First, the Bad News
Most experts believe that commercial-scale, cellulosic ethanol processing plants will not come on line for five years or more. Until then, the demand for corn ethanol is expected to increase dramatically. Regrettably, when it comes to breeding ducks, it is hard to find a silver lining in a forecast for more corn acres. In fact, the demand for more corn is likely to throw a big wrench into the gears of the duck factory.
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Typical of any supply-and-demand relationship, when the demand for corn is high, so is its price. If corn growers receive a high price for their product, they can then afford to invest more in land and land rental. Farmers who grow less profitable crops get squeezed out. Simple supply-and-demand economics force those currently receiving a low return on their land investment to reconsider how their land can best be used to generate revenue.
An obvious concern associated with increased corn production is the fate of land enrolled in CRP, a program that was created in the 1985 Farm Bill to idle highly erodible land by restoring it to grassland. As the many other conservation benefits of CRP emerged—including the addition of 2.1 million ducks each year to the fall flight—the program became recognized as the most significant and successful conservation initiative ever implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Now, those in search of more corn ground are viewing CRP land as up for grabs. The USDA evidently agrees. Last February, it announced that no new CRP signups would be held in 2007 and 2008, and that it is considering allowing landowners currently enrolled in CRP to terminate their contracts early—all for the stated purpose of providing more acreage to meet the demand for corn. But cornfields do not provide suitable nesting habitat for ducks. And depending on how many acres of CRP are lost in the PPR, some portion of those 2.1 million ducks will not be flying south each autumn.
The demand for corn will also put pressure on the 22.3 million acres of remaining native prairie grassland in the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region. Newly broken prairie will not grow much corn. In general, the soils are too poor, and the climate is often unsuitable for corn. But some newly broken prairie may be suitable for wheat and other crops that will be displaced by corn on existing cropland. And even if the native grasslands remain intact, the demand for corn and cropland in general is driving up the cost of all land dramatically. These increased land values also affect the region’s other producers—cattle ranchers.