It amazes me how the social pendulum has swung from ethanol being a political and media darling in the mid 2000’s to a social outcast recently. Granted, much is at risk for stakeholders and consumers alike. Objective discussions become challenging when issues become emotionally charged. Social media has sped the rate of idea exchange. This leaves many of us in the position of responding to criticism and negative attacks rather than proactively addressing each issue.
Hopefully, my experience will help balance the pendulum. Diversification helps a farm survive the ups and downs of individual markets. That is why I purchased shares in a farmer-owned ethanol plant in the early 1990’s. Later, I added a contract turkey enterprise to my operation. Ironically, the poultry industry is very outspoken against ethanol. Higher grain prices mean higher feed prices, which poultry and some livestock producers dislike. The missing link in the discussion is how much of the price of corn is related to ethanol production and how much is worldwide weather and other market forces.
Grain markets are dynamic. Blaming only ethanol for higher corn prices is conveniently simplistic. At the same time, failing to acknowledge ethanol has played some part in thinner poultry margins is disingenuous. The discussion needs balance. Currently, corn prices are below levels we saw in 2007 when the federal Renewable Fuels Standard set the bar for biofuel production. Hopefully, this change eases some of the tension. Agriculture needs to do a better job of keeping its disagreements out of the headlines. Production agriculture already has enough critics.
I am thankful my ancestors chose Le Sueur County to build a life around farming. Our deep rich soil and favorable climate are just right for crop and livestock production. So far I know of nobody in my area discovering oil under their farmland. My dad and his dad and his before him, raised a multitude of crops including flax, wheat, oats, alfalfa, sweetcorn and peas. Over time we’ve learned field corn is the most productive and most profitable crop for our farm.
To illustrate, assume an average yield of 180 bushels of corn per acre. That is 10,080 pounds of corn. Through processing, only the starch is removed yielding 522 gallons of ethanol. The protein is still intact. That protein is about 3,360 pounds of what we call dried distillers grains (DDGs), a very high quality livestock feed. My farm could produce about 55 bushels of wheat per acre. That is 3,300 pounds of wheat. Therefore, the DDGs alone from one acre of corn are roughly equal to the total pounds of wheat I can produce from the same acre.
I have used this analogy in conversations with friends, relatives, news reporters and civic groups. It helps people understand why I raise corn on my farm. From there the conversation can migrate to clean air, a strong economy, and dependence on fossil fuels. It is my hope that a balanced discussion of the issues surrounding ethanol will swing the pendulum once again.
Written by Greg Schwarz