Illinois Farm Families Blog

Apr 17 2014

Hog Farm, Chapter 2: Meet the Farmers!

Meet the Gould family! Eldon and Sandy Gould have two adult children, Chris and Lynda. Lynda is a mixed animal veterinarian and married to a farmer. On the day of our farm tour, Lynda had a busy day at work caring for dogs, cats and even a horse, so she wasn’t able to join us until the very end of the afternoon. Chris and his wife, Dana, have two teenage children, a boy and a girl. Chris has joined his parents to run their family business, the Gould Family Farm, which is just 50 miles west of downtown Chicago.

Chris, Eldon, and Sandy graciously opened their doors to us and welcomed us onto their farm and into their family for the day to give us a first-hand account of their hog farm operation, our first farm tour of the year. They showed us historical photos of their farm, displaying how it has physically changed over the years with barns being added and a manure lagoon being filled in. Eldon shared with us how pig farming has changed since he was a teen in the 50’s and 60’s.Sandy has a degree in education and was a kindergarten teacher for some time before raising her family, and she clearly has a passion for teaching us moms about what they do on the farm. She keeps the records on all of the pigs, entering the data for each sow and litter of piglets. She has also successfully passed on her chocolate chip cookie baking skills to her grand-daughter; thank you, they were delicious! Chris thoroughly, yet succinctly, explained to us how the crops are managed and how they are related to the swine operation. We had an excellent overview of their operation before heading out into the barns to see the sows and piglets.

Ninety-four percent of Illinois farms are family farms, like the Goulds. Chris emphasized a point to us - that we should not define the farm as land and buildings; instead, the farm is defined as the business, the family business. It was an interesting point and I was glad he made it, because I had not considered that distinction.

Eldon grew up on a rented farm. In 1966, he and his father bought a neighboring farm that happened to come up for sale. Chris and his parents have expanded that farm operation and had an opportunity to purchase land several years ago during the real-estate market crash, but their crop land is primarily leased. Chris manages the crop side of the farm where they grow 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and winter wheat. His father manages the livestock side where they care for 650-750 sows and raise market piglets (16,000 annually) in a "farrow-to-wean" operation. They are contracted with Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, where their market pigs are sold.

I’m learning what the big mid-west agricultural universities are and the University of Illinois is a big one around Chicago. This family seems to have a U of I legacy going! Eldon graduated from U of I in 1963 with a degree in Animal Science. Chris graduated from U of I with a degree in Agricultural Engineering with a focus in Mechanical Engineering.

I was surprised to learn that the Gould farm employs six full-time employees; three on the crop-side, two on the swine side, and one trucker. They employ at least one high-school student who works on weekends and occasionally additional help during pig weaning. They also have a farm veterinarian who works with about 24 area farms. The Gould family members on this farm are largely farm managers; meaning they do all of the record-keeping, attend seminars, and manage day-to-day workings from their office full-time. I had an image in my head of the family running the farm and doing all of the physical labor themselves, but this farm is different than others I’ve been learning about.

Every one of the Gould family members we met cares about the welfare of their animals and also the welfare of the land they are farming. Chris proudly regards Illinois soil as the “best” soil. He said it is fertile and very good soil; and acknowledged that farmers in Iowa and other mid-west locations probably consider their soil the best. He explained that his interests are to manage that fertility and maintain it to the best of their ability utilizing the most current technology available to them.

To describe their character in a list of words from the few hours we spent with them, I would use diligent, deliberate, thoughtful, honest, and respectful. They seem diligent when it comes to following regulations, striving to always improve, and being responsible neighbors. They seem deliberate about how they operate the farm. Every action has a reason and a purpose. They are thoughtful people. Their actions are thought-out. They collect data, analyze it, and then use it to move forward in a positive direction. They appeared to be very open and honest with us moms about how their farm business is run. We asked a lot of questions and they were all answered openly. They seem respectful of each other, the people that work for them, their animals, and the land they cultivate.

It was a privilege to be with the Gould family and learn about their life and work.

