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Connections between corn and conservation not as clear cut in Rock County

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Catherine W. Idzerda
November 12, 2013

JANESVILLE--Rock County has always been a state leader in corn production, but the connections between corn acreage and ethanol production aren't clear-cut, agriculture officials said.

Nor are the connections between land in conservation and corn acreage.

A national analysis by the Associated Press shows an increase in the amount of corn planted has meant a significant decrease in land in conservation. But local officials say Rock County's situation is more complicated

GROWING CORN

In 2012, Rock County grew 166,000 acres of corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Here in Rock County, ethanol is huge,” said Jim Stute, UW Extension crops and soils agent. “They say that about 35 to 40 percent of corn in the county goes to ethanol. But my gut feeling is that it's much higher than that.”

With ethanol plants in Monroe, Milton and Jefferson, it's easy for farmers to get their crops to an ethanol plant.

In addition, all of the county's grain elevators are on rail lines, making it easier to transport crops, Stute said.

In the past decade, acres of corn planted in Rock County has fluctuated:

-- 2002, the year the Badger Ethanol Plant in Monroe started operations, 160,000 acres of corn were planted in Rock County, according to the USDA.

-- 2003, corn acreage dropped to 151,000.

-- 2007, Rock County corn acreage rose to 174,000.

-- 2012, corn acreage slipped to 166,000.

Even before ethanol became popular, the number of acres of corn planted in Rock County varied greatly:

-- 1981, Rock County farmers planted 211,000 acres of corn, a record high.

-- 2001, 140,000 acres were planted, the fewest since 1998.

That raises a question: If corn acreage hasn't skyrocketed, how are local ethanol companies getting enough corn?

The answer has to do with other changes in the world of agriculture.

Genetically modified crops have increased per-acre yields. They also are more disease resistant and were better able to stand up to difficult weather conditions.

Finally, for the past two decades, more farmers have gotten out of animal agriculture and gone strictly to cash cropping, said Randy Thompson, former Rock County UW Extension Dairy and Livestock agent.

So corn that would have gone to livestock now goes elsewhere. Locally, “elsewhere” usually means “ethanol.”

LAND CONSERVATION

In Rock County, the amount of land in conservation reserve has declined from a high of 15,062 acres in 2007 to 11,556 in 2012, a decrease of 23 percent, said Rock County Conservationist Tom Sweeney.

Sweeney thinks the decline has to do with a variety of factors, not just an increase in corn acreage.

Sweeney said land in conservation falls into two broad categories:

-- Small areas of land used as buffer strips or to provide drainage.

-- Larger areas of land taken out of production and used for wildlife or woodland.

In the second case, the land usually is not optimal for farming—it's too steep or highly erodible.

In the past, land going into the land conservation program was assigned a value per acre, and landowners were paid that amount annually to not grow crops on that land.

Now, the land is assigned a value, but the owner has to offer the USDA a bid—an amount the owner feels is acceptable to not grow crops on that land. To get approved, the bid usually has to be below the initial value placed on the land.

Farmers are getting less money, making the program less attractive.

Some of the acres that used to be in land conservation were reclassified or moved into the wetlands reserve program.

The federal government has been pushing to get low-lying land into this program, Sweeney said. The wetlands reserve program offers landowners the chance to be paid for a permanent easement or a 30-year easement. The farmers are paid annually for the duration of the easement to not grow crops on the land.

The longer terms of the agreements make the wetlands reserve programs more attractive, taking some acres from the conservation reserve program.

Rock County between 2007 and 2012 lost 3,506 acres of land in conservation. Data showing what that  lost land is being used for is not available. Certainly, some of that land returned to farming. 

But based on the fluctuations in Rock County corn acreage--even before the advent of ethanol--it would be difficult to show an absolute causal link between corn planted and conservation acreage.



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