotto using summer vegetables. Pureeing a cup or two of corn kernels with the cooking broth is a good way to make risotto creamy without using any dairy products.

Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian recipe using corn kernels and kohlrabi is also good, although I haven’t made it since last year. Corn on the cob is so much easier.

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Iowa State let Farm Bureau choose the head of the Leopold Center

I lost a lot of respect for Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy after reading this piece by Alan Guebert for the Burlington Hawk Eye. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has been looking for a director to replace the retiring Jerry DeWitt. An expert panel conducted a nationwide search and chose four finalists, whom you can learn more about here. Guebert explains how the search ended:

Iowa Farm Bureau made it known to ISU aggies that the leading candidate for the post, Ricardo Salvador, the program director for the Kellogg Foundation’s Food, Health and Wellbeing program, was not its prime choice. It preferred Frank Louws, a plant pathologist at North Carolina State.

According to interview and program evaluations, Louws was a clear second to Salvador in almost every category commented on by evaluators. He had limited experience with Iowa commodities, no livestock experience, no “national or international reputation in sustainable agriculture,” and a “lower scope of vision” for the Center than Salvador.

Despite these shortcomings, Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy authorized ag Dean Wendy Wintersteen to offer Louws the job. Simultaneously, Wintersteen sent Salvador an email Dec. 2 that informed him he would not be Leopold director.

Why, asks Laura Jackson, a center advisory board member and a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, was Salvador, “clearly the most qualified applicant interviewed,” sent packing before Louws either accepted or declined the position?

Those who have seen the documentary King Corn might remember Salvador from a few scenes. He is highly regarded by sustainable agriculture experts inside and outside the U.S. and is an expert on one of Iowa’s leading crops.

Guebert reports that Louws has neither accepted nor declined the position at the Leopold Center, so perhaps there is still a chance for Salvador to be offered the job. Either way, the episode doesn’t reflect well on ISU, which already had a reputation for being less than welcoming to sustainable agriculture advocates.

When Fred Kirschenmann was hired as director of the Leopold Center in 2000, none of the agricultural science departments wanted him on their faculty for fear of angering corporate interests. So, Kirschenmann was appointed to the ISU Department of Religion and Philosophy. But at least the Farm Bureau was not allowed to veto his hiring. It’s a sad day for a university when a corporate group can overrule the strong preference of a hiring committee.

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To Hell With High Seed Corn Prices

I guess I'll be forced to own it now.  I'm a sixth generation Iowan, taken off the land during the 1980's farm crisis, relocated to Des Moines with a federal subsidy as a “displaced farm worker”.  So, I guess I have no room to complain about all them Wall Street Bankers getting federal bailout money.  But when the Savings and Loan in Bloomfield, Iowa collapsed, I didn't get any federal assistance until after my dad decided we had to sell off the farm since I didn't have enough money to pay the taxes.  Too late by then to do me much good. 

After all that hurt, rage, and anger, the last thing I EVER thought I'd be complaing about was the high price of Seed Corn.  But you know what?  Actually feels kind of good now that I find myself in the midst of it.

And why do I find myself complaining about the high price of seed corn these days?  Well, read on, gentle reader, read on… 

Next to Bear Creek Friends Meeting House (ca.1865) in Earlham, Dallas County, Iowa is about 23 acres of open farmland.  This land is held in an estate trust by a member of the Meeting, and was in a 10 year federal “set aside” program until this last year.  The family needs it to make some kind of income, and if no-one steps up to the plate, it could wind up in chemically intensive ag, or worse, development for McMansions.

Or at least that was the threat made, in all probability, to get me off my rear and engaged in meaningful action.

I have this twenty-three acres provisionally leased for this year.  Some folks want to do an exploratory CSA on it, and that's fine.  Now I only have 21 acres to deal with.  It's been in grass for several years, and there IS a limited market for grass hay, but I figure it might be nice to do ten acres in row crop to make sure all expenses are covered. And I guess it's up to me to see that all the expenses get covered since I'm the one signing the lease.  Five acres was in traditional row cropped corn last year, so it's a no brainer to crop that off, and plow under another five acres for corn this year as well.
 
With this thought in mind, yesterday I called to see about buying some seed corn.  To plant 10 acres in corn means that one half unit per acre (40,000 seeds) are needed to ensure a mature stand of 28-30 thousand corn plants (high infant mortality in corn, there is).  Each unit being roughly 80,000 seeds, or one(1) fifty pound bag, so to plant ten acres I need five “units” on hand, just to be safe.  The only seed I could find at the local markets near Des Moines are triple resistant multi-generational hybridized GMO genetically patented seed corn.  This seed is selling for, get this, $200 a unit.  That's one hundred dollars an acre to plant.  And this seed is resistant to herbicides, anhydrous application, etc… None of which I would EVER put on corn.  But, it was all that was available at the first place I called, and I asked the nice young woman on the phone when I would need to reserve the seed to ensure that it was available to me.  She asked me how many units I would need to reserve, and I told her five units.  There was a long pause, and finally she said, “I'm sorry sir, we have a twenty-five unit minimum.” And then just hung up.  Shit.
 