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

Feb 14 2014

Dr. Oz's GMO Global Conspiracy...Debunked

Today, Dr. Oz uncovered the “global conspiracy” surrounding GMOs.  I usually avoid these types of sensationalized “investigative” reports because they are nothing more than a regurgitation of biased studies, “expert” testimony supporting the biased studies and absolutely no exploration of another side to the story.  However, this blog is not a commentary on sensational journalism.

It also isn’t meant to attack the character of Dr. Oz or the producers of his show. I don’t know them.  They could be really nice people just doing their jobs.  They don’t know me either, but I kinda wish they did because I could have helped them clarify some of the pseudo facts they presented during their segment on “Stealth GMOs”.

Dr. Oz began his rant against genetically modified organisms by describing a tomato that can withstand frosty temperatures because its DNA has been modified with a gene from a fish.

Clarification: In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the company DNA Plant Technology used DNA from the fish, winter flounder, and inserted it into the DNA of a tomato in order to make the fruit frost-tolerant. This “fish tomato” never went into field testing or made it to market.  Yet, Dr. Oz viewers were left to contemplate a picture of a bin of tomatoes labeled GMO and a bin labeled non-GMO.  No tomato in your grocery store is a GMO.  Only eight crops with genetically modified varieties are commercially available to farmers – corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beets, and squash.

Then Dr. Oz switches the topic from GMOs to the use of pesticides.  He gives his own example of how plant scientists “improved Mother Nature” by making seeds resistant to pesticides.  But then, alas, insects became resistant to these gm-crops and farmers had to apply even more pesticide.

Clarification:  A pesticide is just one type of crop protection tool.  There are several – insecticides for insects and are usually applied below ground, herbicides for weeds, fungicides for disease and pesticides for pests (for example: spider mites, Japanese beetles and are usually applied above ground).  I know, I know. He says ta-may-toe and I say toe-ma-toe, but I thought I’d offer a brief explanation of the differences in these things.

Secondly, herbicide resistant weeds and insecticide resistant insects are an issue on the farm. I won’t deny that.  He isn’t telling us – the ones responsible for managing our fields – anything new.  Our farm magazines are full of articles, meetings full of experts and winter shop talk full of how we should apply our knowledge of our crops and our fields to push back on this pest pressure. This is why farmers will not necessarily turn to applying more herbicides or more insecticides to our fields.  We certainly won’t (and don’t) in the manner demonstrated by Dr. Oz on today’s show. (Using a hand-held sprayer he saturated his plant DNA puzzle; I hope with just water.)

Instead, we rely on multiple modes of action and production practices which range from crop rotation, various hybrids, tillage, and yes, the use of crop protection tools.  We may just pull out my grandfather’s tool of choice – the hoe – and walk fields.

Moving on . . . Dr. Oz then joins Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group and the subject changes . . . again.  Now to labeling of genetically modified foods.  Mr. Faber begins with the suggestion that we have been eating the same food for thousands of years and these new foods are something to beware.

Clarification:  Mr. Faber’s assertion that we are eating the same foods that our ancestors ate thousands of years ago is ludicrous. Folks, all our food, produce, grains, meats, etc. have been modified in some way.  Enjoy seedless watermelonsor seedless grapes?  Planting any chocolate cherry tomatoes in your garden this year?  These foods are the result of humans selecting traits from plants in order to achieve a certain result.  I suppose it has taken thousands of years for us to figure that out.

Mr. Faber also says that purchasing organic produce is your only guarantee to avoid genetically modified food and toxic pesticides.

Clarification: Avoiding gm-ingredients, yes.  But avoiding pesticides?  Organic farmers can use crop protection tools (i.e. pesticides) from an approved list.  Often, they may apply more of a pesticide than a farmer planting genetically modified seed.  This is not a reflection of good or bad on either type of farm or farmer.

Slate.com posted this really good look at organic vs. conventional produce. I like it because it was not written to claim one type better than another, but to share information.

Finally, Dr. Oz wants to let us in on a “BIG SECRET” regarding those little stickers found on our produce.  He says that if the sticker has four numbers on it then that fruit has been raised conventionally with pesticides and could be a GMO.  A number starting with ‘9’ indicates an organic fruit.

