Guff from the Corn Belt

I had a feeling I wouldn’t get off scott-free from last week’s post on ethanol, and sure enough when I went home to Chicago last week, I didn’t. Wondering exactly what business a baker has criticizing the ethanol lobby, select ag interests (i.e. family and friends) invited me to put a sock in it. Flour is but a minor portion of the overall expense of producing a loaf of bread, they pointed out. And anyway, there are plenty of other factors that influence flour’s cost: trucking, packaging, processing. So don’t blame the farmer for your troubles, he’s just trying to make a living — and is finally managing to do it after decades of hard times.

All of that’s true. A sack of flour is to a bakery what a sack of seed is to a farmer. It’s the prime mover of the industry, though not a major cost factor once you add up everything else that goes into a loaf of bread. Labor, machinery, rent and utilities are where the real expenses are in a bakery, just like on a the farm. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is of course that if the price of seed doubled in a week’s time, apocalypse would be proclaimed on the farm report, combines would be parked all over the streets of Washington and the Monsanto corporate offices would be in flames. So why should bakers be expected to take the high road? It may be that over at the big debate is over the color of marble they’ll use to carve the Saxby Chambliss national monument, but here at Joe Pastry, the tone is a bit more critical.

I’ve said many times that I have nothing against farmers making money, and indeed I don’t. I’ve fiercely defended corn against the hordes Michael Pollan-inspired PC foodies who’ve sought to demonize it (if you doubt me go to August 8th of last years and read forward). I hope every Midwestern corn and soy farmer that’s been scraping by these last 25 years is finally getting his due — though mindful of the fact that this boom is 100% artificial and may disappear tomorrow. Other farmers and/or corn belt commentators have written into to say that they’re disturbed by some of the early effects of the ethanol buy. Farmers are buying equipment and refineries are going up. Money is changing hands and jobs are being created. But then what happens when Mr. Chambliss and his cohorts decide that the future is really hydrogen? You can kiss all that goodbye. For what the government giveth, the government will in time — and with certainty — taketh away.

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