Category Archives: Crops

A New Year’s harvest and another call to all corn and bean counters!

Sept. 30 - The growing season all but over, Paige admires nature's bounty.


Happy new year from the Corn King!

I hope everyone’s holidays were safe, healthy and merry and Santa made it through the blizzards to bring you lots of goodies. The summer sun is long gone and my rooftop green went brown months ago, but I’m happy to report another successful Wrigleyville harvest. A hot, humid summer combined with abundant moisture yielded a nice crop, some of which you can see here.

With that, the second annual Corn King of Wrigleyville Corn and Bean Counting Contest is officially underway! Same deal as last year — give the photo below an eyeball and send me your best guess (through this blog or via bblythe7@yahoo.com) on the total number of corn kernels and beans in the pitcher.

Count 'em up and send me your guess - Hint: This pitcher stands 8 3/4 inches high and holds about 2 1/4 quarts (72 fluid ounces) of liquid.

Whoever has the closest figure wins a special-issue CKOW t-shirt in the size of your choice. Deadline is midnight Jan. 16 (NOTE: DEADLINE HAS BEEN EXTENDED TO MIDNIGHT MARCH 1), and there’s no cost to enter. One estimate per person, please. Get your guesses in soon!

As for the real corn and soybean farmers of the U.S., 2010 brought a big harvest but not the home run many expected earlier in the year, as heavy August rains in parts of the Midwest hurt crop development. In a November report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pegged the corn crop at 12.54 billion bushels, down 4.3 percent from 2009.

This is a problem if you like to eat steaks, pork chops and such – or if you like to eat, period. Corn is truly a hot commodity these days. Ethanol makers are sucking up a greater portion of the crop and demand from foreign buyers such as China is increasing, meaning domestic cattle and hog producers have to pay more for feed, pushing animal prices higher, and so on down the line to the supermarket meat case.

A sample of the 2010 rooftop harvest.

Corn futures rang out the old year Dec. 31 by hitting a 29-month high ($6.29 a bushel), and more fireworks may be in store after the 2011 opening bell rings Monday morning.

Retail beef and pork prices rose through most of 2010 (bacon hit a record $4.77 a pound nationwide average in October, for example), and probably will continue increasing in 2011. I expect inflating food prices to be a big story this year, along with escalating costs for other basic necessities, like oil and gasoline.

For the past year, I covered the agriculture markets and food industry from the CME Group trading floor for Vance Publishing’s AgNetwork, and will continue to do so this year. Follow me on Twitter and I’ll keep you posted on the latest as best I can.

Not to get your 2011 off on a down note. As we did a year ago, CKOW would like to extend best wishes to everyone for good health, strong whiskey and better times in the coming year. We’ll also remind everyone there are only 90 days until the gates open again at Wrigley Field.

Of course, new Cubs manager Mike Quade is officially invited to stop by the roof any time and discuss crop production techniques, hit-and-run strategy and any ways to right the Ricketts’ rickety ship (Note to Mike: the same invitation was extended to Lou Piniella and he never showed – look what happened to him).

Meantime, stay warm and get your contest guesses in soon! CKOW

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Midsummer crop report – High as an elephant’s eye

July 21 - Paige kicks back in the shade of dad's crops. Hard to say which are growing faster.

Greetings from Wrigleyville, where baseball managing careers go to die but the corn still grows tall.

It’s been over five months since my last post — I know, I’ve been lax about keeping everyone updated about this year’s crops. All I can say is blogging is a lot easier when one is both jobless and childless, as I was for most of 2009.

But as you can see, the corn and soybeans are shooting the moon. Planted May 9, Mother’s Day, the crops have gotten a nice boost from plenty of rain in June and a blessedly hot, humid Chicago summer so far.

