Less corn planted, despite ethanol

by Philip Brewer on 31 March 2008 13 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

Prompted by high prices (driven by demand from ethanol production), farmers planted more acres of corn last year than any year since 1944.  This year, though, planned acres for corn are down 8%, and soybeans are back up to normal.

That's the word from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in their Prospective Plantings, released today.

Because of where I live--central Illinois--last year's huge increase in corn planting was something I could see on a daily basis.  Bicycling out in rural areas around Champaign-Urbana, I'm used to seeing soybeans in about a third of the fields.  Last year, it seemed to be barely half that.

The usual ratio is a result of the crop rotation that farmers seem to use around here, planting corn two years and then planting soybeans for one year.  Corn requires large amounts of (increasingly expensive) nitrogen fertilizer.  Soybeans, on the other hand, add nitrogen to the soil.  In addition to balancing some of the nutrient demand on the soil, switching to soybeans for a year helps with pest control.  If you plant corn year after year, you can expect corn pests to get worse each year.  A year of soybeans greatly improves the situation.

Last year, the agricultural radio reports were full of news (and ads) on how to grow corn for a third straight year on the same plot of land.  Seeing all that corn was worrisome to me--you could point your finger in any direction and point at agricultural practices that were even more unsustainable than usual.

It seems, though, to have been a one-off move to take advantage of a record surge in corn prices.  The (entirely predictable) result has been a surge in the prices of other agricultural products, and farmers are moving things back toward normal.  Corn planting will still be higher than usual, but soybean planting (after a huge drop last year) is right back up to recent levels.  Other grains show a mixed bag--sorghum and oats are down, barley (important for beer and scotch drinkers) is up, wheat is way up.

With things trending back toward normal, the result will probably be more of what we've been seeing lately--higher prices for agricultural commodities, leading to higher food prices.  You can't figure that the current high prices are an aberration; high prices of agricultural commodities are the new normal.

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Guest's picture

Our energy problem is only with liquid fuels --- > OIL. Ethanol is the BEST alternative to start reducing our oil imports today ... while the engineers Build new technologies to solve the problem in the future .. or the political pressure gives in and we start drilling oil in Alaska. The governments' money policy is the primary reason for inflation .. the dropping dollar .. not ethanol. The farmers are reducing their corn crop to make more money with other crops. Ethanol or not, food prices are going to continue to rise all around the world as natural disasters and droughts continue to increase.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Curt:

I agree with almost all of that:  Monetary policy choices are causing inflation, which is the cause of both rising food prices and the falling dollar--they're really the same thing.  Food prices will continue to rise (due to inflation and climate issues).  Farmers make their crop choices to maximize their long-term profits as best they can.

I think, though, that you're wrong about energy.  Ethanol may be useful around the edges, as a way to turn coal or nuclear power into liquid fuel, but it offers no hope for a significant drop in oil imports.

Really, only one thing offers any hope for that:  driving less.  And we're going to get less driving, one way or another.  I expect, though, that it'll be the other way--oil imports will drop first, due to supply issues, rising international demand, and the falling dollar we were talking about.  Then we'll get less driving.  It won't be much fun, though, even for the people (like me) who'd like to see less driving.

Guest's picture

Philip

Less driving is not going to lower the cost of oil or reduce imports, because international demand will continue to climb. Less driving will happen as prices in the US continue higher, but only by a small amount.

Coal and nuclear are great for keeping the lights on, but not for powering automobiles. Coal or nuclear power cannot be turned into liquid fuels. Battery powered cars are still very expensive. Ethanol is not a great solution, but its better than no solution and it's the beginning of an industry to find alternatives to importing oil and sending money to our enemies.

A much better solution is to drill our own oil in Alaska.

Guest's picture
Kelja

Ethanol is a farce. It takes more energy to produce than it produces! A combination of environmental naive nuts and wacko politicians foisted it on the nation. Now we have a huge, wasteful, inefficient ethanol energy complex supported by another idiot government bureaucracy and funded by the American taxpayer. Thank you so much.

Yes, farmers and agribusiness are getting richer but the environment suffers. More and more acreage is put into production using genetically modified crop requiring heavy fertilizer and pesticide dosing. Production of ethanol is a terribly inefficient process requiring more energy to produce than it results in. Smart, eh?

This is what happens when science is disregarded for political expediency. Ah, the heavy hand of government. Why people have so much faith in politicians is beyond me.

The production of ethanol is certainly one reason why food prices are rising, but is most definitely not the only reason. The rise of Chindia (China & India) and the collapse of the US dollar are the main reasons for rising commodity prices. And, you ain't seen nothing yet. If you are shell-shocked, as I am, at what's happening to the prices at the grocery store now, wait another 6 to 9 months.

We are living in a new world, folks.

Guest's picture

The corn prices are a huge problem. Why corn is being used instead of sugar cane, I do not understand. Ethanol can be produced more cheaply from other biomass.

But then again, all food prices are huge problem for the reasons mentioned above: rising energy and food demand across the globe is putting upward pressure on food prices (through cost of the actual food as well as transportation).

In my eyes, the solution isn't driving less it's hybrid systems, biofuel mixes, and mass production of better batteries. Hydrogen is a pipe dream at this point.

Another fantastic way to cut down is shop locally. There are farmer's markets all over this area where you can get locally produced beef, vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

I'm in central Indiana and there's soybean and corn fields to the left and right of me wherever I go.

Also, there's plenty of oil to go around for at least another 100 years. It won't always be cheaper than a gallon of milk but there's plenty of oil. Besides Alaska, there's Siberia and the oil sands of Canada. A realy big problem is the government, energy companies, and auto manufacturers know this and have little incentive to do much to switch us to a healthier economy.

