Did you know that corn is an ingredient in more than 4,000 consumer products? Or that every gallon of regular unleaded fuel you put in your vehicle contains 10 percent ethanol made from corn?
Yes, corn is used for more than just feeding livestock. It touches our lives in many ways, whether we’re brushing our teeth (corn is an ingredient in tooth paste), going for a run (the soles of tennis shoes include corn), or receiving medical care (corn is used to make penicillin).
I’ve been growing corn for nearly 45 years on my family’s farm in Southern Minnesota. I also serve on the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council (MCR&PC), an organization that invests in research to help corn farmers reduce their impact on the environment and add value to their product by developing new markets for corn.
The MCR&PC, working in close partnership with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, recently set an ambitious goal: We want to help Minnesota corn farmers become the most sustainable and environmentally responsible in the United States. It’s a bold goal, but it’s a goal we’re already progressing toward.
Farming in a way that protects our state’s valuable land, water and soil resources is a big part of our goal. That’s why our initiative contains action steps to help famers better manage nitrogen fertilizer and explore sustainability programs that can help them become better stewards of the land.
However, as any corn farmer knows, sustainability means more than just addressing environmental concerns. Corn farmers need to be financially sustainable, too. We need to remain in business so we can continue investing in new conservation efforts and working to leave the land we farm in good condition for the next generation.
One of the ways corn farmers remain financially sustainable is by developing new markets for corn. That’s why our plan also includes new investments for cleaner-burning homegrown biofuels like ethanol. Within a year, the MCR&PC, working closely with a broad coalition of partners, expects to have supported the installation of hundreds of flex-fuel pumps throughout the state.
Our plan also calls for investments in things like sustainable biopolymers, which are plastics made from renewable sources like corn plants instead of petroleum sources that require large amounts of water and emissions to convert into plastics. Products made from sustainable polymers include plastic cutlery, food containers, fibers for clothing and cell phone cases.
Other unique market opportunities MCR&PC are exploring include using corn to feed fresh shrimp. One Minnesota startup company sees the potential of using Minnesota-grown corn to increase the demand for fresh shrimp in the U.S. by 450 million pounds. There are also opportunities to use distillers’ dried grains – a by-product of the ethanol-making process commonly used as livestock feed – in human foods like cookies and flatbreads.
Growing the use of homegrown biofuels like ethanol, as well as using corn in sustainable biopolymers, as feed for fresh shrimp, and to make human foods using distillers’ dried grains are just a few examples of helping Minnesota corn farmers become more financially sustainable while also contributing to a healthier planet.
When you factor in the growing popularity and effectiveness of conservation practices used by corn farmers like myself – no-tilling the soil, buffer strips and grass waterways to name a few – the environmental benefits are multiplied.
We’ve come a long way in corn farming since I started 45 years ago, both in how we grow the crop and what we use it for. By continuing to invest in new market opportunities and conservation research, I’m confident that Minnesota corn farmers can, in fact, become the most sustainable and environmentally responsible in the country.
Written by Jerry Demmer, who farms near Clarks Grove and is the former Chairman of the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.