July 9 - Our new sweet corn plot off to the right

Also, we expanded this year – seeding three big pots to “field” corn (aka the industrial stuff, fed to pigs and chickens and distilled into ethanol), each with about six plants. We have two pots of soybeans, at around 20 plants apiece. Plus, we’ve got a late-seeded sweet corn plot this year that’s a bit behind its rooftop friends but catching up quickly.

As of July 21, the corn topped out at a little over six feet tall (excluding the pot) and the beans are about 33 inches high and sporting a nice “canopy” to shade the soil, as the farmers say.

Look closely at the top photo, and you’ll see the corn recently developed tassels and silks. That means pollination, the all-important reproductive phase, is underway. This puts CKOW’s crop roughly on pace with the rest of Illinois (89 percent silking as of last weekend, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – way ahead of the typical pace, in other words).

Say hello to Corn Princess Phoebe Mueller (CKOW's niece), proudly sporting her new Corn King shirt. CKOW t-shirts now on sale, $18 each, including youth sizes. Be the first kid on your block to own one!

We get through pollination unscathed, and our corn crop, as a certain former Illinois governor soon to be fitted for an orange jumpsuit would say, should be “bleeping golden.”

The country’s real corn farmers are poised for a shiny year as well. Thanks to a dry, warm Midwest spring, crops were planted well ahead of the usual pace, a stark contrast to the cold, soggy conditions last year that kept tractors parked in the sheds for weeks. Last month, the USDA projected a 13.25 billion-bushel harvest, topping last year’s record by 140 million bushels.

And meet Audrey Leemans, whose mom Sarah, of Wheaton, won CKOW's first annual corn/bean counting contest last winter.

But the summer is far from over, and a hot, dry August and September – which some weather folks expect – could take production down a few notches. The usual summertime weather jitters, combined with rising consumption from the ethanol industry, have helped keep corn futures hovering around $4 a bushel, still high by historical standards.

Finally, in the wake of the unfortunate news out of the Friendly Confines this week, this year’s crop is hereby dedicated to Lou Piniella, who deserved better than what Jim Hendry and his $140 million band of sad-sack underachievers gave him the past two seasons.

CKOW would like to extend a personal invitation to Sweet Lou, before he retires and rides off into the Tampa sunset, to drop by the rooftop and pick up his own ear of Wrigleyville-grown corn. It would look nice on your desk, Lou, and would be much more useful than Derrek Lee’s bats.

Is that the door I take to get the hell out of this place?

As for the mess Lou will be leaving behind, well, we can’t blame Milton Bradley this year. But we can offer some suggestions to Cubs owner Tom Ricketts as the team slogs through increasingly meaningless games the next couple of months and he considers who will be the next victim… er, leader… for this storied franchise.

In the days since Piniella announced his retirement, we’ve heard names of the usual suspects tossed around: Bob Brenly, Joe Girardi, Ryne Sandberg, etc. But here’s an outside-the-box idea for you, Tom.

Mr. Ricketts: Hire Jim Essian. Right now. For the rest of the season. Just like ’91. What have you got to lose?

Eamus catuli, 102 years and counting…

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The harvest results are finally in – and we have a winner!


As in Hollywood, it’s awards season here in Wrigleyville. Yes, that means we’ve finally gotten around to tallying up last year’s harvest and have some news on CKOW’s Corn- and Bean-Counting Contest I.

The final count: 3,688 corn kernels and soybeans in the glass flower vase pictured below. The winner? Envelope please…

CKOW is delighted to crown Sarah Leemans (pictured left), a friend of the family who resides in the western Chicago burb of Wheaton, Ill., as the 2009 champion of our annual counting contest.

Sarah came closest among a couple-dozen entries with a guess of 3,949, just 261 above the actual total. In so doing, she kind of reverse-channeled Bob Barker and undercut her husband Mike’s entry, 3,950, by one. Sorry, Mike: The price is wrong. We imagine this is going to make for some interesting dinnertime conversation at the Leemans house.

