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Sorting Out the Facts on Ethanol

Sorting Out the Facts on Ethanol
Ethanol is getting pretty rough treatment in the media these days. And it’s got to make you wonder why critics are piling on to a corn-based fuel source that has aided the environment, spurred economic development in rural Iowa and, according to several studies, has saved consumers billions of dollars.

The latest attack is a report from the Associated Press, which was printed by the Des Moines Register and many other newspapers. The AP report claimed that ethanol production is causing farmers all over Iowa to abandon conservation practices and plow up grasslands and prairies to grow more corn. It paints a picture of farmers abusing the land to chase the bucks from the ethanol boom.

There’s one problem: the facts just don’t support it.

In fact, 40 of Iowa’s 99 counties saw a net gain of grassy habitat from 2007 to 2012, based on a study by Decision Innovation Solutions. In fact, only about 3,500 acres of grassland was converted to crops in that five-year period, the study showed.

And corn acreage in the states is not soaring because of ethanol, as the AP report claimed. Iowa acres planted to corn were about the same in 2007 as in 2012.

Much of the AP report centers on reduction of land in the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP. The report claims that the ethanol boom was behind the decline.

But what really changed was the federal government’s desire to reduce costs and redirect the funding for CRP to more sensitive areas. It wanted to get more bang for its conservation buck.

Instead of enrolling whole farms into the program, farmers are using CRP to plant buffer strips, sow grass waterways, install wetlands and adopt other practices to trim soil erosion and improve water quality.

Iowa farmers have more than 591,000 acres enrolled in the continuous, targeted Conservation Reserve Program, (CRP) more than any other state. It’s a better deal for the taxpayers and for the environment.

The AP report also says that farmers have abandoned conservation practices to cash in the ethanol boom. That’s definitely not what I see driving around the countryside.

Spurred on by the innovative Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, farmers are increasing their conservation practices. The most obvious example is cover crops.

In every county of Iowa this month, newly-germinated seeds of winter rye, tillage radish, triticale and other plants are pushing through the black dirt on thousands of acres. The cover crops will stay on the fields through the winter months, acting as a blanket to protect the soil from wind or water erosion In all, Iowa officials say cover crops and other conservation practices has been adopted on nearly 121,000 acres, and most observers say the total is likely far higher than that.

Sensational reports that appear to play fast and loose with the facts always grab a lot more attention than good news stories, like the one about a home-grown fuel that is good for the environment, good for consumers and a shot in the arm for rural communities. But that’s the real story behind ethanol.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is editor of the Farm Bureau Spokesman.