June 22, 2020
Written By Jason Jenkins
The Erickson family has filled a farming niche in northwest Missouri
Most of the year, an Erickson family cornfield looks like any other around the small town of Tarkio, Mo., practically a stone’s throw from the Iowa border.
In the spring, row after row of newly emerged petite plants line up in perfect picket-fence formation. Their leaves stretch toward the sky, soaking up sunlight from above while roots seek water and nutrients from below. As summer arrives, each plant tassels, releasing its pollen. The process of filling corn ears with rows of plump kernels commences. When the days shorten and the temperatures begin to fall, combines roll to gather in the harvest.
What fills the machine’s grain tank is what makes an Erickson family cornfield different.
For more than 40 years, Dennis and Yolanda Erickson have raised conventional white corn in northwest Missouri for human consumption. After being processed into products such as soft, fresh tortillas or bags of crunchy chips, the corn is destined for countless dinner tables in the United States and around the world.
Today, Dennis and his son, Angelo, work together to farm 8,500 acres in Atchison County in northwest Missouri, devoting most of their ground to white corn. While their operations are technically separate, they share equipment and help each other as families do.
White Corn on a Whim
Born and raised on a farm in the county, Dennis says agriculture is the only career he ever truly considered. After graduating from high school, he bought his first farm on a contract from a landowner in 1972. His accumulation of acreage would continue, perhaps haphazardly at times.
“I had gone to a farm auction and bid on this 240-acre farm,” Dennis recalls. “I kept raising my hand and raising my hand, and before I knew it, I bought the place for $80,000. So, I wrote a check, but I didn’t have a dime in the bank. I don’t know what I was thinking, just feeling young and invincible.”
He quickly secured the financing he needed and continued to build his farming operation. A chance encounter with a young girl from Los Angeles would change his agricultural endeavors.
“I met Yoli when her family was traveling through here. Let’s just say we made eye contact and that’s all it took,” Dennis says. “After we got married in ’76, she suggested that we start raising white corn for Mexican food products. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.”
They planted a few acres, then a few more. After a couple of years, things were going really well, so Dennis decided to devote his focus to the specialty crop.
“Before long, we started shipping entire unit trains of white corn to the California markets,” he says. “We did that for the better part of 30 years. When Angelo started up, we got into exporting to South Korea. Our corn has gone to New Zealand, Europe, Canada and South Africa. Today, we market everything through Louis Dreyfus Co. in Kansas City.”
Specialty Corn Caveats
Raising conventional white corn isn’t much different than the genetically modified yellow corn that most farmers grow, Angelo says.
“Everything’s the same except we can’t use Roundup, and since we don’t have the Bt trait, you have to use an insecticide to control rootworm,” he says. “We used to have trouble with a second generation of corn borer, but that’s seemed to have disappeared as the genetics have changed a lot.”
Most white corn hybrids reach maturity after 114 to 115 days, which is similar to yellow corn. Test weights tend to be a little higher. Angelo says they average about 62 pounds per bushel, as compared to a standard 56-pound bushel of yellow corn. Yields are similar, says the elder Erickson, joking that he’s farmed “Iowa dirt at Missouri prices.”
“Probably 30 years ago, there was a small yield drag with the white versus the yellow, something like 5 percent,” Dennis says. “These days, we don’t see that at all. Our 10-year average is 200 bushels per acre.”
One consideration at harvest for all corn producers is moisture content in the grain. Many growers will harvest at higher moisture and then use commercial dryers to take the grain down to a level where it can be stored without spoilage. This isn’t an option for the Ericksons.
“If you use a dryer, it can stress-crack the kernels and lower the quality,” says Angelo, whom Progressive Farmer magazine named to its list of America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers in 2017. “Our white corn has to air dry, so we don’t get in a big hurry.”
Because conventional white corn can be pollinated by other corn hybrids, cross-contamination is one of the biggest management concerns. The Ericksons say that having their acreage concentrated helps.
“We probably are the sole producers of non-GMO corn in this area, so we feel the pressure of cross-contamination,” Dennis says. “We can grow the non-GMO corn because we have these big blocks of acres. When I’ve got 4,000 acres sitting here kind of isolated, with those big fields protected by rivers and highways and such, I don’t have to worry about being right up against a neighbor.”
He adds that when they were exporting to South Korea, for example, the white corn had to pass a 99.8 percent purity test. They purchased a computerized color sorter to take out kernels of cross-pollinated corn.
“This sorter has 80 chutes, each with a camera,” Dennis explains. “Kernels come down each chute, one at a time, and the camera takes a picture. If it’s too dark, it’ll eject the kernel with a puff of air. It can handle 600 bushels an hour. It’s the darnedest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Taking a Chance on Chips
While the conventional white corn market does pay a premium per bushel, the dynamics have changed greatly in the past 40 years. High corn prices in 2011-2012 impacted which hybrids many producers grew, and Dennis figures there’s only about 750,000 acres of non-GMO white corn planted each year in the United States now.
“When I started, there were 40 private companies producing white seed corn. They’re all gone,” he says. “It’s not like it used to be. We might see a 30-cent premium these days. We’re in survival mode right now, just like everybody else.”
In order to capture more value, Dennis has plans to take his commodity and turn it into a finished product — tortilla chips — before it ever leaves the farmgate. In 2019, the tortilla/tostado chip segment of the snack industry was a $5.5 billion market, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) of Chicago.
“There’s a huge margin in chips,” he says. “Say I sell a bushel of corn at the elevator for $4. Or, I can take that bushel, turn it into 10-ounce bags of tortilla chips. That’s where the real money is.”
The Ericksons are actively pursuing the construction of a food processing facility in northwest Missouri. While the right opportunity hasn’t yet materialized, they have their sights set on becoming a private label chip manufacturer.
“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Dennis admits. “It’s going to take a huge investment with a lot of risk. There’s many things we can make in this plant that use white corn and yellow corn. We’ll probably go for broke, but in the end, I think it’s worth it.”