So congratulations, Sarah, you’ve just won yourself an official CKOW t-shirt! I’m guessing she almost as thrilled with this honor as she was hanging with Adrian “Vinny Chase” Grenier at Sundance film fest last month.

Contest guesses ranged from 65 to 4,200, but most came in well on the low end. That probably proves only that it’s tough to count a jar of kernels and beans based only on a photograph on somebody’s blog.

In the grand scheme, my harvest is hardly a bin-buster: The kernels and beans in the jar amounted to roughly one-seventh of an actual bushel of grain. But we had some fun with it, and we’ve got something to plant on the roof this spring.

A hell of a hill of beans

Speaking of which, pitchers and catchers for Major League teams officially report for spring training this week (the Cubs officially opened camp in Mesa, Ariz., today). That’s always something that always warms Wrigleyville hearts as another punishing winter drags on.

Midwest farmers won’t report to their fields for another couple months. Some probably still have acres of last year’s corn left unharvested because heavy rain and snow kept them at bay. Let’s hope Mother Nature is a little kinder to them, and the rest of us, in 2010. Let’s also hope the baseball gods are kinder to Cubs fans this year. Getting through the first day of spring training with no labrum surgeries is a good start.

Thanks to everyone for your entries and your interest. Keep your bean-counting skills sharp and stay tuned for more crop progress reports in 2010!

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Crop progress report – A New Year’s harvest & a call to all bean-counters

Dec. 22 - Dad & Paige check out a snow-capped Wrigleyville a few days before harvest.

Happy new year from the Corn King!

Apologies for being away for so long, but CKOW has been on an extended paternity leave since we welcomed our beautiful daughter Paige Carolyn Blythe into the world Nov. 16. She’s doing great, and looks forward to helping dad raise more crops this summer.

After a lengthy delay, I’m happy to report that my rooftop harvest was completed by Christmas. The result was about nine potato-sized ears of corn and a couple-hundred soybean pods. Nothing spectacular, but we did prove you can raise farm crops on a big-city rooftop from germination to harvest, and keep the squirrels, aldermen and other rodents away.

So with the ears shelled and the soybeans de-podded and everything stored safely in a glass flower vase on my kitchen counter, the first annual Corn King of Wrigleyville Corn- and Bean-Counting Contest is officially underway!

Count 'em up and send me your guess - Hint: This flower vase stands 8 1/2 inches high and holds about 6 1/2 cups (56 fluid ounces) of water.

Give the photo above a good look-see and then send me your best guess (through this blog or via bblythe7@yahoo.com) on the total number of corn kernels and beans in the jar. Whoever has the closest figure wins a special-issue CKOW t-shirt in a size of your choosing. Deadline is midnight Jan. 17, and there’s no cost to enter. One estimate per person, please. Get your guesses in now!

Across the rest of the Midwest, a lot of farmers haven’t been as fortunate in getting their crops in, as the exceedingly heavy rains of last summer and early autumn morphed into exceedingly heavy snows of late fall and winter.

Just days before Christmas, about 5% of the U.S. corn crop remained in the field, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an almost unheard-of level for that time of year. That amounts to roughly 3.97 million unharvested acres – approximately 645 million bushels, or 5% of the estimated 12.97-billion bushel harvest – according to analysts cited by Dow Jones Newswires. Farmers probably won’t get to a lot of that corn till spring, if they bother with it at all.

As we’ve written before, such unrealized production will crimp supplies and keep grain prices elevated, potentially trickling down the food chain to what we ultimately pay at the grocery store (March corn futures on the Chicago Board of Trade closed at $4.18 ½ a bushel today, the highest since late June).

My ears are runt-like Ryan Theriots compared to these Iowa-grown Derrek Lee versions from from my dad's fields. That's primarily because my stuff was confined to a 20-gallon flower pot, while his had unlimited access to prime Heartland soil.

