American Grasslands: Ploughshares Into Fuel

| Published Wednesday, February 5, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

The United States has been pushing green energy, and this is causing parts of the Great Plains to go the way of the buffalo.

Many farmers were going broke back in the 1980s, but thanks to the U.S. government’s corn-for-ethanol policy they're making a comeback.

Following the government's requirement that gasoline be blended with billions of gallons of corn ethanol, more than 1.2 million acres of grassland across the Dakotas and Nebraska have been converted to farmland. The pioneers would be spinning in their graves if they could see what the backdrop of their lives has become.

Robert Malsam was one of those farmers in the '80s, and he's not going to apologize for actually making a living.

"It’s not hard to do the math there as to what's profitable to have," he said. "I think an ethanol plant is a farmer's friend."

The policy was intended to reduce global warming, but it has had the opposite effect. Plowing virgin soil releases carbon dioxide into the air where before it had been locked in the ground. Erosion is increased, and farmers are forced to use fertilizers and other industrial chemicals. These actions in turn destroy native plants and wildlife habitats, and may in fact be increasing the carbon footprint of humans.

Scientists warned the government that the policy would fail as an anti-global warming strategy if too much land was turned into farmland. The administration said that would not happen, but they also refused to monitor the situation. And as you might have guessed, that's exactly what happened.

In addition to the 1.2 million acres, there are five million more acres that had been set aside for conservation that have been converted to farmland. That's more land than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined.

In South Dakota since 2006, more than 370,000 acres of former grassland are now being farmed. A rural community about two hours north of the state capital has converted more than 42,000 acres, which is one of the largest turnovers in the area.

Malsam's family owns a 13-square-mile family farm there, growing corn, soybeans and wheat, then renting out grassland for grazing. His family converts another 160 acres of grassland to farming purposes annually.

Chemicals are used to kill the grass, and then machines remove the rocks. Tractors then plow the land three times, breaking up the sod and preparing it for planting.

Nebraska has followed the examples of its neighbors to the north, losing more than 830,000 acres of grassland, which takes up more room than the footprints of New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas combined.

Malsam's farm has just become profitable in the last five years, allowing him and his wife to build a new home on the farmstead.

However, anytime you have profitable businesses, there's a fair chance you will have tradeoffs somewhere along the way.

Iowa would be that place. Formerly gorgeous green hills of southern Iowa have now been ruined, with the land gashed, rain washing away the soil and fertilizer being dumped into the water supply. Even a cemetery near Corydon has disappeared into a cornfield.

Federal policy caused farmers to wipe out millions of acres of conservation land, destroying habitat and contaminating water supplies. Landowners filled in wetlands, plowing pristine prairies, spraying billions of pounds of fertilizer, which seeped into drinking water, polluting rivers and worsening the Gulf of Mexico dead zone where marine life will not survive.

In Wisconsin, farmers chose to plant 700,000 more acres of corn than they had the year before the ethanol policy was enacted. Adams County saw a 62 percent increase in acreage used for corn production from 2005 to 2012, followed by Iowa (34.3 percent), Crawford (30.6 percent), Lafayette (29.5) and Richland (29.2).

Five counties—Calumet, Green Lake, Outagamie, Racine and Waukesha—had their cornfields shrink from 2005 to 2012. Wisconsin's conservation land acreage decreased 40.6 percent from 2005 to 2012, more than 250,000 acres. Dane County saw a 34.9 percent decrease, losing 11,040 acres that was formerly conservation land--a land mass larger than lakes Mendota and Wingra combined.

Environmentalists and scientists have rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy, but have made no headway in changing the government's mind about its policies. They note the severe consequences that are being visited upon people and land, but the administration feels the tradeoff is worth it to help the farming industry.

The environmental costs of drilling for oil and natural gas are well-documented and severe, though economic and political pressures work in tandem with newer technologies to encourage more drilling. Wind farms kill eagles and other high altitude birds, and are generally disliked by any nearby residents for the high-decibel noise they produce. But the feds accept these environmental costs because they feel greater pressure from global warming advocates.

