The corn industry, indeed, is undergoing a transformation. The price of corn was up nearly 20 percent in 2006, and global sugar prices reached a 25-year high reflecting a shortage of high fructose corn syrup. Meanwhile, escalating international corn prices led to a tripling of the price of tortillas in Mexico in 2007, where the price of white corn used to make tortillas is indexed to that of yellow corn used to make ethanol. Corn is a big and growing business. But branding where corn came from isn't. At least, not yet.
In Making the Corn Belt, Professor Hudson acknowledged that nineteenth-century Midwestern farmers were no strangers to the notion of branding, even if they personally did not make use of it as a marketing strategy. He explained via email, “Corn Belt farmers [were] consumers of brands but by the very nature of the fact that they produced standardized commodities they [were] not inventors of brands. Occasionally an entrepreneur came up with a brand: Orville Redenbacher comes to mind. But the beef, pork, corn, soybeans, and other products of Corn Belt farms were sold to companies that did have their own brands."
Meanwhile Professor Emeritus John Ikerd of the University of Missouri says that the conventional wisdom in the US at the time was that agricultural commodities were not amenable to branding. “Raw agricultural commodities were fundamentally different from the specific food products into which they were eventually transformed. There was no effort to change this situation because competitive markets required that products be homogenous, rather than differentiated.”
Ikerd, who is the author of Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture, continues, “There was no effort to establish traceability in the American marketplace for agricultural products. In fact, an effort was made to do the exact opposite, to establish uniform national standards for agricultural products which would allow the co-mingling of products from different producers so the consumer didn't know, and didn't need to know, where it came from.”
Professor Joseph L. Anderson of the University of West Georgia elaborates, “Innovations such as the grain elevator meant that farm products from hundreds if not thousands of farms became co-mingled. The distinctions that mattered were those of the Chicago Board of Trade, Mercantile Exchange, and processors, which were the grade of the grain rather than point of origin.”
In Europe, meanwhile, there were long-standing traditions of branding farm products based on place of origin. The protection of geographical designations and regional identities there dates to the mid-1800s. Today, many farmer-owned agricultural brands in the EU enjoy a widely recognized and respected legal status.
An example is Prosciutto de Parma, a dry-cured ham produced in the Parma region of Italy, which has been producing dry-cured ham since at least the times of the Roman Empire. But besides ham, cheese, and other meat products, fruits, vegetables and cereals, fats and olive oils, mineral waters, beer, breads, and fish have also been regionally branded in Europe.
Ikerd explains, “Europeans have never fully embraced the commodity approach to agriculture. Differences in product characteristics can be traced specifically to the soil, climate, and culture within which the agricultural products were produced. The products produced by one farmer, or by a small group of farmers in one geographic region, have characteristics that make them distinctly different from the products of another farmer, or group of farmers, in the minds of the consumers.” By contrast, he says, “The average American consumer doesn't know or care whether their meat or grain products originate in the Midwest, the South, the West, or in some other country of the world—as long as they are safe to eat and cheap.”