Back in the 1890s, Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Populist political activist, urged farmers to "raise less corn and more hell."
That may have been good advice at the time, but with today's growing interest in using corn to produce ethanol, raising more corn will be a winning strategy for many farmers. In fact, some conservationists are concerned about the number of acres that might be plowed under to meet the new demand for corn.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns reportedly will decide by early summer whether to lower the penalties for farmers who pull acres out of the federal conservation reserve program before their contracts with the government run out. The farmers receive government payments to let land lay idle, but rising corn prices may tempt some to give up the payments to plant more corn.
Naturalists are concerned about the amount of animal habitat that may be lost if more land is taken out of the conservation reserve program. The trend to plow up more acres also may cause some concern among historians and old-timers who lived through the Dust Bowl that struck several Midwest states in the 1930s.
In hindsight, experts say that high wheat prices in the 1920s that caused farmers to plow under millions of acres of native prairie were a key contributing factor to the giant dust storms that came a few years later. Buffalo grass and other native vegetation was gone, and when drought years hit, there was nothing to hold the soil down. Precious topsoil was blown from the Midwest clear across the country in huge clouds. The devastation that was left behind, in fact, provided the impetus for today's federal soil conservation programs.
Rather than plowing under more acres, a better solution for meeting the current corn demand may be found in the efforts of a new company that has announced it will relocate to Junction City. Edenspace, which announced its plans Monday, is working to develop Energy Corn, a product that will allow farmers to double their per-acre yields of corn used to make ethanol.
The company's move to Kansas is a great addition to the state's efforts in the area of agricultural biotechnology and could play a big role in increased production of biofuels. The firm announced in October that it had received $1.9 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop corn hybrids for use in producing ethanol.
Biofuels are a promising way to lessen the nation's dependence on petroleum products, but it's important to also protect the natural environment we will pass on to future generations. Contrary to Mrs. Lease's advice, the answer may lie, at least in part, in farmers growing more - and better - corn.