Clarification: This half-truth actually taught me something.  I’ve always been annoyed by those little stickers, and will continue to be, but upon further research I now know their purpose. (Some big secret. Google PLU stickers and the answer pops right up.)

PLU stickers or Price Look-Up codes are meant to offer grocers an easier way to check-out and inventory produce.  The numbers on them do have a purpose.  A four-digit number preceded by a 9 means organic.  Preceded by an 8 means genetically modified.  Four digits on their own means “non-qualified”.  It doesn’t fit in either category.  So, the assertion that an apple sporting a four digit code “could be genetically modified” is a blatant lie. * A) It would have been labeled with an 8.
* B) There are no genetically modified apples!  Or peaches! Or grapes! Or tomatoes! Or carrots! Or lettuce . . .

Dr. Oz leaves his audience believing that any food found at the grocery store – a potato, a pound of beef, a box of cereal, a tootsie roll or a gallon of milk – could be genetically modified. I feel bad for that audience. They responded so enthusiastically to his dire warning composed of half-truths.

This blog post is already too long to offer any other thoughts.  I will, however, link to a few other bloggers who have posted recently about GMOs.

The Farmers Daughter USA recently wrote about a push for federal labeling rules vs. the current trend for each state to pass its own regulations.

SlowMoneyFarm posted this view on GMOs just today. I always appreciate her thoughts since she comes from a farm that does not plant gm-seed.

Minnasota Farm Living explained why GMOs are safe in this post.

Finally, I’ll link to an oldie but a goodie from A Colorful Adventure. “What are GMOs?” is a straight forward explanation of the why, how and what of these crops.

Originally posted February 13, 2014 on Rural Route 2.

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

Katie and her husband, Andy, are seventh generation farmers. Together they raise two adorable farm kids and grow corn, soybeans and seed corn in Illinois. Katie's family still raises pigs, cattle, goats and horses only a few minutes away. Katie was named one of the 2013 Faces of Farming and Ranching by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). Read more from Katie on her blog, Rural Route 2.

Jan 14 2014

New Year Resolutions

January is resolutions month.  Hope for our future fortune results in goals we all make—personally and professionally—for the upcoming year.  The extent to which we follow-through with those goals, however, is the disappointment we know all-too-well.  It takes discipline, focus, and frankly a bit of “luck and pluck” to achieve ambitious New Year Resolutions—be it weight loss or career advancement.

Farmers have New Year Resolutions too, though we wouldn’t call them “resolutions.”  Our hopes and ambitions often take seed in the middle of a growing season or livestock growth cycle and are tested or implemented in the succeeding year.  They take longer to develop than traditional New Year’s Resolutions and therefore are more of an ongoing process than a ritual performed after the ball drops in Times Square.  Nonetheless we profess to ambitions for the upcoming year just as our non-farm friends.  And it is a great time to review our short-term and long-term goals for the farm—‘tis the season.

Here are a few of the goals I have for our farm.  This year, the focus is diversification and research.  Corn and soybeans have had a fine run up in prices these past few years, but the party is over I’m afraid.  Moreover, I think it’s wise to see how we can maintain (or exceed) current revenues but with a different risk portfolio rather than just two dominant crops (ie multiple crops mean multiple non-correlated revenue streams).  That’s the theme for 2014, let’s try something different!