I did some further research, and found some old school “organic” open pollinated seed corn for, get this now, $70.00 per unit at: http://www.openpollinated.com/.  And they will sell one to five units. no problem, no questions asked. Now that is like $35.00 per acre in seed cost.  Hmmmm.  And since I am not planting in high density with all kinds of groovy chemical application, I'm only going to get about 100 bushel to the acre max yield anyway.
 
And this gets better if you think about it like I do.  Since this stuff is “open pollinated” I can save a few patches and hand harvest the best of the best this year, and save 250-300 pounds of seed for next year, no cost for the actual seed.
 
But, [caveat extended] here's the difficult part, in order to plant the seed corn NEXT year, it has to be shelled from the cob, which, if done by hand, manually, would take me all damned winter.  So, in order to achieve a modest “economy of scale” I need to pick up an old hand cranked corn sheller like my granddad and great granddad used to shell off their seed corn.

When the farm crisis in the 1980's took me off the farm we sold off our old corn sheller, so now I don't happen to have one.  And the only one's I've seen around lately are cluttering up the lobbies at all the Crackerbarrell restaurants my Mom makes me go to.  Figures, a nice piece of technological wizardry reduced to wall art. 

After much searching, I finally found a brand spanking new, smaller version, here: http://www.pleasanthillgrain.com/corn_sheller_hand_operated_crank_manual_antique_walnut_stationary.aspx

At $97.00, this is really gonna cut into my operating budget this year, but the savings in time and energy versus hand shelling are worth it. If I have to get a job at Wal-Mart as a greeter during the X-mas season to offset the difference, well, we all have to make a compromise somewhere… 

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More speculation about Obama's secretary of agriculture

Iowa politicians from both parties, as well as representatives of influential ag lobbies, like the idea of former Governor Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, according to this piece from the Des Moines Register:

The ag secretary, whose department oversees such organizations as United States Forest Service, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service and the food stamp program, must have a strong relationship with the industry, be a strong manager, and be politically in tune with the president.

Former Gov. Tom Vilsack has those qualities, said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political science professor.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey (a Republican) likes the idea of Barack Obama picking someone from Iowa who understands the biofuels industry. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley tells the Register that it always benefits Iowa to have someone from our state is a position of power.

The heads of the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association also have good things to say about Vilsack’s knowledge and background in the article.

Although this was ostensibly a news piece and not an opinion column, the Register made its preference clear by not quoting any critic of Vilsack’s record on agriculture and not mentioning any reason why anyone might oppose him for this job.

Vilsack’s strong ties to the biotech and biofuels industries prompted the Organic Consumers Association to come out against his appointment as head of the USDA. When I wrote about that on Thursday, a few people questioned whether anyone else on Obama’s short list for this job would be better than Vilsack in terms of supporting organic foods and sustainable agriculture.

It’s a fair question. Here Jill Richardson/OrangeClouds115 makes the case against House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. She shows that Obama’s campaign platform includes a lot of good points on agriculture, most of which Peterson has used his position in Congress to block.

Yesterday, shirah argued here that Pennsylvania Secretary of Agricultre Dennis Wolff, another name on Obama’s short list, would be “about the worst person” for this job. The diarist has written extensively about “Wolff’s role in trying to take away the right of Pennsylvanians to know whether their milk was produced using rBST / rBGH (recombinant bovine somatrophin / recombinant bovine growth hormone).”

Looks like Obama’s agriculture policy is going to be “more of the same” rather than “change we can believe in.”

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Corn Growers PAC backs Boswell

I wasn’t surprised to get this e-mail from the Boswell campaign today:

Iowa Corn Growers Association Votes to Endorse Congressman Leonard Boswell

Des Moines, IA – The Iowa Corn Growers Association Political Action Committee (PAC) voted to endorse Congressman Leonard Boswell today.  “I am very pleased to accept the endorsement of the Iowa Corn Growers Association,” said Congressman Boswell.  “As a hands-on farmer, I have had a relationship with the Iowa Corn Growers for many years. The work they do is crucial to the success and prosperity of Iowa’s corn producers.”

“The Iowa Corn Growers Association appreciates Congressman Boswell’s current work on the Farm Bill.  He provides consistent leadership on behalf of Iowa farmers, and we look forward to working with him in the future out in Washington,” said Max Smith, committee member of the Iowa Corn Growers Association PAC.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association consists of nearly 6,000 members across the state of Iowa.

Boswell certainly is a steadfast supporter of the current federal agriculture policy, and large corn growers do profit from that policy.

Many people, including myself, think that policy benefits a relatively small number of relatively large farms. Corn subsidies in particular have been cited as a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic, as high-fructose corn syrup has been added to so many processed foods and drinks.

I would like to see a shift in our national agriculture policy, which would provide more support for conservation, crop diversity, local food networks and small farmers. I don’t expect much help from Boswell on those issues. But that works out great for large-scale corn growers.

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Iowa Public Television showing "King Corn" documentary

Thanks to Blog for Iowa, I learned that the “King Corn” documentary will be shown on Iowa Public Television on Sunday, April 20 (Earth Day) at 10:30 pm.

IPTV digital has already shown the film twice this week and will show it again on Friday, April 18 at 10 am and on Monday, April 21 at 9 am.

For more information about this film, which has gotten great reviews, click here.

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