Ethanol advocates, Vilsack dispute report

Source: Written by Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013

They challenge the perspective that farmers are rushing to pull land out of conservation programs.

From the nation’s capital to Corydon, Ia., critics are challenging the Associated Press’s report today that claims ethanol production is damaging the environment.

“There are a number of inaccuracies and errors in that article,” said Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, during an editorial board meeting Friday at the Des Moines Register.

Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, the No. 1 producer of ethanol, said he saw the piece when the Washington Post accidentally posted it online last week.

The American Coalition for Ethanol on Monday called on the AP to “correct or retract” what it called an “error-filled story.” The group said the story is a “hit piece” that appears “purposefully designed to damage the ethanol industry.”

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association in Johnston, said “it reads like an extended blog posting for the Environmental Working Group.”

Vilsack, Shaw and others challenge the perspective that ethanol has American farmers rushing to pull fragile land out of conservation reserve program — called CRP — so they can cash in on corn, the fuel needed to drive many ethanol plants.

“Let’s talk about the suggestion that we have 5 million fewer acres in conservation than when I became secretary,” Vilsack said. “That is not true.”

“It’s inaccurate to say because one program has declined that all conservation has declined. It has not,” he said, adding that while CRP enrollment has dropped, the total number of acres in the nation’s conservation stewardship programs have grown 71.5 percent. They include wetland reserve programs, wildlife habitat incentive programs and EQIP, a program that helps farmers adopt conservation practices.

“I can confidently say over 500,000 producers are engaged in conservation practices of one form or another on record acres in excess of 350 million acres,” Vilsack said. “We will add another 24 million acres to that number this year.”

Shaw said the number of acres in the national CRP program have declined because the federal farm bill cut participation. “Even if you outlawed ethanol, those CRP acres would have declined,” he said.

Ethanol advocates said wetland acres have grown to about 2.7 million last year from 2.3 million in 2008. The commitment from landowners is 30 years or a lifetime. “Wetlands aren’t coming out of these programs,” Shaw said.

Ethanol advocates say U.S. farmers may be growing more corn, but the total U.S. acres have not increased since the Renewable Fuel Standard — setting goals on how much ethanol the nation should use — was first established in 2007.

“EPA is required to annually evaluate whether the RFS is causing U.S. cropland to expand beyond the 2007 level of 402 million acres,” the industry said in a release.

“Each and every year, EPA has found that cropland has been below the 2007 baseline. And the 2012 cropland total was at its lowest point — 384 million acres — since EPA began this annual analysis.”

Farmers annually shift the crops they grow, depending on profitability, Shaw said. And farmers increased corn acreage in 2012 and 2013 in response to drought-ravaged corn supplies in 2011 and 2012 — not because of ethanol. “Overall, we planted fewer acres now to principal crops,” he said. “We make up for it in increased productivity.”

The Associated Press story says between 2005 and 2010, “corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds.” It estimates that another billion more pounds was used since 2010.

Ethanol advocates said U.S. farmers “are using less fertilizer today than in the past, both in aggregate terms and in terms of fertilizer use per bushel produced.”

“In 2010 — latest USDA data available — corn farmers used 1 percent less nitrogen, 10 percent less phosphate, and 28 percent less potash than in 1985. Yet, the 2010 corn crop was 40 percent larger than the 1985 crop,” the industry said in a statement.

Leroy Perkins, the Iowa farmer quoted in the story, said he was misled about the article’s focus.

“It appears that their whole agenda was more or less running down ethanol,” said Perkins, who participated with Shaw and other ethanol advocates in a news conference. “It is made right here in the USA, by American farmers and American businesses, giving jobs and a better income to everyone concerned.”