Growing pains or real concerns?

Farm Forum

A few years back, I learned of a book called, “High Octane: How Minnesota Led the Nation in Ethanol Development.” As we grow corn and soybeans, it was interesting to learn some of the maneuvering that went on behind the scenes to develop the market for ethanol and then to get it accepted in the public. In those early years, corn prices “skyrocketed” from $2 to $4 a bushel. Those efforts to add value to our crops were certainly welcome. Written by Wendy Fernstrum in 2007, the book describes the battles entailed in getting acceptance for the product that now helps to fuel our vehicles. She tells of the hopes of those Minnesotans involved in the infancy of the industry, the hours of hard work that went into getting acceptance for the product, and the work that the farmers faced in trying to take a share of the market from big oil with home-grown fuel. “If they had sat down, thought about how difficult it was and how risky it was, they probably wouldn’t have done it,” Fernstrum says. “They had this naivety they didn’t know they couldn’t do it. They did it because they had faith, they thought they could and they basically had nothing to lose. They had a pile of corn and it needed to be put toward a purpose. Nobody had a grand scheme as to how it would happen, it just all came together.” This week, a story by the Associated Press appeared that detailed environmental concerns associated with the ethanol industry. Some of those concerns are resurfacing after those first years of the industry. No doubt, the reports have provoked a great deal of discussion. The battle over concerns in the industry reminds me of the scenes described in Fernstrum’s book To me, as one who is part of an operation that produces corn, many of the issues that are part of the story can be refuted. I think that changes in seed genetics have a lot to do with the changes in land being used for more corn. There is no doubt that some land that should not be used for crop land has been dug up. Changes in our climate has had a lot to do with that along with the varieties of seed. Last year, much of the state was considered in drought conditions, especially in the southeastern corner. In our area of the state, residual moisture provided enough for a good crop. This year, many say that they were surprised at yields they received, despite adverse conditions. Warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons are making it possible to plant corn in places like North Dakota and Canada as well. Techniques in planting crops have certainly played a huge role in cropping changes. Nutrients such as nitrogen are expensive. Farmers don’t want to spend any more money on inputs than they have to. When equipment is available to help accurately place those chemicals, it can result in better crops and savings in runoff as well. While the lower price of corn is disappointing for farmers, those with livestock are relieved that corn won’t be $7 this fall. The market for calves has boomed, giving that sector of the industry some payback for hard work. As farmers have watched corn prices drop to half of what they were last year, the latest report from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts the U.S. average corn yield at 160.4 bushels per acre. Those estimates point to a record crop of 13.989 billion bushels, 146 million larger than the September forecast. No matter what criticism is lobbied, take time to be proud of the hard work and dedication of your fellow farmers and ranchers across the country. Job well done! If you’d like to voice your opinion on any topics involving agriculture, call Farm Forum Writer Connie Sieh Groop at 605-622-2343 or toll-free at 1-800-925-4100, ext. 343. You can also email comments to