  1. Grow quinoa successfully.  That’s right, we tried quinoa on our farm on a small scale last year…and it failed. Quinoa thrives in cooler, arid conditions—not exactly what western Illinois is known for.  But consumers are demanding these “ancient grains” that are discussed on health TV shows and in popular press.  And quinoa is a relative to a common weed we fight on our farm—so it SHOULD work eventually, right?  That’s the goal for 2014.
  2. Grow buckwheat successfully.  When the quinoa failed, we decided to try winter wheat and follow that with buckwheat—which is another incredibly healthy “grain” (it’s technically a fruit) that is in the same league as quinoa but with less press coverage.  It also does best in relatively cool conditions on poorer, drier soils.  It is also very rich for honey bees—another long term possibility.
  3. Market popcorn successfully.  This past year, we experimented with specialty red and blue “hull-less” popcorn (the seed coat is thinner, nearly eliminating the “junk” that gets stuck in your teeth that you get when you eat regular generic popcorn).  We successfully grew it, now we need to clean it, bag it, and market it successfully.  Our brand name is Pilot Knob Comforts and if we’re lucky, you’ll see them in a few different retail outlets across Illinois…and maybe filled with quinoa and buckwheat as well!
  4. Continue growing Non-GMO Food-Grade Soybeans AND Non-GMO Corn.  I believe in the right for a consumer to choose—vote with your wallet!  That’s why I grow both non-GMO and GMO crops on our farm.  Both are safe for consumers (there’s no sound science to suggest otherwise; anti-GMO advocates are wrong but so are farmers that denounce the organic movement—some people like organic and non-GMO for lifestyle reasons, not the incorrect scientific arguments that popular media portrays).  Both offer advantages on a farm.  But for us, the premiums consumers are willing to pay for non-GMO are well worth our time and effort.  It won’t work on every acre of farmland, but for us it earns more income and for the end-user they have a particular product which they are willing to purchase at a premium.
  5. Experiment with strip-tillage, root-zone-banding, and micronutrients in our corn and soybeans.  These are technologies farmers have been using for years, but they haven’t made sense on our farm—at least not collectively.  Strip-till is where we only till a narrow 8” strip in the fall or early spring, injecting most of our fertilizer in that band where only the roots reach it (the root-zone-banding component).  This reduces soil erosion, minimizes fertilizer applied and keeps fertilizer in the crop rather than in local streams.  All this while maintaining and increasing yield.  We’re also experimenting on multiple fertilizer applications during the growing season, but with micro-nutrients.  Micro-nutrients are only required by plants in small quantities.  A few pounds of, say Sulphur, Zinc, and Boron might be what gives our corn the extra “umph” at critical growth stages.  All these experiments lead to a more sustainable corn and soybean farm.  They enable greater yields, while preserving the environment and soil responsibly.  It’s win-win when we figure out how all three technologies intertwine!

Five “resolutions,” five new ideas.  I am excited for 2014 on our farm.  Wish us luck as I wish you the very best for 2014.

Andrew Bowman
Onieda, Illinois

Dec 20 2013

Just a Little Holiday Shopping

I wish I was writing this post to brag about how I've gotten all of my holiday shopping done.

Hahaha.  

*sigh*

Today's post, in fact, is about all of the holiday shopping that our farmers are doing.  

Around this time of year many of our mailboxes are flooded with catalogs of all sorts, toy stores, department stores, grocery stores, even internet shopping sites that have no stores at all.  And if you are part of a farming family, you can also include catalogs from seed and machinery companies in with your daily haul of assorted "junk mail".

The only difference between my junk mail and my husband's junk mail is that his catalogs are not saturated with red magic marker circles indicating the numerous items on our daughter's Christmas wish list.

Also, the items in my husband's catalogs are MUCH more expensive.

It seems like I just wrote about how harvest was progressing, how it seemed like harvest was never going to end, and wasn't Thanksgiving just yesterday?  Actually, just a short month ago we were finishing up in the fields and today we are shopping for different crop varieties to plant when spring rolls around again.

When dealing with farm inputs like seed, time is of the essence when it comes to choosing what to purchase for planting season. When a variety is all sold out, there is no making more. There is no overstock.com for seed corn or beans and there definitely is not going to be more in the back store room if you want to change your mind at the last minute. At an average of $280 per bag of seed corn (one bag only plants around 2.3 acres), it's not really a decision to be taken lightly. But, if farmers don't choose what varieties they want now, someone else will have and there will be no more available until next winter.

For seed salesmen like my husband, this is the time of year where he spends his day visiting with different farmers, at their homes, at our farm office, or over the phone, reflecting on the past year, talking about how their farms yielded this past fall, which varieties were a success (or maybe didn't fare as well as planned), and working through different seed options that are available. 

