The U.S. ethanol industry has a growing demand for corn, but U.S. Ag Secretary Mike Johanns says taking farmland out of the so-called “Conservation Reserve Program” or other federal programs where farmers are compensated for setting aside highly-erodible land is not the best answer.
“There’s this impression amongst some that you have all of these acres in conservation and you if you just shift them, you get an acre-for-acre transition from conservation to corn production. You don’t,” Johanns says. “Not every conservation acre is going to grow corn. In fact, it’s going to be a very small number of acres.”
Johanns concedes some acres set-aside as part of federal conservation programs could be converted to corn ground, but he contends it wouldn’t amount to much. “Generally, acres go into conservation (programs) because they…are not very suitable for corn production,” Johanns says. “We’ll continue to try to look at it and try to decide what the best course of action is, but today I think the gain would be quite small.”
Johanns says if he were to set the wheels in motion to pull ground out of the C-R-P, that land wouldn’t be eligible for corn production until 2008. Johanns made his comments just after a meeting earlier this week with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, the incoming chairman of the Senate Ag Committee. Harkin agrees with Johanns’ assessment. “I feel very strongly that CRP land is good for a lot of different reasons. It’s also some economic benefits to our states for hunting and fishing and things like that that we want to preserve,” Harkin says.
But Harkin says of the 36 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program, there may be some “fairly flat land” that would be converted to an “energy crop” like switchgrass. “(Switchgrass) would be a good cover for birds, a good nesting-ground for birds. You could still harvest it after nesting season for energy production so there you’ve kind of got your cake and (you’re) eating it, too,” Harkin says. “You’ve got conservation land, you’re building an energy crop and you’ve got, still, the benefits for hunting and things like that.”