Interview with Don Glenn, National Corn Growers Association's Production and Stewardship Action Team Chair
The Food Journal
January 6, 2014
The Food Journal: Can you address the top issues challenging corn growers in fertilizer use?
Don Glenn: The biggest challenge is the misconception by the general public. I’m a 4th-generation farmer and have no incentive to over-apply fertilizer. The amount of corn grown on an acre of ground since the 1950s has gone up 400%. I can grow 200 bushels to my grandfather’s fifty. I’m not using much more fertilizer than he did at that time. It’s an expensive crop input and as a businessman, I am trying to reduce my costs. There is a big misconception that farmers are just throwing fertilizer out in the fields when nothing could be further from the truth.
Another misconception by the public is technology use by farmers. The general image people still have of farmers is with a pitchfork and a hoe and an old tractor, working the ground. Technology is moving forward in farming. I embrace technology. I use a computer to scan the fields and map what the yields were in each area of the land. Then I take out the card and make a map of what each yield was. Years ago we took an average rate and spread it across the whole field. Now I can take maps and know how much crop was grown in each section of the land, and how much fertilizer needs to be put back. What was once blanket fertilizing is now area fertilizing which lets me cut the amount of fertilizer I use.
The Food Journal: Why is fertilizer so expensive?
Don Glenn: There are only three or four companies worldwide that control most of the fertilizer production. Generally it has to be shipped long distances and fuel costs figures into shipping. It’s a case where they charge what the market will bear. Crop prices are in a downtrend and we have seen fertilizer prices go down some recently.
The Food Journal: Are advocacy or environmental groups a difficulty for corn growers in terms of fertilizer and the environment?
Don Glenn: It depends on whom you’re referring to. Some advocacy groups we work with like the Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund base more of their stance on sound science. For a farmer, the land is not a factory; it’s my production facility. I don’t want to abuse it or cause it problems to hurt my production. Farmers tend to be very family oriented and I consider myself an original environmentalist. We pass our farms on to the next generation. I want to give the land in as good or better shape than I received it. Advocacy or environmental groups don’t see farmers’ practices from this standpoint.
The Food Journal: What your view on adaptive management practices?
Don Glenn: Actually I have been involved in research projects since the mid 90’s. Technology is the future of our industry. It allows us to be more efficient and more environmentally friendly. We try and encourage our members to take interest. I am very comfortable around computers and prefer to do my own while other farmers may prefer a crop advisor or consultant to collect the data for them. It gives me an advantage to have a personal knowledge of the ground I am working with. The adoption of technology is like any area of life. Some farmers are not comfortable in technology, often the older population while the younger generation sees it makes us more cost efficient.
The Food Journal: How is the NCGA working with its retail partners to get the message about fertilizer to consumers?
Don Glenn: Right now the message we are getting from our retail partners is they are concerned about their environmental footprint and greenhouse gas. Several retailers have said fertilizer usage is a large part of their footprint in greenhouse gases. We try to assure them we are working to be as environmentally friendly as we can be.
The message we give them, and the overall food chain, as well as the consuming public is, we want to apply the right product in the right place at the right time in the right amount. Technology helps us to do that. The financial incentive is not there to overuse fertilizer.
The Food Journal: What is your biggest concern with this issue going into 2014?
Don Glenn: The biggest fear I have is regulation from people who really don’t know what they are talking about. The regulations I speak of are fertilizer practices that are proper in one location but may not be the same in another location. Farming practices vary. In one area, the growing season is shorter, or there are different practices if you are in a more temperate climate. The methods have to be adapted to the location where you are at. When we try and regulate that, you have to do A, B and C which may work in one place but not in another. That scares me the most. That could mess with our food supply, the environment and the profitability of the farm sector. If the farmers stop making money, people are not going to have food.
Our population is getting three to four generations away from the land. They don’t realize what’s involved in producing their food. They think the food magically appears on the shelf. That is also a concern.