July 2020: As high as an elephant’s eye

For about 700 miles of this trip, we found ourselves driving through corn fields. Not all of the corn was as high as an elephant’s eye. Actually, none of it was. But that’s not the point. The point is, why are there hundreds and hundreds of miles of corn? The question particularly came to mind driving through Nebraska, which is, after all, the “Cornhusker State.”

It turns out, corn is the most widely grown crop in America. The reason crop fields go on forever is because about 96 million acres of land (about 150,000 square miles) in the U.S. are dedicated to corn production. In Nebraska, for example, over 20% of the area of the entire state is dedicated to corn production. Iowa is the biggest producer of corn (over 37% of its land area dedicated to corn production), with Illinois in at number two (I thought the Illini were too busy passing stupid gun laws to do much else), and Nebraska is number 3. Corn is grown in essentially every state, even Alaska.

For some reason, agricultural production is measured in bushels. If I knew anything about farming, I’d know why, but I don’t and I don’t. Just take it that a bushel of shelled corn weighs about 56 pounds. In any event, annual corn harvest in the U.S. is about 15 billion (“billion,” with a “b”) bushels of corn, which works out to 420 million tons of corn produced every year.

And what do people do with all that corn? 33% goes to livestock feed (spread about equally among dairy, beef cattle, hogs, and poultry), almost that much goes to ethanol production, 10% goes to distiller grains, and about 10% goes to other uses (like high corn syrup and sweeteners), and 10% to export. The corn used in livestock feed is the “carb” component of the feed; the protein component comes mostly from soybeans, which we also saw miles and miles of as we drove along. And the “other uses” of corn, although small fractions, are pretty interesting: breakfast cereal, tortilla chips, grits, beer, soda, cooking oil, and even bio-degradable packing materials.

Since one-third of corn production goes to animal feed, I thought it might be appropriate to insert a note here to my vegan friends. But then I realized I don’t have any vegan friends. Nor do I want to.

And, of course, people eat corn directly. Sweet corn (like for corn-on-the-cob and canned corn) is one such use, but it turns out it’s a trivial fraction of overall corn production (less than 1%). But how’s this for a weird fact: Popcorn is also a corn crop, grown and harvested so that the corn kernels retain some moisture in the center of the kernel, which is what causes it to “pop” when heated. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that Americans consume about 17 billion quarts of popcorn every year, meaning the average American consumes 58 quarts of popcorn per year. I like popcorn as much as anyone, but I guess I’m just a slacker when it comes to serious popcorn eating.

For some reason that I’m sure has to do with political correctness gone berserk, internet searches for “corn” often redirect to articles entitled “maize.” It is true that corn (OK, fine, maize) was originally domesticated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago, but so what? If we want to call it corn, we get to call it corn. Sheesh. Oh, and besides that, reading about corn production inexorably leads one into the thorny political thickets of farm subsidies, a blog post for another day…

One last tidbit. Some alarmists go off the deep end worried about “fixed” resources. You may recall the panic in the 1970s about us “running out of oil.” Ha — that’s a funny one. But the truth about the infinite expandability of “fixed” resources is nowhere more apparent than in agricultural production. In 1900, an acre of farmland could product about 25 bushels of corn; today that figure is 180 (!) and is limited not so much by nature as by the economics of farming. Change the economics and it could go even higher.

So, we’re out of corn country now and almost to Grand Teton National Park. But there’s an infinity of fascinating things to learn, and one of the things we love about cross-country travel is that each passing mile gives us an opportunity to check one more off the list.