“Where do you sell your crops? Places like Whole Foods?” The lady who was cutting my hair asked me that. It was the middle of the morning on a work day and she was curious why I wasn’t at work. When I explained I was a self-employed farmer she asked about what we grew, and then where we sold it.
It’s an interesting question, and one we farmers make obscure because we like to talk about how one farmer feeds 155 people. Even as a farmer I marvel as I drive through the countryside that there is a place to sell all these acres and acres of corn and soybeans.
Around here the majority of what we farmers sell is not food. It’s animal feed and fuel. Corn is sold mainly to the ethanol plants to be made into fuel or to livestock operations to grind into feed for cows, pigs, and poultry.
There’s an ongoing debate about making ethanol from corn, whether it’s a good idea or not, often framed as “Food vs. Fuel.” Wouldn’t it be better to use that corn as feed instead of making it into ethanol? That argument misses the fact that the byproduct of turning corn into ethanol is something called distillers grains which makes good animal feed. Corn used for ethanol is both fuel and feed.
Soybeans are used to make high-protein meal for animals and they are crushed for soybean oil. Soybean oil is used for humans as cooking oil and has many other non-food uses such as soy ink and soy oil based paints.
Soybeans, like corn, can also be made into fuel. While corn is fermented to make ethanol, soybeans can be refined to make bio-diesel. There is a large bio-diesel plant near Claypool Indiana that buys many of the soybeans in this area. Also like corn, the byproduct of making bio-diesel from soybeans is a high quality meal for animal feed.
Back to my barber’s question, “where do we sell our crops?” Often farmers sell directly to the ethanol plants or the bio-diesel plants, or to livestock feed producers. There is a poultry operation in New Paris Indiana that uses over 2 million bushels of corn a year for feed. That’s 6 semi-truckloads of corn each and every day of the year. That’s a lot of corn, but a single ethanol plant like POET in North Manchester can use up to 24 million bushels a year.
We also sell crops to the local grain elevators like AgPlus in Churubusco. AgPlus will store the grain and then in turn sell it to the ethanol producers, livestock producers, or make it into feed at their South Whitley plant.
In the past nearly every farmer had livestock, and much of their crop they would feed to their own animals. In effect they are selling their grain through the livestock as meat, dairy, or eggs. There are still many farmers who do that today, but agriculture is becoming more specialized with farmers becoming focused on just grain or just livestock.
And that’s how we sell our crops, not as food, but as feed and fuel.