The winter season also brings a season of reflection, and for many farmers, our New Year's resolutions are already made.  Resolutions for improvement are being carried out right now at educational seminars, new machinery purchases or exchanges, and through choices in crop selection.

Farmers are making some serious choices and it makes my decision between doll house or baby doll furniture for our daughter's Christmas gift seem small in comparison, but it doesn't change the fact that Christmas is quickly approaching and I still have all my shopping to do.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from our family to yours!

Roganne Murray
Paxton, Illinois

Roganne is a farm girl born and raised. She grew up on a family farm raising pigs and cattle. Roganne worked as an Ag/FFA teacher before their daughter was born, and now she and her husband Matt raise corn and soybeans. Read more from Roganne on her blog, White House on the Prairie.

Dec 16 2013

Harvest Thanksgiving

Every year when the last kernel is shelled from the cob, the combine parked and the tractors washed, we celebrate. Harvest is done. Ironic that this ending usually comes right about Thanksgiving, presenting the perfect holiday season in which we can say thank you. 

It is tradition on our farm to recognize the folks who contribute to our safe, successful harvests with a simple dinner. This year we gathered in the shop, ate, drank and were merry with gratitude.  

Farming is not an insular endeavor. We cannot and do not go about our day to day farming activities separate from other people. Yes, the labor on our farm is completed by us – the family – but in order to be truly successful we rely on a team of folks who are experts in their “fields” like we are experts in ours.  

We work with crop scouts who help watch the fields for invasions of bugs, diseases and weeds, and test our soils every year to help determine its fertility and health. We work with seed, chemical and fertilizer dealers who listen to our challenges and offer solutions. So many choices, we have from which to pick. 

The local implement dealerships are invaluable to us when a part breaks on a piece of equipment.  Mechanics come when called regardless of the time of day or night and ensure that everything is running smoothly.  
Our neighbors, family and friends step in with support when needed. During long harvest days, I know I rely on the experiences of other farm wives to get through challenging days, good days and preparing field meals for a dozen people. (Those would be the challenging days.)  

Farming is not a profession that begs for total independence from the world. Farming is very much a social activity, a collaborative effort.  From the seeds we plant to the kernels we sell, we are partnering in essence with folks who live down the road, and those who live across the ocean. In a sense we partner with consumers, everyday Joes and Janes who purchase food at grocery stores and restaurants. We are all a part of this great chain.  

So, this holiday season, from our farm to your table we send a greeting of thanks for supporting farmers and a wish for continued efforts to connect the farm gate and food plate.

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

Katie and her husband, Andy, are seventh generation farmers. Together they raise two adorable farm kids and grow corn, soybeans and seed corn in Illinois. Katie's family still raises pigs, cattle, goats and horses only a few minutes away. Katie was named one of the 2013 Faces of Farming and Ranching by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). Read more from Katie on her blog, Rural Route 2.

Nov 15 2013

Is Conventional Farming All About the Money?

In my hobby baking business I consider ingredient costs and time value. Do I place lower value on my time, presumably selling more items but at a smaller profit per item? Or vice versa? Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer. Like me, most business managers are “price makers.” We find the balance that results in the highest profits and set prices accordingly.

Conventional farmers are business managers too. Unlike managers in most industries, they are “price takers.” President John F. Kennedy said, “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.”

The debate of conventionally grown versus organic crops is a hot one. Proponents of organic agriculture may wonder, why is anyone a conventional farmer? Is it because of the money? If money is income that can be earned, then no. Actually, several studies show organic is more profitable than conventional over time due to lower costs and premium prices, despite lower yields.

As JFK recognized, conventional farmers don’t set their price. The local elevator offers us a price based on the CBOT price at the time. Fortunately, prices have been high enough in recent years that we could sell at levels above our expenses. The profit is used to support our business for another year and our family – remember this is our job! However, some years market prices are low, so low that the prices we are offered for our crops are below the costs of inputs that went into producing them. The price we are offered changes constantly and the movement of a few cents in the markets can add or subtract several thousand dollars from our bottom line. It is a very risky business.

