Commentary


The Thistle Ha’ corn harvest is done. Despite a late planting due to a very wet spring, the corn yield was quite good.

I accompanied a 20-tonne load of corn to the local mill, and talked to the general manager. He surprised me when he said that they sell most of their corn as ethanol feedstock. Although Canada started promoting use of biomass (corn, wood products) to manufacture ethanol fuel in 2000 to combat global warming, he said the shift of corn sales from food to fuel has occurred just recently, after the U.S. government started subsidizing corn as a biofuel. This resulted in construction of numerous ethanol plants using corn as feedstock.

40% of the 2010 corn crop in the U. S. was converted to ethanol. This is past the “tipping point”; the U. S. corn crop is now insufficient to meet food needs. The wet spring in the U. S. mid-west and drought conditions in southern hemisphere corn growing regions has resulted in reduction of world-wide corn production in 2011, pushing corn to its highest price in recent memory. This has led to increased prices for other food crops such as soybeans and cereal grains. Although this trend has been beneficial to grain farmers and big agribusiness, increased feed prices have hit the poultry and hog industries hard. Cattle farmers are less affected since the corn mash byproduct from ethanol production is sold for cattle feed. More worrisome, some economists claim that the price of corn has started to track the price of crude oil. Has the U. S. policy to increase corn ethanol production in an effort to reduce the cost of imported crude oil to the American economy not only failed to reduce the cost of energy, but actually caused a permanent increase in global food prices?

Image: The Breeder’s Gazette, 1892

Thistle Ha’ first entered livestock in the Ontario late-summer agricultural fair in 1838. In 1879 this show was permanently located in Toronto and renamed the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). Thistle Ha’ did not enter the show every year – family members were busy buying livestock overseas, or exhibitions were cancelled in wartime. However, Thistle Ha’ livestock appeared at these provincial shows for a span of over 110 years until the CNE turned away from its agricultural roots to focus on attracting the urban crowd in the 1950s.

Image from Miller Family Fonds microfilm collection, copyright 1972, Archives of Ontario. Used with permission.

SchoolDays

The above image is from an 1835 Scottish school exercise book belonging to John Miller. This was his final year in school, which he completed at age 17.

John Miller was educated in the best school system in the world at that time. About 1700, Scotland organized the first national education system since ancient times, which resulted in the highest literacy rate in the English-speaking world, and was a factor in the extraordinary contributions made by Scottish intellectuals to the world in the 18th century (the Scottish Enlightenment).

The exercise book shows that he studied subjects including history, literature, mathematics, religion, and classics (Latin). It is said that mathematics was his best subject, and when he emigrated to Canada, he planned to be a surveyor.

The quality of penmanship is the same throughout the entire exercise book. In that era, unless you owned a printing press, all documents were handwritten. Clearly poor handwriting, particularly for commercial documents, was intolerable.

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