The Voice: Winter 2001

The Voice

"Watching corn grow is a nice, relaxing sight"

Dan Zinkand by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

If you've ever caught yourself calling something boring by saying it's “as exciting as watching corn grow,” you may want to rethink your perception of corn.

Dan Zinkand ('81) did just that when he proposed that Iowa Farmer Today put a CornCam in a field in Prairieburg, Iowa, so people across the world could watch corn grow. Even he was surprised when the site had nearly a million people from around the world click in to watch the corn in various phases of growth and during its harvest.

“Sure, it was my wacky idea and I always believed it would work, but even I found the response overwhelming,” he wrote in a newsletter after the crop had been harvested. Zinkand has worked as crops editor of Iowa Farmer Today since 1993, and he covers corn and soybean production, trade, marketing, international trade issues, along with soil and water conservation issues, seed selection and weed management.

He came up with the idea for the CornCam a couple years ago, but his editors weren't interested in it at first, wondering, “who would want to watch corn grow?” But when Zinkand found some farmers willing to put up the camera in a four-acre test plot and proposed the idea again the following year, he was given the go-ahead.

Once the site was up, traffic was fairly steady at about 5000 visitors per day. During the growing season, the picture on the CornCam was updated every fifteen minutes from dawn to dusk. During harvest, there was a new picture every five minutes.

The CornCam got attention from many major news organizations, and interviews from radio and television stations slowed the harvest.

“We've gotten many, many e-mails around 10,000, from viewers and the overwhelming number of them are extremely positive,” Zinkand observed. “Many of them are from people who grew up in Iowa or other farm states it reminds them of growing up in a small town.”

He says there have been other visitors to the site as well some who live in big cities and find the idea of watching corn grow to be simple and appealing. “There may be an element of nostalgia,” Zinkand says.

“Watching corn grow is a nice, relaxing sight.”

Some of the people visiting the site really had no knowledge of farming or corn, and that's where the educational aspect of the CornCam came in. One e-mail Zinkand received was from someone in Massachusetts wondering whether the corn had been planted by hand. For this non-farm audience, Zinkand needed to explain things like growing degree days, what a hybrid is, whether farmers plant corn by hand, and whether the corn being shown could be eaten.

Zinkand says he's still writing “Chinaboy” in Beijing, even though he can't figure out how he or she heard about CornCam. Even though he had to laugh at some of the questions people asked, Zinkand says this lack of education about agriculture points out a serious issue: lack of communication and understanding between farmers and the non-farm public. He hopes that projects like the CornCam, which is scheduled to continue again next year, can help address this problem.

“I think it's showed some farmers how you can better communicate with the public. People don't usually want to be hit right away with a lot of facts, but they want a combination of something that's entertaining and educational at the same time,” he says. “That's where you need to start not by listing off the hundreds of uses of corn. You can do that once you get their interest and they start asking questions.”

He also cites growing mistrust of farmers by some people due to issues like StarLink corn (which is only permitted for livestock or industrial use) getting into taco shells and other items made for human consumption. Zinkand says that in an age where half of farm income comes from the federal government, and public support for these programs is wearing thin, it's important that farmers work to educate the public and build a relationship of trust.

The CornCam helped do just that, drawing attention from Reuters news agency, radio stations throughout the nation, the BBC, the New York Times, NBC Nightly News, and Paul Harvey. Zinkand looks forward to repeating the process with next year's corn crop.

You can see an archive of CornCam pictures at www.iowafarmer.com.

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