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Iowans note farm changes via biofuels

By Staff | Nov 21, 2008

Farm News news editorWill the long-term impact on Iowa from the development of bioeconomics means an ever-increasing number of tillable acres will be committed to growing row crops?Will it mean more development of technology to increase yields to help meet worldwide feed, food and fuel demands?Will Iowa producers come under more pressure to decide whether to grow grain for livestock or for energy, or toss both out to grow food for human consumption?These questions and others were debated Thursday in Boone at the Boone County Extension office, as part of the 100-county Bioeconomics Community Conversations II that will be held statewide during he next week.The statewide conversation, said Rich Wrage, Extension director for Boone County, gives all Iowans a chance to voice their perceptions of the impact the rapidly expanding industry of bioeconomics has on their communities.The statewide comments will be melded into one report and be released by Iowa State University later this month.Iowa’s position in the worldFrom a field of six topics, the 20 participants in Boone County choose to focus on Iowa’s position in global agriculture and bioenergy, as well as how renewable energy is changing Iowa’s crop distribution and processing.A webcast overview of Iowa’s global position by Dr. Chad Hart, of ISU’s department of economics, noted that this state leads the nation in ethanol and biodiesel production and wind energy produced through turbines.As a result, Hart said, as the worldwide demand for biofuels grows, it would require more grain acres, or higher yields to meet the demand.Tom Venner, of Boone, said he agrees with Hart’s assessment, but added that, “if the Iowa farmer is rewarded for production, he’ll find a way to over-produce.”The group noted that in the past few years with the growth of biofuel production and increased grain commodity prices, more Boone County pasture acres were plowed.In addition, they’ve seen fences removed, houses knocked down, trees bulldozed and some fields extending into nearby ditches, in order to get more seed into the ground.There has also been more corn-on-corn growing over the recent years than in the past and 200-plus bushels per acre are becoming common in cornfields.When asked what the impact on the environment has been with the growth of biofuels, the group noted:? There is more soil erosion after fence rows and tree lines have been removed.? Ethanol plants use large quantities of water and that more wells have been dug into underground aquifers to feed that water supply.? There is growing tension between communities vying for the water underground.When asked how livestock has been impacted with the growth of biofuels, the group observed:? Ethanol plants have provided a valuable byproduct for feeding ruminates and swine.? With more pasture acres lost to grain production, it is harder to forage and for ruminates.? Higher corn prices force producers to find other, cheaper sources of feed.Ray Olson, of Madrid, noted that the higher inputs make food, especially meat, more costly to produce.“If people are willing to pay for it, we’ll give them whatever they want.”But people have to stop thinking that farmers will take care of them. If they want meat and grain, then pay for it.“Changing crop processesDuring the second topic of the evening, Charles Hurburgh, of ISU’s department of agriculture and biosystems engineering, said that with all the new investment in communities – higher land values, higher commodity prices, more ag business sales – has brought about an “uneven distribution of benefits and higher risk to ag producers.“The total U.S. corn acres planted in 2007 was the highest since 1944. By 2010, Hurburgh said, an estimated 70 percent of Iowa’s corn production could be sold into ethanol processing. Biodiesel plants already consume 72 percent of the state’s soybean crop and could easily consume the entire crop within a few years as demand grows and more processing plants become operational.Hurburgh called corn and soybeans “the first generation of biofuels” and added that that technology is working to make other sources financially feasible for biofuel production in the future.”Higher prices and revenue,” Hurburgh said, “will encourage adoption of yield-increasing technologies that were not practical at lower crop prices.“He said longer-term issues spur other questions such as “what will those profiting from biofuels do with their new wealth? Will they keep it in Iowa?“Hurburgh also said that there is a rising tax base on ag land acres because of the value of the row crops grown on them. This generates more property taxes, “but not everyone is making more profit,” Hurburgh said, in view of tight margins with climbing costs of fertilizer, seed, fuel and land rents.When the Boone audience was asked what impacts the renewable fuels industry has had on their county, they said:? Some land rents as high as $400 per acre.? Higher grain prices as ethanol plants and feed mills compete for the same corn supplies.? The perception that grain is being diverted from food sources has created enmity between producers and urbanites.When asked about leadership decisions needed in the future, the Boone audience listed:? Refitting ethanol plants to produce human-grade alcohol.? Getting lawmakers “on the same page” as producers to make them aware of bioeconomy pressures on the ground level.Julie Wilber, of Boone, is a taxpreparer who has a produce-growing operation with her husband. She said she is concerned how pasture land is being converted to row crops and wonders what affects that land management change will have on the environment.In addition, she said her produce operation doesn’t grow grain, but it does rent land and those prices are climbing ever higher. “There are fewer acres for (growing) produce,” she said.Jayme Ungs, an ag lender from Boone, said the renewable fuels industry has much to correct “because it’s just getting started. “We don’t want to give up just because it’s not what we want it to be.”Doug Dodd, ag instructor at Boone High School, said he intended to use the conversation that evening in his classroom the next day.“They (students) hear the buzz words, but don’t know what it means. This is an exciting time and technology has to be our first priority.”(Agriculture) needs more genetic diversity that’s proven to be sustainable.“Extension director Wrage, said he was pleased with the turn out and noted that the banking industry was well represented in Boone County. “Unfortunately we didn’t have any (large) production agriculture represented who could talk about that side of it.”Contact Larry Kershner at kersh@farm-news.com.

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