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Bitter Harvest

Ethanol is often touted as a boon to the rural economy and a “green” solution to our dependence on Mideast oil. But is King Corn wrecking havoc on Minnesota’s wildlife and water?

Bitter Harvest
Photo by Brian Stauffer (Illustration)
FOR NEARLY THREE decades, Tom Kalahar, a conservation technician for the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District, has driven the dirt roads and blue highways of Renville County, a sea of cropland along the north side of the Minnesota River. The county consistently ranks first in the state in production of corn, and near the top in soybeans and sugar beets. It is one of the most thoroughly drained and plowed areas of the state.

Kalahar’s mission: To sell farmers on various federal and state conservation programs that turn farmland into wildlife habitat. A field becomes a seasonal pond for nesting ducks, or a strip of grass along a creek bank goes untilled, reducing erosion and filtering runoff.

In a landscape devoted to agriculture—almost always at the expense of wildlife—Kalahar has been thankful for small victories. Farmers have enrolled thousands of acres—much of it marginal cropland at best—in federal and state conservation programs and planted it in grass and other natural cover. As a result, Kalahar says, a young generation sees pheasants and jackrabbits where, 20 years ago, there were none at all.

“We were gradually making inroads,” he says. “The water actually was getting cleaner. And wildlife—we had pheasants back in Renville County—there hadn’t been pheasants since the ’60s. It’s simply because of those grasslands.”

But in the last couple of years, Kalahar has watched in alarm as production of ethanol—a so-called green fuel—has driven up demand for corn. Farmers are plowing up conservation grasslands to raise corn and cash in on rising prices.

“We turn those grasslands into ethanol and corn acres—poof, there goes the pheasants. Poof, there goes the water quality. It’s unavoidable,” says Kalahar. “This is the biggest threat to water quality and wildlife in my career. ”

LARGE-SCALE ETHANOL production in Minnesota began as a way to boost demand for corn and raise persistently low prices for the commodity, says Ralph Groschen, an agricultural marketing specialist for the state Department of Agriculture. Only later did ethanol producers begin promoting it as a way to reinvigorate the rural economy, reduce air pollution from cars and trucks, and liberate America from its dependence on imported oil.

On the basis of such claims, both Minnesota and the federal government have become big boosters of ethanol. The federal government pays fuel blenders 51 cents for every gallon of ethanol they buy. The government also requires that 4 billion gallons of the gas consumed by Americans come from renewable sources such as ethanol—a figure that is scheduled to rise to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Meanwhile, Minnesota mandates that fuel sold at the pump contain 10 percent ethanol.

But is corn ethanol really good for the environment? Can it really help wean us from foreign oil? “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if farmers could grow corn and we could tell the Middle East to go to hell, and we could just pull our SUV up to Cenex, pull the hose out, and fill it up with good old green corn?” Kalahar marvels. But he’s not a believer: “It ain’t going to happen.”

Why not? First, corn ethanol as currently produced contains only 25 percent more energy than it takes to make, according to a recent University of Minnesota study. Fossil fuels supply most of that energy (and they’re used in petroleum-based fertilizers, too). In short, we produce ethanol to replace the fossil fuel we use in making ethanol.

Second, farmers can’t grow enough corn to fuel the nation’s vehicles. U researchers deduced that diverting the entirety of the current crop to ethanol production would cut total gas use by less than 3 percent. We’d have to devote a lot more land to corn production before we could come close to meeting our fuel needs.

Another problem: Corn is hard on the environment. It sucks up high-nitrogen fertilizers. It drinks more water than most crops. It demands pesticides. In fact, corn requires more chemical “inputs” than just about any crop in the region.

The results are toxic. Pesticide runoff kills smallmouth bass and other fish. Runoff of excess fertilizers causes local lakes to bloom with algae, and causes the oxygen-depleted “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Excess nitrogen in drinking water can also be a threat to infants.

Corn production is equally tough on farmland wildlife, such as pheasants, songbirds, and deer. “Row crops such as corn are among the poorest habitats out there,” says David Sample, a research scientist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. During the last half-century, as farm fields have grown bigger and temporary wetlands and cattail sloughs have been drained, many prairie species, especially birds, have disappeared. According to the National Audubon Society, in the last 40 years, the population of northern pintails, which need both wetlands and grassy uplands to thrive, has dropped 77 percent. The eastern meadowlark, once an emblem of grasslands and open woodlands, has declined 72 percent. Northern bobwhite, loggerhead shrike, and grasshopper and lark sparrows are in similar trouble.

Over the years, conservationists and lawmakers have attempted to blunt some of the worst environmental damage caused by agriculture. One of the most widespread and successful programs is the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which rents land from farmers and pays them to keep it in grass. Another is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), also developed in the mid-1980s, which targeted high-priority areas for wildlife habitat and prevention of soil erosion. “That was one time government really got it right,” says Kalahar. “They offered programs that made a lot of sense: Farm the best; buffer the rest.”