Did I have a point? Sorry the call of "lunch is here" just distracted me. I'll be back if an epiphany occurs.

Philip Brewer's picture

I have little hope that people choosing to drive less will become an important way to reduce the total consumption of energy (or liquid fuels), although it would be cool if it worked out that way.

Instead, I think driving less will be the inevitable result of rising energy prices, putting the burden for reducing consumption on the poor, who have enough burdens already.

However, I think driving less is an important tactic to be used by frugal people of any income level.  Although you can start driving less immediately (by combining errands and avoiding unnecessary trips), to significantly reduce your driving you need to do things like move closer to your job or find a job closer to where you live.  Those sorts of changes require considerable lead time, meaning that it's worth starting to make the necessary arrangements now rather than waiting until higher prices force you to make them at the same time everyone else is making them.

Linsey Knerl's picture

As the husband of Ms. Linsey Knerl I (Sam) normally don't make comments. Mostly because she's the writer and I'm not. However, I couldn't help my self this time! I have worked in and out of the ethanol/plastic production industry, been part of a farming family, as well as spent much of my last semester in college researching and writing on this topic. That said, answering "why corn and not sugar cane" and "it takes more energy to produce than it produces" are both answered quite simply. In all production (except items dirived naturally through the input of the sun) the output is equal or less than its input. It is more about the "value" of the output that emphasis should be placed. "why corn"? We value ethanol, by-products of the factory process, plastics that are biodegradable, and the feed end-product (such as Cargils Sweet Feed. Nearly nothing "valuable" is wasted in the process. It is not just about the ethanol. Those plants will not last because it is not profitable without the by-products. That is "why corn". Why are farmers not planting as much corn this year than last year has less to do with the farmers' desire, but rather, the agricultural fact that they can't get away with planting corn on corn on corn, year after year. You can get away with a couple years, then you have to choose something else or you will have yield issues. (disease, pests, devalue of ground) This is why as expected soy beans will increase this year and hopefully wheat will be planted more the following year. (soy beans adds nitrogen naturally to the soil). Thanks Phillip! Nice topic!

Guest's picture
Miranda

In the time it would take to get the wildlife refuge in Alaska set for drilling more oil (8-10 years), we could have spent that time and billions in developing more efficient alternative energy. Corn ethanol should only a stopping a point -- a way to get us used to the idea that fossil fuels were the fuel of the LAST century.

We have the innovation and the ability to move forward and make more efficient energy technology, from jatropha to solar power. Let's move our energy policy and priorities into the 21st century.

Guest's picture
Cindy M

More transmission problems but still drivable. I said the heck with it and called the local Salvation Army rehab program. Very simple business, you sign the back of your title, they send someone with a tow truck and off it goes. Doubt I could have sold it as is and gotten much more than I hope to be able to write off. It's been painless so far (2 weeks). I'm amazed how far I can go on our bus system here and how crowded the bus was on Sunday when I went to my church (an old union hall downtown). There are 3 different routes very near my house. I'm not sorry, feels kind of like a weight lifted. My family think I've lost it but it's great.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's tough to make the jump.  (For example, we haven't.  We don't drive much (fill up the tank about once a month), but we still have a car.)  Going car-free, though, not only saves on fuel costs, but also on insurance, licensing, maintanence, parking, etc.

Good luck!

Guest's picture
Kelja

Much to the chagrin of some, and only some, in the environmental movement, it seems as though 'alternative' energy is harmful to both the environment & the economy. Of course, because of cognitive dissonance, most refuse to see the obvious - it's too painful to their underlying beliefs.

As I pointed out in a previous post, the ethanol boondoggle is the most egregious example. The total energy input to produce a unit of ethanol energy falls short of the energy required to produce that unit. Think of all the oil required for the tractors, trucks, fertilizer, herbicides, etc. That's the economic picture. If you look at the environmental damage done, it should convince you it's a bad idea. Put millions of additional farm acreage into production using mono genetically designed crops. Then spray tons of pesticides and herbicides onto the fields.

Ethanol is just one example of what happens when you combine scientific naivety with politics. Another is wind power. 1st, no one wants those multi-storied windmills in their back yard, they're noisy and unsightly. Think of the famous liberal Ted Kennedy. When a windfarm was proposed offshore, but within sight of the famous Kennedy Cape Cod compound, he quickly found ways to scuttle the project. (Perhaps using such a hypocrite is a poor choice to prove my point.) Additionally, without governmental subsidies, the windmill farms could not be built.

I'm not saying we shouldn't search for alternative energy, we should. But we should let market forces drive the search, not 'command & centralized' governmental bureaucracies do it. Two quick 'alternatives': search for more oil & coal in the U.S. & start building new (and much safer) Nuclear plants.

The market typically solves the problem in an elegant way. When a commodity's price rises enough, it curtails both it's use and encourages exploration of alternatives. Those who rely on the geniuses in government to solve the problem have no understanding of history nor human nature.

Guest's picture
jk

We need to prepare for the future; pump serious money into science education, and make conservation a priority, particularly within government purchasing. Due to favorable fuel prices here, and high fuel prices in other countries, our energy efficiency is low. We'll need to be able to learn and adapt these foreign technologies quickly, to catch up. We're already in this process, due to rising fuel costs, but a capital infusion into general science education, for everyone including adults who were miseducated by the school system, will help.

Guest's picture
keef

Have "Science Education," and its resultant industrial and technical revolutions, brought (or bought) our lives more meaning, joy, happiness, simplicity or peace?