All of this further cements 2009 as one of the latest harvests on record and one of the more bizarre crop seasons in memory. Even my dad didn’t finish his corn till Dec. 8, a month or so later than normal. While many of us cursed the past year’s weather in Chicago, Midwest farmers really had reasons to gripe. But a lot of them would probably tell you that, like raising kids, you just deal with it.

As we all get down to dealing with a new year, CKOW would like to extend best wishes to everyone for good health, strong whiskey and better times in the next decade. We’ll also remind you that it’s a mere 98 days till the gates open once again at Wrigley Field. Now there’s a season we can all look forward to.

Meantime, stay warm and get your contest guesses in soon! CKOW

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Crop progress report: Harvest moon over Wrigley

It's close to the end of the line for my crops, as the long, green days of summer have faded into the harsh reality of another coming winter.

It's close to the end of the line for my crops, as the long, green days of summer have faded into the harsh reality of another coming winter.


Much like American farmers’ harvesting efforts this fall, I’m behind on posting fresh crop updates here. Unlike the farmers, I don’t really have a good excuse.

But anyway… As Chicagoans know, our year-long monsoon season resumed again in October. Here and across much of the Midwest, it rained and rained and rained some more.

Kernels dented and hardened, this ear is about ready for pickin’.

Kernels dented and hardened, this ear is about ready for pickin’.

That kept combines parked in their sheds most of the month, and as a result, the U.S. harvest is running far behind the usual pace (as of last weekend, about half the soybean acreage and a quarter of the corn was harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; normally, about 87% of the soybeans and 71% of the corn is in the bin by that time).

That’s not a huge problem if it doesn’t drag on for too much longer. But the longer crops are still in the fields as November marches along, the greater the risk of yield loss as wind whips around dry, brittle plants and ears and bean pods drop to the ground.

While the harvest delays have fueled skittishness in the grain futures markets and propped up prices, we’re still in line for whopping crops, as the next USDA crop production update Nov. 10 is expected to show.

According to a Dow Jones Newswires survey, analysts project a 12.995 billion-bushel U.S. corn harvest, down 0.2% from an October USDA estimate but still the second-biggest crop on record. The soybean crop is pegged at 3.27 billion bushels, up 0.6% from the USDA’s October figure and a record.

Has-beans: With most of the leaves having dropped off the plant, all we have left are the pods.

Has-beans: With most of the leaves having dropped off the plant, all we have left are the pods.

Up on the roof, as you can see, my corn and soybeans remain standing, but are otherwise deader than Reagan. I’ll probably give them another week or so to let the ears and bean pods to dry out, then start plucking and tally up my yield.

So this is a good opportunity to announce the first annual Corn King of Wrigleyville Corn- and Bean-Counting Contest! After I shuck the ears and pick the pods, I’ll dump everything into a glass container, post a picture on my blog, and start taking guesses on the total number of kernels and beans.

Whoever has the closest guess to the actual numbers wins a special CKOW t-shirt! How do you like that, sports fans? Stay tuned.

Fun corn factoid #6: The baseball term “can of corn,” often used to describe a lazy, easily-catchable fly ball, is believed to have originated in the 19th century and refers to the practice where a grocer would use a stick with a hook on the end to tip a can of vegetables off a high shelf, then catch it in his hands or outstretched apron. It’s a favorite phrase of White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.

Till next time CKOWers, we gone!

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Crop progress report: The forecast calls for grain

The things we grew last summer - It's last-hurrah time for the corn and soybeans. In a couple weeks, everything will be entirely brown and ready for harvest.

The things we grew last summer - It's last-hurrah time for the corn and soybeans. In a couple weeks, everything will be entirely brown and ready for harvest.


There’s an old saying around the Chicago Board of Trade’s grain futures pits: Big crops get bigger.

Basically, that means that a crop that looks good in August probably will look even better come September, and that’s what’s happening this year in the Heartland.

A peek under the husks reveals kernels in the “dent” stage of development, indicating the corn is with a few weeks of full maturity.

