July 12, 2008

Local Farmers Forsaking Conservation for Corn Crop

By Justin Cripe, Goshen News, Ind.

Jul. 12--The demand for corn for fuel at the expense of our food supply has one ag expert pondering if that is a good situation.

Andrew Westfall, Elkhart County Extension educator, gave a presentation during a recent St. Joseph River Basin Commission meeting regarding the demand for biofuels.

Biofuels are any fuel sources that are made from biological material, most commonly plants.

"There isn't a whole lot of research yet on the subject..." Westfall said. He said that initially, turning corn into ethanol was considered an answer to all fuel problems. But since the demand for corn has caused food prices to climb and ethanol is not an efficient fuel, some people are reconsidering if corn should become fuel.

"It's not the perfect fuel," Westfall said, adding that a gallon of ethanol only does 70 percent of the work of a gallon of gasoline.

But the nation's lawmakers have set goals to increase the use of ethanol. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires that a yearly production of 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol be produced by 2012.

To meet the fuel demand, more corn has to be planted and diverted from fuel to food. Crop production is improving, but demand for corn as food is also increasing.

But there is also a growing demand for biofuels.

Westfall's hometown, Reynolds, Ind., a town of about 500 people near Lafayette, was recently renamed Biotown, U.S.A. Everything in the town is run on alternative fuels.

Westfall sees the source of biofuels, corn, as something that might change in the future.

"We looked at our ability to produce corn rather than what was most economical," Westfall said. He suggested that using switchgrass to produce fuel may be more economical than using corn because the grass is easier to obtain.

Westfall said that biofuels might someday make up 10 percent of the United States' total fuel source, which he said is a significant amount.

"It may not seem like it, but that's a lot of fuel," he said.

Farmers nationally have been working with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which takes cropland out of production in return for a government payment.

According to Bev Stevenson, district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, farmers locally are not utilizing the CRP program.

"There is not a lot of demand for it because of the cost of what farmers can get out of crops," Stevenson said.

Westfall is not ruling out the possibility that high grain prices are nothing more than "a cyclical thing" and are adding to the volatility of the current market. Eventually it may all level out.

"We are still in the very beginning stages of all this and we are still looking to see what will work and what won't," Westfall said.


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