So why not farm organically? Although there is demand for organic, there is also demand for conventional crops. Organically grown crops yield less than conventional. At a time when the agriculture industry is being pushed to double food production by 2050, if all acreage were converted to organic we would be taking a huge step backward. Generating larger yields per acre also allows us to produce enough that about half of our crop can go toward industrial uses. A majority of that is renewable fuels that cost less and are better for the environment than fossil fuels. But did you know corn or soybeans are found in many products we use on a daily basis – such as paper, synthetic fabric, batteries, and cosmetics – and can make these products safer or lower cost?

So why are we still farming conventionally? To put it simply: It’s what we know. It’s the field we are experts in. It’s the trade we grew up in. It’s what we are experienced at doing. It’s the business we are established in. It’s the type of production we have the labor and equipment to do. And we love our farm!

 

 

Krista Swanson
Oneida, Illinois

Krista is a portfolio analyst for 1st Farm Credit Services. She and her husband, Brett, farm in Illinois with his family and run Swanson Seeds, a Pioneer and small seeds sales business.

Nov 08 2013

Field Moms' Acre Recap

 

Harvest for both the Field Moms’ Acre of corn and soybeans is now done and we are 3 days away from finishing harvest 2013. The recent rain events have put us about a week behind.  The corn acre was combined Sept. 25 and yielded 223 bushels. The soybeans, harvested on Oct. 9, averaged right at 60 bushel/acre.

The yields this year have been amazing!! In 2012, we averaged 43 bu/acre of beans and 90 bu of corn/acre. This year our total farm averages will be 60 bushels per acre on beans and over 200 bushels per acre on corn. Although we were very delayed with planting and had little rain after planting, the rains we received in August were quite beneficial. We also credit this year's corn yields to the better seed genetics that are available to us.

The corn from the Field Moms’ Acre was sold and delivered to Ingredion, a food ingredients producer located just off the Stephenson Expressway south of Chicago.  If you have time, visit their website. They are a very interesting company. They started in the early 1900's making corn starch. They are also known for Mazola corn oil, Karo corn syrup and Bosco chocolate malt syrup. These food products were all in our kitchen cupboards when I was a kid and today I have Mazola corn oil and Karo syrup in my cupboard.

 

The beans from the Field Moms’ Acre are stored on the farm for now. We had two gentlemen from Taiwan visit during harvest. They are interested in purchasing them for their feed mill customers in Taiwan. Right now, these beans are being tested for oil and protein content.  If the beans meet their requirements, the Moms’ beans will be headed to Taiwan where they will be used as feed for pigs and chickens. The meat will eventually end up on the dinner table of families in Asia.  It really is exciting to think about where our corn and beans "travel".

We also have all the soil fertility testing done on the fields that were scheduled for fall 2013. Based on soil test results, we have begun to apply needed nutrients to various fields.  After the fields dry a bit, we will continue nutrient application as needed.  The fields that will return to corn in 2014 will be chisel plowed. We have started chisel plowing. We hope to complete all the "fall" work by December 1st.  On rainy days we are meeting with our seed suppliers and evaluating seed variety performance, as well as purchasing supplies for the 2014 crop. It's a busy but rewarding time of the year.

It has been exciting to be a host farm for the Moms this year! Read the whole story of the Field Moms’ Acres project here. 

 

 

Donna Jeschke
Mazon, Illinois

Donna and her husband, Paul, farm in Illinois, growing corn and soybeans. As one of the Illinois farm families, Donna and Paul invite Chicago Field Moms to come learn about where food comes from. They also host the Field Moms' Acre, where moms follow an acre of soybeans and an acre of corn.

Oct 29 2013

Questions About Harvest

 

Harvest is in full-swing in Illinois! Have you seen combines out and about in your neck of the woods? Do you have any questions about what the farmers are doing during harvest? Join the conversation and share questions you have on the Illinois Farm Families Facebook page!

