A hot topic of conversation in our neighborhood is how to teach "them Ayrabs" a lesson by burning corn to heat our homes and fuel our cars. That idea sounds patriotic, but as Samuel Johnson said over two centuries ago, patriotism can be "the last refuge of a scoundrel."
Using corn as a way to heat a home might be economical for a farmer who grows his own corn but even that is debatable and in any event it isn't going to solve our problems with "them Ayrabs," any more than that other way to waste corn, making ethanol out of it for car fuel.
The reason that the corn stove business sort of tanked last winter proves the point for both cases. With the government pouring billions of dollars into subsidies for the budding ethanol industry, the price of corn shot up to four dollars a bushel. People who were toying with the idea of burning the stuff to heat their homes did a little arithmetic and not many of them followed through. An average-sized house needs at least two bushels of super-clean corn a day (no cob chaff to float around the house) to keep it comfortably warm for five months a year (estimates vary higher or lower depending on whether the estimator is trying to sell you a stove).
If you buy that corn at a grain elevator you will find that it can cost a couple of dollars above market price â€” for handling, cleaning, and drying. Moreover the new, efficient corn blowers that break up the clinkers formed by burnt corn can cost $5,000 to $8,000. And of course, every time a homeowner opts for corn, he increases demand and the possibility that the price will go up further. It just might be, most people decided, that burning gas was a lot handier and not be that much more expensive. Or they opted for cleaned, pelleted anthracite coal which is what my veteran expert on home heating recommends.
The situation with ethanol is similar. Every new plant that goes on line increases demand for corn. Even when corn prices were $2.00 a bushel, the government was subsidizing the ethanol industry 45 times more than it does the oil industry, says David Pimental, a scientist at Cornell who has studied ethanol for years. At four dollars a bushel, even the government might start having second thoughts, especially when one contemplates the fact that if we put all our annual corn crop into ethanol, it would supply only about 7% of current fuel usage.
If we put every arable acre in America to corn, it would make only about 17% of the automotive fuel we consume every year. And what the ethanol proponents don't like to admit, their plants are being run on coal, gas, and electricity, not ethanol. If that were not true, says Marty Bender (now deceased) at the Land Institute near Salina, Kansas, the lack of profitability in ethanol would be even worse.
Corn is, in case anyone has forgotten, our main livestock feed and is used in other industrial products. Unlike subsidies to farmers for growing corn, which tends to bring the price of corn down, the more corn that subsidized ethanol plants use, the higher the price rises, and so inevitably, the price of meat, milk and eggs too. Somewhere along the way, the consumer may face a momentous decision: shall I eat or shall I drive?
The best use of corn in my opinion is to make good bourbon. At least we might die happy if our civilization crashes like the corn-dependent Mayan culture did. It is a crying shame, but the best Kentucky bourbons are rarely available in my corn belt county and I bet not in yours either. Since ethanol is nothing more than corn whiskey, why not convert all those ethanol plants to distilleries, hire experienced Kentucky distillers to run them, and sell the product at $125 a gallon rather than the measly $3.50 a gallon that subsidized ethanol costs? Farming might actually become profitable.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises of Pasture Farming
The Lords of Folly (novel)
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)