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Guebert promises: You cannot make this stuff up
Food & Farm File
By Alan Guebert
As fast as time usually passes, it seems to pick up even greater speed in the fall. Corn and soybeans, like maple leaves, appear to turn golden one day, brown the next and, at least to me, are gone the next.

As swift as the seasons change, however, one thing never changes. Without fail, every week brings the same question from callers, e-mailers, friends, neighbors and, as of late, even family: Do you make this stuff up?

My answer, without fail, is always the same: No, this isn’t talk radio; this is journalism. Besides, how could anyone conjure up items even more outrageous, more ridiculous than the truth.

For example, during the height of the fresh spinach - E. coli debacle three weeks ago, the New York Times reported that federally inspected food plants face on-site inspections only once every two to four years.

And, explained the Times, while the Food and Drug Administration is charged with most food safety, (the USDA inspects meat and poultry plants) it has “little regulatory authority over the produce industry, and has fewer than 2,000 inspectors for more than 120,000 facilities, 250 inspectors fewer than in 2003. Even some high-risk foods are only inspected every two to four years.”

USDA, on the other hand, has 7,600 inspectors for 6,000 meat, poultry and egg facilities.

The biggest reason behind this largely voluntary, far-less-than-safe approach for most of the food consumed by Americans, the Times reported, is that FDA itself “estimates that, taking inflation into account, the budget for its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition will have fallen by almost 30 percent from 2003 to 2007. Its staffing decreased by 14 percent.”

Outrageous? Yes. Could I have dreamed up such a foolish, stupid approach to food safety? Not in a million years. Someone - either in industrial agriculture, Congress, the White House or all three - however, did.

Nor did I dream up the following, very cautionary quote from an agbiz giant on the nearly fanatical ethanol investment boom now underway by farmers: “I didn’t feel like I was raking it off 10 years ago when I was losing about a million dollars a day running one of those (ethanol) things.”

The agbiz big boy is Pat Bowe, president of Cargill’s North American grain milling division explaining why his $75-billion-a-year employer is not, and likely never will, go hog wild into ethanol production.

Instead, Bowe went on to tell the Associated Press, Cargill is “using the company’s clout to secure corn, arrange rail shipments and market ethanol and it byproducts” for other fever-driven investors. In short, Cargill is riding the boom, not creating it, because, he added, “I think we need to stay calm and be prudent as an investor and operator when you have times that are good.”

That approach again confirms two nearly ironclad facts in today’s American agriculture. First, Cargill rose to be the biggest agbiz firm in the world by being one of the smartest agbiz firms in the world and, two, the first thing two farmers gathered in one place want to do is pour concrete.

If I were to speculate - dream - however, my guess is that Cargill’s prudent ethanol strategy is based on one key USDA fact a smart Cargill analyst recently uncovered. That fact is renewal rates on expiring, 10-year Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts are running about 84 percent, or about 5 to 6 percent less than in the past.

What this smaller renewal rate means - and my make-believe analyst has already figured this out - is that eight to 10 million acres of current CRP will likely be available for cropping in the coming three years even if Congress fails to act on the many farm groups’ request to rip open CRP to grow more corn.

Or, as I’ve written here before, America will never run out of corn. It also means that those farm groups’ requests, if honored, likely would devastate corn prices and, almost certainly, require billions more farm subsidies. As such, I am with Cargill on this one. And, no, you’re not dreaming.

This farm news was published in the Oct. 18, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

10/18/2006