 

 

Sep 24 2013

Weather, Toddlers and Other Things We Can't Control

 

 

3:27 a.m., September 8: Lightning cracks outside our window.
3:28 a.m., September 8: Our daughter's face appears at bedside, approximately five inches from my own.

Seconds later, she's safely snuggled in bed with us, as I struggle to identify these strange sounds. Is that rain? Is that thunder? Is it really raining? What's happening here?

It was a foreign sound because it hadn't rained on our farm since July 30. As in, nothing. Not a sprinkle. Not a drop. The ground was cracked, the grass dead and trees were dropping leaves. And yet we laid there that night and listened for an hour and a half as it rained nearly four inches on our farm.

At the Farm Progress Show a couple weeks prior, farmers and agriculture experts gathered in huddles and reported the same things: corn might be ok but soybeans were suffering. They look great from the road - lush and tall and green - but inside the pods were BB-sized beans, and not many of them.

Soybeans need a good August rain; they suffered through the drought of 2012 and survived on no moisture in June and July, then soaked up a timely August rain and made a decent crop. This year, our beans were planted late due to a very rainy spring. Then no rain fell from July 30 until September 8. That's not good.

There is talk that our September rain might save the beans, or at least help them to a certain degree. Farmers and crop consultants have been out in fields, counting pods and finding far too many that have far too little.

It is yet another reminder that we are a weather dependent industry. As a kid, the world virtually stopped turning at 6:15 when the weather came on, and Mom and Dad always stayed up until 10:15 to catch the last weather report before bed. Today, of course, we can get a weather forecast whenever we want (and do, on a frequent basis). We can even buy weather insurance, from a Google-backed company, and we can track weather from afar on a field-by-field basis. This is technology, working for us in agriculture.

We'll head into harvest soon, and we'll know pretty quickly - and with certainty, thanks to yield monitors - whether our September storm really helped our soybeans. Here's hoping for the best.

 

 

Holly Spangler
Marietta, Illinois

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois growing crops and producing cattle as well as raising their three children. Holly is an associate editor for Prairie Farmer magazine, a publication dedicated to sharing information about farm life and farm business. Read more from Holly on the Prairie Farmer blog.

Sep 17 2013

Commodities 101

A commodity is tangible

A commodity is something which you can touch and feel with your hands.   You can actually pick up a kernel of corn or a soybean and hold it in your hand.  Much like you can physically see orange juice, lumber, gasoline, etc.  As opposed to Securities or Stocks which are a paper item and are traded differently.

A commodity is uniform.

As a producer delivers corn or soybeans to their local elevator every load is weighed.  It is also tested for moisture and foreign matter such as cobs, cornstalks, weed seeds, etc., that are deducted from the weight of the load.  If the area has experienced drought stress that season, corn is also checked for aflatoxin, a chemical produced by some kinds of mold.  Corn with significant amounts of aflatoxin cannot be used for animal feed and has to be kept separate and routed or blended for other uses.   Once the load of grain is dumped at the elevator it is then mixed with other like grain.  That mix contains corn or soybeans from several farmers and dozens or even hundreds of different seed varieties.  

The only exception is if the producer/farmer is growing a specific seed for a particular market, such as non-GMO for other uses.  Not all elevators are equipped to accept specialty grains, so the specialty grower has to find an elevator that can accommodate him/her before harvest and the grain is either sold to one specific buyer or goes onto a specialty market.  

A commodity is marketable.

So, when someone buys, sells or trades a commodity in the grain trading business, they are actually selling a claim to some amount of that standard mix of corn or soybeans.  When a farmer sells the grain he has stored at the elevator, he’s not necessarily selling the same grain he delivered to the elevator.  They are selling the amount of grain delivered to the elevator.  The buyer isn’t looking for a particular hybrid or grower because you can’t really tell the final products apart.  To the buyer corn is corn and soybeans are soybeans.

 

 

Diana Ropp, Normal

Diana is a commodity broker/risk management adviser in Illinois. While she is no longer involved with the family farm raising dairy cows and grain, Diana has stayed close to the agriculture industry by helping farmers manage their risk. She is the mother of three and has two grandchildren.

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