Such conservation measures have had considerable success in bringing back populations of grassland birds, such as bobolinks and dickcissel. A study by Al Berner, a retired wildlife researcher from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, found that the number of pheasants increased roughly 13-fold when land was put into CRP. Deer, jackrabbits, and other wildlife have also benefited from the programs, Kalahar says.

Now, however, subsidies for ethanol and grain production are reversing the progress wrought by subsidies for conservation. As corn prices rise and production increases (U.S. crop yields jumped nearly 20 percent this fall, according to some estimates), farmers are choosing to let conservation contracts expire and plant crops instead. Just this fall, Minnesota lost about 80,000 acres of CRP land, North Dakota 250,000 acres, South Dakota 300,000 acres, and Iowa 128,000 acres. “What are we getting out of our tax dollars?” asks Kalahar. “We subsidize the corn crop. We subsidize the ethanol. We subsidize, we subsidize, we subsidize, and we’re looking at a tremendous loss [of habitat] across this nation.”

ON A WINDY PRAIRIE near the town of Donnelly, in west-central Minnesota, DNR wildlife manager Kevin Kotts strides across newly mown prairie, identifying the plants lying in windrows: “Big bluestem, Indian grass, Canada wild rye, wheat grasses, yarrow, black-eyed Susan.”

The next day, this prairie hay, cut from 50 acres of the 300-acre Eldorado Wildlife Management Area, will be baled and trucked to the University of Minnesota–Morris. Next spring, when a new gasifier is completed, the U will process the dried grass—as well as other biomass such as corn stalk and leaves—into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which can be burned in the campus heating system. “We think we can get these at a good price and replace our natural gas,” says Joel Tallaksen, an assistant scientist and manager of the project.

If the collaboration between Kotts and the U is successful, it could serve as a model for energy production from renewable resources. According to U of M ecologist David Tilman, co-author of the U’s ethanol study, native grasses produce annual crops that require little—or no—use of fertilizers or pesticides. What’s more, a field planted with diverse species can produce more than twice as much usable energy as a plot containing a single species, such as switch grass. And the energy equation is potentially profitable as well: Grass-derived ethanol could produce eight times the energy required to make it.

The possibilities of deriving fuels from prairie—for gasification or ethanol—appeal to a lot of conservationists and scientists. They imagine private prairies on marginal farmland that farmers are now tempted to plant in corn. “It makes a whole lot more sense than corn,” says Kalahar. “It could be wonderful for ground-nesting birds, such as duck, pheasants, Hungarian partridge, and meadowlarks.”

Still, there are potential problems. First, we don’t know how make prairie-grass ethanol economically feasible: Several experimental and pilot plants operate in North America, but none have gone commercial. Second, if grasslands are devoted first and foremost to maximizing biofuel production, farmland wildlife might face the same threats as they do now.

“If we would just quit farming the marginal acres in this country, planted them to native prairie, and harvested that grass, we’d have all the ethanol we’d need,” says Kalahar.

In fact, the idea of turning prairie grass in to biofuels may have legs. This fall, Congress began debate on the latest incarnation of the federal farm bill, which includes payments for conservation and crops. Some conservationists have argued that conservation payments should be raised to keep pace with crop prices. Others have fought for a provision to pay farmers to grow prairie grasses and other potential ethanol feedstocks. Closer to home, the U of M’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment has funded research into new biofuels that offer the hope of reducing dependence on corn and perhaps even restoring a nearly vanished ecosystem of prairies in the state.

Kalahar, for one, sees a brighter future as mostly a matter of willpower. “We can do anything we want,” he says. “We can have the kind of planet that we want. We can have the kind of air we want. We can have the kind of water quality that we want. But, as of this point, we haven’t quite wanted it enough.”

Greg Breining wrote about caver John Ackerman in the October issue.


Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Old to new | New to old
Dec 9, 2007 09:15 am
 Posted by  Mary-Clare H

Dear Minnesota Monthly,

I really appreciate Greg Breining's article on the return of native plants, wildlife habitats, and clean water to marginal agricultural land with state and federal conservation programs. The recent alarming increased use of these lands for financially profitable corn and ethanol production is a mistake. We need to encourage the production and use of prairie grasses instead

Dec 9, 2007 09:46 am
 Posted by  Mary-Clare H

A further comment, I know magazines like MN Monthly need advertising but I wish you'd have less glitter for expensive things no-one needs and more interesting, thought-provoking, relevant articles like Greg Breining's 'Bitter Harvest'. As a MPR listener, I enjoy reading as much as tuning in and would happily open the magazine if it was less stuffed with stuff and had more substantive articles.

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