A peek under the husks reveals kernels in the “dent” stage of development, indicating the corn is with a few weeks of full maturity.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised its projections for the country’s corn and soybean harvests. While many of us Chicagoans griped about often-crummy summer weather we had, crops across much of the Midwest flourished in the past two months amid mild temperatures and ample rainfall.

This brings to mind another favorite term from the grain trader’s lexicon: bin-buster.

American farmers will pull in an estimated 12.95 billion bushels of corn this year, a 2 percent increase from an August forecast and the second-largest crop on record next to the 13.05 billion-bushel harvest of 2007, according to the USDA’s crop production report. Corn yields will average a record 161.9 bushels an acre, a record.

The soybean crop, already expected to be the biggest ever, was bumped up 1 percent, to an estimated 3.25 billion bushels.

As we’ve written previously, abundant supplies of basic grains are good news for consumers, diminishing any threat of a food inflation surge. The recent slide in corn and soybean prices may not be welcome by farmers, but at least most of them will have plenty of crops to sell.

Inside these pods, beans await picking as the plants slowly die.

Inside these pods, beans await picking as the plants slowly die.

Up on CKOW’s roof, as in the rest of the Midwest, another growing season is winding down. If the corn and beans look like they’re dying, that’s because they are. But that’s what’s supposed to happen, and in October, everything will be completely brown and ready for picking.

The main challenge at this point is keeping the squirrels away from my ears – the little bastards stripped those suckers clean last year! If I’m successful doing that, you’ll be seeing my harvest results shortly.

Fun corn factoid #5: The term “combine,” referring to the giant contraptions used to harvest grain all over the world, originated because early versions of the machines “combined” three harvesting processes – typically cutting stalks, separating/cleaning grain and storing it in an on-board hopper – into one piece of equipment.

Unlike the verb form of the word, “combine,” in this case, is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: “COM-bine.” The same applies for the NFL Scouting Combine, held every February.

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Another crop progress report

Aug. 15 - The corn is topping out around 6 feet, 6 inches, and that's about as far as it's going to go vertically. That' fine, because from here on, it's all about the ears.

Aug. 15 - The corn is topping out around 6 feet, 6 inches, and that's about as far as it's going to go vertically. That' fine, because from here on, it's all about the ears.

After a few days off to recover from Lollapalooza, it’s time to get back to our crops.

On Aug. 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its first estimates for this year’s harvests, projected American farmers will reap a corn crop of 12.76 billion bushels and a soybean crop of almost 3.2 billion bushels. As Chuck Abbott, one of my former Reuters colleagues, reported, this would be the biggest soybean harvest on record and the second-biggest corn crop.

All eyes on ears

All eyes on ears

That’s good news for everyone. Bountiful corn and soybean supplies help keep food prices in check. Any spike upward in corn or soybean prices eventually ripples into other crops, such as wheat, as well as into meat and other foods, eventually hitting you at the grocery checkout.

As for my stuff, everything’s moving right along. The corn looks to have completed the critical pollination stage. For the next month, the ears will be fattening up till the plant reaches maturity and it’s time to harvest. The soybeans are developing and filling pods, also heading toward maturity over the next month or so. If the corn looks a little ragged, that’s because it’s taken a beating the last few weeks from high winds and intense sunshine.

For you other aggies out there, I’ll be guest-writing for Dow Jones Newswires next week, covering the CME Group’s soybean futures market on a freelance basis. I covered that and other related subjects for Dow Jones back in 1995-97, so it’s very familiar turf. Check it out if you can.

Each of these pods will produce 3-4 soybeans.

Each of these pods will produce 3-4 soybeans.

Fun corn factoid #4: One bushel of corn weighs about 56 pounds, is the roughly the size of a large bag of dog food and contains about 27,000 kernels, or 33-34 ears.

Based on this year’s estimated 12.76 billion-bushel harvest, that’s 433.8 billion ears, or 1,400 ears for every man, woman and child in the U.S. Who said two ears is all you get?

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