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Chet Brokaw and Jack Gillum, Associated Press, Published November 13 2013

Prairieland vanishes as farmers take advantage of high corn prices

ROSCOE, S.D. – Robert Malsam nearly went broke in the 1980s when corn was cheap. So now that prices are high and he can finally make a profit, he’s not about to apologize for ripping up prairieland to plant corn.

Across the Great Plains, millions of acres of wildlife habitat are giving way to corn fields, as farmers take advantage of the higher price for the crop.

This expansion of the Corn Belt is fueled in part by America’s green energy policy, which requires oil companies to blend billions of gallons of corn ethanol into their gasoline. Ethanol has become a major use for corn in America, helping keep prices high.

“It’s not hard to do the math there as to what’s profitable to have,” Malsam said. “I think an ethanol plant is a farmer’s friend.”

Since 2005, more than 1.5 million acres have been taken out of CRP, or conservation reserve program, in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Across the nation, more than 5 million acres have been taken out, more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite national parks combined.

An analysis of satellite data by the AP suggests that another 1.2 million acres of grassland nationwide have been lost.

Scientists have warned that America’s corn-for-ethanol policy would fail as an anti-global warming strategy if too many farmers plowed over virgin land. The Obama administration argued that would not happen. But the administration didn’t set up a way to monitor whether it actually happened.

Groups representing corn growers in North Dakota and Minnesota, however, dispute the notion that increased corn production has resulted in negative environmental impacts. There are fewer acres in CRP, but it’s the product of the farm bill, not green energy, they said.

Corn boom

Since 2005, the number of North Dakota acres devoted to corn production has grown by 160.6 percent to 3.6 million acres in 2012. In the state’s northeast corner, the trend is more marked with growth of 176.5 percent to 471,400 acres.

The biggest change was in Grand Forks and Walsh counties. Corn acreage grew 358.1 percent to 142,000 acres in the former and 498 percent to 59,800 in the latter.

In Minnesota, corn acreage grew 18.5 percent to 8.6 million. In northwest Minnesota, it grew 432.7 percent to 198,700.

The biggest change was in Marshall County, which saw growth of 569.4 percent to 32,800 acres.

In South Dakota, corn acreage grew 30.6 percent to 5.8 million.

Contrast that growth with the decrease in CRP.

The number of North Dakota acres in CRP fell 28.6 percent to 2.4 million between 2005 and 2012. In the northeast, they fell 12.8 percent to 441,500.

In Minnesota, CRP acres were down 11.8 percent to 1.6 million. In the northwest, they were down 13.6 percent to 622,000.

In South Dakota, CRP acres were down 24.6 percent to 1.1 million.

Industry defense

But the linkage between ethanol production and decreasing CRP was disputed by the corn industry.

Tom Lilja, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, called the AP’s conclusions “inaccurate” and, at best, “lazy journalism.”

“And at worst, it appears to be designed to damage the ethanol industry,” Lilja said. He said farming virgin lands for corn ethanol production is prohibited by law.

Most of the increase in corn acreage across the state is with land that had been used for wheat not CRP, he said.

Adam Czech, public affairs manager for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, cited some of the same concerns as Lilja.

“The USDA numbers show that there is more corn acres being planted,” Czech said. “But it’s not going on land that hasn’t had crops on it before. It’s going on land that used to have soybeans or wheat or hay.”

Czech acknowledged that that there are fewer acres enrolled in the conservation reserve program.

“But part of that is because the 2008 farm bill lowered the cap on CRP acres so you can’t have as many acres in CRP as you used to be able to have,” he said.

He disputed claims that fragile lands are being taken out of the CRP and used for corn production.

“CRP lands were always intended to remain available to be farmed if market conditions warranted,” the corn association’s blog says. “It is perfectly reasonable to grow crops on good farmland, and save the more highly erodible land and fields near waterways for CRP enrollment.”


Still, independent scientists have raised questions about the Obama administration’s ethanol mandate.

They say it will not further the goal of reducing greenhouse gases. Corn demands fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. What’s worse, ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas, both of which release carbon dioxide.

“This is an ecological disaster,” said Craig Cox with the Environmental Working Group, a natural ally of the president that, like others, now finds itself at odds with the White House.

But it’s a cost the administration is willing to accept. It believes supporting corn ethanol is the best way to encourage the development of biofuels that will someday be cleaner and greener than today’s. Pulling the plug on corn ethanol, officials fear, might mean killing any hope of these next-generation fuels.

“That is what you give up if you don’t recognize that renewable fuels have some place here,” the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, Gina McCarthy, said in a recent interview. “All renewable fuels are not corn ethanol.”

Still, corn supplies the overwhelming majority of ethanol in the United States, and the administration is loath to discuss the environmental consequences.

When the ethanol mandate was written into law, a fuel needed to be 20 percent greener – that is, it’s production had to result in less carbon dioxide – than gasoline to be considered a biofuel. The EPA’s experts determined that corn ethanol was only 16 percent greener.

Lobbying from the ethanol industry forced the EPA to change its assumptions, one of which was how much corn could be produced on an acre of land. The industry reasoned that genetically modified corn would be more efficient. When the Obama administration finalized its first major green-energy policy, corn ethanol was considered 21 percent greener than gasoline.

Since then, the numbers behind the ethanol mandate have become so unworkable that, for the first time, the EPA is soon expected to reduce the amount of ethanol required to be added to the gasoline supply. An unusual coalition of big oil companies, environmental groups and food companies is pushing the government to go even further and reconsider the entire ethanol program.

Prices rise

It’s impossible to precisely calculate how much ethanol is responsible for the spike in corn prices and how much those prices led to the land changes in the Midwest.

Supporters of corn ethanol say extreme weather – dry one year, very wet the next – hurt farmers and raised prices.

But diminishing supply wasn’t the only factor. More corn than ever was being distilled into ethanol.

Historically, the overwhelmingly majority of corn in the United States has been turned into livestock feed. But in 2010, for the first time, fuel was the No. 1 use for corn in America. That was true in 2011 and 2012. Newly released Department of Agriculture data show that, this year, 43 percent of corn went to fuel and 45 percent went to livestock feed.

In the years after Congress passed the ethanol mandate in 2007, corn prices more than doubled.

Malsam, who runs a 13-square-mile family farm about two hours south of the South Dakota capital in Pierre, said farmers can make about $500 an acre planting corn.

His farm has just become profitable in the past five years, allowing him and his wife, Theresa, to build a new house on the farmstead.

In his county, Edmunds County, at least 42,000 acres of grassland have become cropland.

Four miles south, signs at each end of the town of Roscoe announce a population of only 324. But the town, which relies in part on incomes like Malsam’s, supports a school, a restaurant, a bank, a grocery store and a large farm machinery store.

The manager of the equipment dealership, Kaleb Rodgers, said the booming farm economy has helped the town and the dealership prosper. The business with 28 employees last year sold a dozen combines at about $300,000 apiece, plus more than 60 tractors worth between $100,000 and $300,000, he said.

“If we didn’t have any farmers, we wouldn’t have a community here. We wouldn’t have a business. I wouldn’t be sitting here. I wouldn’t be able to feed my family,” Rodgers said. “I think ethanol is a very good thing.”

Jeff Lautt, CEO of Poet, which operates ethanol refineries across the country, including in South Dakota, said it’s up to farmers how to use their land.

“The last I checked, it is still an open market,” he said. “And farmers that own land are free to farm their land to the extent they think they can make money on it or whatever purpose they need.”

Associated Press writers Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo and Forum News Service reporter John Hageman contributed to this report.