Corn prices, at $5.91 per bushel as of Monday, are soaring in part because of growing demand for ethanol, a corn-based fuel that the federal government supported when it passed the energy bill late last year.
And with help from chemicals and biotechnology, Iowa farmers produce 150 bushels of corn per acre, nearly double the yield in 1970, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Griffieon family has owned a farm in Ankeny, Iowa, since 1868 — spanning six generations — and has witnessed the growth.
Craig and LaVon Griffieon and their three children raise corn, soybeans and livestock on 1,150 acres.
Their stock of antibiotic-free Limousin cattle has roamed the farm since 1960. For more than a decade, they have also offered pasture-raised poultry.
For the first time in years, the Griffieons say they're doing well financially, but they're ambivalent about the direction of American agriculture.
A Family Disagreement
Craig and LaVon disagree over how they should manage their farm and their land. The biggest clash is whether to sell genetically-modified vegetables and use pesticides and herbicides to ensure greater yield.
"I tell people, our kids kind of grew up on a 'schizophrenic farm,' where dad farms one way [and I farm another]," LaVon Griffieon says. "I rail against genetically modified plants, while he plants genetically modified corn."
Craig Griffieon is concerned about the quantity of vegetables and beef the family sells to keep the farm afloat.
"The name of the game is yield, and you have to have the yield, so you have the bushels to sell," he says.
When it comes to corn, the Griffieons store huge quantities in steel round bins that are up to 33 feet in diameter. "There have been people that have taken these old bins and made houses out of them," Craig Griffieon says with a laugh.
Last year, the Griffieons made $250,000 in gross income, a jump from years past, because of soaring corn and grain markets. All in all, the Griffieons netted about $75,000.
Herbicides and Pesticides
The money does not come without sacrifices.
The Griffieons are using herbicides and pesticides to create more yield, a fact that is hard for LaVon Griffieon to accept.
"I kind of had a 'come to Jesus' meeting with myself one day out in the field," LaVon Griffieon says. "I was telling these kids that we were doing things right, and herbicides and pesticides helped us feed more hungry people. I was down in the pasture with them, and a little boy leaned down, and he was going to take a drink out of the stream. And I said, 'Don't take a drink out of that.' He looked at me like, 'Why can't I drink the water?' And I thought if we were doing a really good job, he could drink the water, 'cause I'm sure his grandparents drank the water."
As LaVon Griffieon alludes, using chemicals on the farm has not always been the Griffieon way.
"When I was a little kid, we farmed without chemicals and without fertilizer, and our yields for corn was 50, 60, 70 bushels, something like that," Craig Griffieon says. "Then in the '50s and '60s is when fertilizer and chemicals come about. So now our yields run about 160 to 180 [bushels]. Then it comes down to a dollar-and-cent deal to make a profit."
LaVon Griffieon isn't happy that her family is using the chemicals, and she intends to change it.
"I say there's a better way," she says. "We need to look past our own yields and our own bottom line and look at the big picture. Being a good Dutch-German guy, you've got to prove it to Craig, and you've got to make the bottom line work out for him and pencil it out for him. And we're going to get him there one of these days."