LIMA — Thousands more acres of corn have been planted in the region since the federal government’s mandate to blend ethanol into gasoline and two ethanol plants have been built.
In 2012, 142,800 more acres of corn were planted in a nine-county region — Allen, Auglaize, Hancock, Hardin, Logan, Mercer, Putnam, Shelby and Van Wert counties — than in 2006, according to The Associated Press and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The mandate to include ethanol in gasoline started in 2007.
For years, corn ethanol has been a centerpiece of America’s green energy strategy.
An Associated Press investigation found the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than the government has acknowledged. In Ohio, for instance, farmers planted 750,000 more acres of corn last year than they did the year before the ethanol mandate was passed. About 6,500 acres of conservation land were lost, according to the AP.
Advocates for the industry in the region and Ohio dispute the findings, saying the AP’s calculation that ground in conservation has been lost to corn production for ethanol is not correct.
“The assertion that farmers are taking virgin land to make more corn for ethanol, it’s just not happening. It can’t happen,” Ohio Corn & Wheat Executive Director Tadd Nicholson said.
Just after the ethanol mandate went into effect in 2007, the federal government also lowered the acreage that could be kept in the Conservation Reserve Program, Nicholson said.
“I can see why you’d draw some assumptions, but the government put a new cap on the land, which brought some of the land back into production,” Nicholson said.
At the same time, farmers have responded to the market and higher corn prices and planted more corn. The higher prices have come from more demand, which includes ethanol production, but it also includes drought conditions and poor production.
“The price has gone up, so farmers have planted more corn, but it hasn’t come at the expense of virgin land,” Nicholson said. “The market will move again and farmers will plant more soybeans and wheat. It shifts back and forth all the time in agriculture.”
The region is also home to two ethanol production facilities, Guardian in Lima and Poet Biorefining in Leipsic.
The Lima facility employs about 30 people and the Leipsic facility employs about 40 people. Much of the ethanol produced at the two plants results from corn grown in the region. Neighboring Husky Lima Refinery and other refineries in the region are customers of Guardian.
Guardian Plant Manager Tracy Olson declined comment on the story, because he had not yet seen The Associated Press report.
Poet’s General Manager Mark Borer is also president of the Ohio Ethanol Producers Association. Poet purchases its corn from farmers and elevators in a 35 to 50 mile radius; that activity is a significant benefit to the local economy that Poet is proud of, Borer said.
One of Poet’s facilities is about to launch ethanol production at an Iowa facility from corn stalk and cob, essentially waste product from an agricultural perspective. The company is considering expanding the technology at its other facilities.
“That’s extremely sustainable,” Borer said. “You’re taking non-value feedstock and producing fuel from it.”
The EPA is soon expected to reduce the amount of ethanol required to be added to the gasoline supply. Ethanol interests are pushing back hard at the federal level against the decision, the AP said. Borer and Nicholson said lowering the mandate level would be a bad idea for the farming economy now and innovation in the future.
Borer said farmers being able to get a good price for their corn at ethanol facilities means they don’t need subsidies through the Farm Bill, and ethanol helps reduce dependence of foreign oil.
“It’s absolutely the wrong way to go,” Nicholson said. “The administration would be going backwards on its commitment to innovating. The signal sent by lowering the standard would be that we want to stop innovating, and that’s not where we want to go with energy policy.”
Farmers recognize their environmental responsibility, and balance that with a need to be economically viable, said Ohio Farm Bureau spokesman Joe Cornely. How farmers have responded to the algae issues at Grand Lake show that, Cornely said.
“We know we have a nutrient problem, and instead of throwing up their hands and saying, ‘This isn’t our fault,’ farmers have been aggressive in taking ownership of their share of the problem,” Cornely said. “Farmers recognize they have a responsibility to their neighbors to take care of our natural resources.”