Farm Progress

Rod Weinzierl, executive director of ICGA and ICMB, looks back on corn's long history in Illinois, including what's changed and what definitely hasn't.

November 4, 2016

4 Min Read

I end every year with a summary of the challenges that our organizations dealt with in the past year, and the opportunities I see for the coming year. I like thinking like this. Challenges are never insurmountable, and opportunities always abound.

When I think back over 175 years, it seems as though the corn industry and the farmers who lead their peers through each decade have overcome so many challenges and grabbed ahold of so many opportunities.

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All those years ago, corn farmers were planting with horse-pulled planters and harvesting by hand. Today, we’ve just launched a new farmer image campaign that highlights a 24-row planter guided by GPS and a 16-row combine that calculates yield for you as you harvest. All this while watching farm work via a 360-degree camera broadcast live to the world — technology our grandfathers couldn’t have imagined.

Many farmers this year also experienced a record yield, such that the hoppers on those technologically advanced combines couldn’t even contain it. What a marked change for the farmers in the late 1800s who were walking through the fields, harvesting ears, storing in a corn crib, shelling by hand and marveling at 30 bushels per acre.

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A record-breaking yield is both an opportunity and a challenge. Corn prices are extremely low and present a challenge for farmers — especially our younger, newer farmers — as they manage budgets and cash flow. But the opportunity is amazing when you take this into historical perspective. Farmers used to feed their own livestock and then maybe sell a little to their neighbor. Each farmer now feeds more than 150 people. What an opportunity to be a part of a global market that feeds hungry people all over the world!

Of course, technological advances in seed, biotechnology and equipment are to thank for the overabundance we are now used to. Certainly, genetically modified crops that withstand the pressures of common pests have offered such an incredible opportunity and have changed the landscape of corn farming forever.

Interestingly enough, the need to improve seed was the foundation of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. Farmers would come together after harvest, bringing their best ears and trading them, hoping to improve corn varieties over time. We have photographic evidence of this group in our office, calling themselves the Illinois Corn Growers Convention in 1909. The Illinois Corn Growers Association, as we know it, did not officially become an association until 1972.

Opportunity disguised

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And now, we face many challenges in the future: the results of what was a contentious presidential race, 98% of the population that doesn’t understand farmers or what they do, increasing regulatory pressure that threatens the stability of the farm, and a seeming inability of Congress to accomplish very much needed political steps to move the farm economy forward.

But maybe these are opportunities, too? The new administration will bring with it new leadership and new opportunity to help our government understand what farmers need and act.

A majority of Americans who don’t understand farmers, farming or agriculture just means we get to talk about what we do more often to more people. It means people are interested and willing to listen, if we can take the opportunity to share.

The threat of increasing regulatory pressure makes us better, too. Over the years, farmers have decreased soil erosion, decreased fertilizer and chemical use, and decreased their overall environmental footprint. There’s always opportunity to get better.

I think the fact we can hold on to is that farmers haven’t changed. Yes, challenges have molded us, and opportunities have helped us grow, but the family is still the center of farm life. Dinners at the field don’t look that much different in 1890 or 2016. Working side by side with your son and daughter gives every farmer the same feeling — whether farming 175 years ago or today.

The stirring you feel in your gut in the spring, the joy at the sight of a field turning green, the smell of harvest in the air, or the pleasure of continuing a family legacy are the opportunities we can all enjoy, no matter the era.

Wienzierl is executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association and the Illinois Corn Marketing Board.

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