Land use, conservation efforts attacked

Despite fears of a sub-par harvest from a wet spring and dry summer, “better than expected” corn yields are being reported across much of the state, including Northeast Iowa. That’s good news for farmers. And it comes at a time when good news is needed: An “investigative story” released last week has challenged the land-use practices and conservation efforts of corn producers, suggesting that farmers are cashing in on the federal government’s ethanol mandate at the expense of “environmentally sensitive” land.

“It’s inaccurate and one-sided,” said John Finely of Elkader. “I don’t know whether the non-farming public pays much attention to stories like this but it’s a slap in the face to farmers.”

Finley, a district field manager with the Iowa Corn Growers Association, was referencing an Associated Press story released November 12 that concluded that the ethanol mandate “has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.” The article argued that “fragile and erodible” land better suited to conservation has been used to grow corn to meet the mandate. According to the AP, 5 million acres has been taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) since President Obama came to office, though it doesn’t say how much of that land has been used to grow corn for ethanol.

“They’re not wrong, “said Finley. “The number of acres in CRP has gone down but you can’t blame ethanol for that. The 2008 Farm Bill removed funding for 7 million acres of farmland. That’s the real reason there’s less participation today.” 

Finley’s claim is supported by statistics from the ethanol industry. They cited data from the USDA showing that in 2012, the first year data was collected, farmers placed into production only 38,000 acres of grassland that hadn’t previously been planted.

Among those striking back at the AP was former Iowa Governor and current U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He said the article didn’t consider other federal programs that have resulted in land conservation. He noted that, while CRP enrollment has declined, total acres in conservation stewardship program, including the wetland reserve program, wildlife habitat incentive programs and a program that helps farmers adopt conservation practices, has grown by more than 71 percent.

“I can confidently say that over 500,000 producers are engaged in conservation practices of one form or another (in record numbers) in excess of 350 million acres,” Vilsack said, adding that another 24 million acres would be added to that number this year.

While noting the environmental detriments of growing corn for ethanol, the AP article failed to mention the positive benefits of reducing oil and gas production. The AP also claimed that since 2010, more corn has gone to fuel than livestock feed.

 “For every 56-pound bushel of corn that is used to make ethanol about 17 pounds is returned as distillers dried grain, which is a high-protein animal feed,” Finley said. “We are not robbing cows to make ethanol.”

By Pam Reinig, Register Editor

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