Iowa View: Ethanol story skews picture of ag practices

Source: Written by DAVE MILLER, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Des Moines Register • Posted: Friday, November 15, 2013

Multistate study reflects farmers’ responsible stewardship of soil

Buffer strips along streams like this are among the ways Iowa farmers combat erosion.

 Buffer strips along streams like this are among the ways Iowa farmers combat erosion. / IOWA FARM BUREAU PHOTO


DAVE MILLER is director of research and commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. Contact:

I am a small family farmer who has grown corn, soybeans and wheat for 40 years, and wearing that hat, I found the story offensive. But as a researcher with advanced degrees in economics who has served on state and national boards — including the Offset Committee of the Chicago Climate Exchange, the Midwest Governors Association Greenhouse Gas Accord Committee and the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council — I found the claims the AP made about Iowa corn farmers and ethanol misleading with several inaccuracies.

A multistate land-use study completed this summer tells a much different story about how Iowa’s landscape has changed and how farmers respond to market trends.This study shows that despite the lure of record-high grain prices, farmers in 40 of Iowa’s counties developed new wildlife habitat, with more land in those counties being converted to grassy habitat from cropland than grassy habitat going back to corn and soybeans.

The study, conducted by Decision Innovation Solutions of Urbandale, examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cropland data layer for Iowa and six other Midwestern states. The analysis concluded that annual conversion of Iowa grassy habitat to active cropping accounted for less than 1 percent per year of Iowa cropland from 2007 through 2012. According to the USDA, acres planted to corn in Iowa were the same in 2012 as in 2007 and not substantially higher, as implied by the AP story.

One of the observations from doing this multistate land-use study is that we gained substantial insight into the validity, or lack of validity, that can result from using only a small-lens approach to assessing land-use change over time. This multistate land-use study shows the big picture: 857,000 acres of land once planted to corn and soybeans were shifted to grassy habitat, despite strong economic pressure to do otherwise.

The AP story also didn’t consider the use of cover crops in a farm field, which hold nutrients in the soil and reduce erosion. Thanks to the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy that was launched this summer and just instituted a few months ago, Iowa farmers have exponentially increased their acres of cover crops.

What’s more, 160,000 acres of cover crops were planted this year through the new water quality initiative and the regular state cost-share program. Since cost-share programs have limits for how much each farmer can get, most are planting more, so various Iowa State University Extension and Farm Service Agency coordinators put that estimate closer to 300,000 new acres of cover crops planted this year alone.

That certainly mirrors my experience on my farm in south-central Iowa, where I got cost-share assistance approved for cover crops on 40 acres, but I planted 320 acres of cover crops, because it’s the right thing to do. I’m not alone.

Planting cover crops is just one of 38 combinations of conservation practices in the nutrient reduction strategy, which was put in place this year. Thousands of Iowa farmers are showing up at field demonstrations around the state, learning what practices work best for their farm and making plans for 2014.

Iowa farmers have more than 591,000 acres enrolled in the continuous, targeted Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), more than any other state. It’s almost 11 percent of the U.S. continuous CRP sign-up total. This is additional evidence that Iowa farmers continuously strive to balance environmental protection and family income.

The AP story would have you believe that Iowa farmers have been lured to take acres out of the CRP because they see the value in a rising corn market. I say that was exactly the intentof the CRP program all along. It was put in place in 1985 during the farm crisis, when farms across the nation were failing for many reasons, including a bad corn market. The hope was that when markets improved, land best suited for farming would be put back into production, to grow food to meet all of the nation’s growing demands.

And with $5 corn, and $13 soybeans, that’s what we’re seeing today.

While the bulk of corn grown is used for food, there are over 4,000 ways to use corn. Some include ethanol, yes, but corn is also used to make clothing, textiles, chewing gum, livestock feed, tires, aspirin, plastics and so much more. The point is, the rest of the world turns to Iowa farmers as inspiration, because we are always seeking ways to improve, to do more with less, to be sustainable.

The success of the Iowa farming economy provided a buffer that protected our state from the worst of the nation’s economic downturn. Whether you’re a farmer, an economist or a reporter, thatis a story worth commending and sharing.