By Dan Charles
For more than a century, corn has been the most widely planted crop in the country and a symbol of small-town America. Think of the musical Oklahoma, where the corn is as tall as an elephant's eye, or the film Field of Dreams, in which old-time baseball players silently emerge from a field of corn.
Even farmers are partial to corn, says Brent Gloy, who grows some himself, on a farm in Nebraska. (He also graduated from the University of Nebraska. You know, the Cornhuskers.)
"I do think there's some truth to this idea that we're probably predisposed to corn," Gloy says. "But the current prices will make you lose those predispositions pretty quickly."
In fact, those prices have now led to the end of King Corn's reign. According to statistics released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, corn is being pushed aside by a crop that's largely unfamiliar to people outside the farming community – soybeans.
The numbers show that for the first time in history, American farmers harvested more acres of soybeans this year than any other crop – 83 million acres. (Farmers planted more acres of corn than soybeans, but more soybeans survived to harvest time.) The USDA predicts, based on current market conditions, that amount of land covered with soybeans will continue to increase, reaching 91 million acres next year, and 92 million acres in 2021.
Gloy has been monitoring these trends because he's also an agricultural economist, and a visiting professor at Purdue University. Farmers are switching to soybean, he says, because it's more profitable.
Prices are high because of "a lot of demand coming out of Southeast Asia." China buys more U.S. soybeans than any other country, by far, and uses them to feed pigs and chickens.
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