The government encourages development of next-generation biofuels that may someday be cleaner and greener than today's energy sources. Most of the major automakers—in the U.S. and Japan—are deep into the development phase of cars that would run off of other fuel sources or off the electric grid. (See Hydrogen’s Hope, Hydrogen’s Promise; Thursday Review) But there is always that tradeoff.

“That is what you give up if you don’t recognize that renewable fuels have some place here,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said. “All renewable fuels are not corn ethanol.”

The next-generation biofuels have fallen well short of the administration's goals, and their ethanol predictions are so inaccurate that scientists are questioning whether it will ever reduce greenhouse gases.

“They’re raping the land,” said Bill Alley, a Democratic member of the board of supervisors in Wayne County, Iowa. The man might be right, because you can still buy postcards in the Corydon town pharmacy that show beautiful rolling cow pastures, but those are old pictures.

The EPA is considering a reduction on the amount of ethanol required in the gasoline supply, but a coalition of big oil companies, environmental groups and food companies want the feds to reconsider the entire program. Meanwhile the administration has been turning a blind eye to any voices of negativity on its energy program.

"There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this industry,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told ethanol lobbyists recently. He conveniently left off the part about the administration choosing not to conduct any studies to determine whether that’s true.

Corn is water based, and not everyone agrees that using water with current engine technology is necessarily the right move. Small engines are an even bigger concern than car engines, because nobody knows how many boat motors have been ruined because people put fuel with ethanol in them. All small motors are extremely sensitive, and anybody who has one can tell you horror stories about ethanol.

The fact that fertilizers are now widely understood to damage and poison drinking water seems to have had little effect of long-term planning by government and the bio-fuel industry. Children and babies are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, and toxins in the water supply are passed along in the food chain in hundreds of ways.

From 2005 to 2010, corn farmers increased nitrogen fertilizer use by more than a billion pounds, and conservative projections suggest another billion-pound increase since then. The Des Moines Water Works has been facing high nitrate levels for many years in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, which supply drinking water to more than 500,000 people. When pollution was too high in one river, workers would draw from the other.

“This year, unfortunately the nitrate levels in both rivers were so high that it created an impossibility for us,” said Bill Stowe, the utility’s general manager. For three months last summer, huge purifiers worked around the clock to meet demand for safe, clean water.

The government's environmental team sees corn ethanol as a dubious policy, because corn demands fertilizer which is generated using natural gas. Ethanol factories also usually burn coal or gas, which are two fuel sources that release carbon dioxide into the air.

And the most controversial and hard to predict outcome is the land conversion. Digging up pristine prairie to grow corn for vehicles just isn't working. The release of greenhouse gases is immediate and substantial, and some administration staffers are willing to go on record with their misgivings about additional corn planting.

“I don’t remember anybody having great passion for this,” said Bob Sussman, who served on the president's transition team and recently retired as the EPA's senior policy counsel. “I don’t have a lot of personal enthusiasm for the program.”

The feds assumed corn prices wouldn't jump too high, and that farmers would become more efficient. This would remove their need to plow virgin soil and destroy conservation land.

However, corn prices climbed to more than $7 a bushel, which was about double the administration’s long-term prediction. This meant that farmers would no longer be setting aside land for conservation, because it didn't make economic sense.

“I’m coming to the point where financially, it’s not feasible,” said Leroy Perkins, a farmer in Wayne County who set aside 91 acres years ago, letting it grow into high grass.

Even the scientists have turned against ethanol's anti-global warming policy, considering that the government's estimates have no association with reality.

“I’d have to think really hard to come up with a scenario where it’s a net positive,” said Silvia Secchi, a Southern Illinois University agriculture economist. She paused, then added: “I’m stumped.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

Hydrogen’s Hope, Hyrdogen’s Promise; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; December 30, 2013.

Why Aren’t Those Wind Turbines Working?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 21, 2013.