An Associated Press story on the effect of the ethanol industry on conservation efforts drew many detractors last week, including state officials who said the story showed only part of the picture.
The in-depth story, which appeared in a number of newspapers across the country and was splashed online by many more sources, seemed to draw readers to the conclusion that the ethanol industry is responsible for a loss of tracts of land that otherwise would be kept in conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP.)
Ben Brancel, the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection as well as a farmer, said the article takes statistics and puts in an answer.
"I'm concerned that the article is misleading to the general public," he told Wisconsin State Farmer last week.
It made it seem as if really sensitive lands were tilled up and taken out of production but many times that isn't the case, Brancel said.
In many areas tracts of land that were never highly erodible or particularly fragile are going back into crop production because bids for that land through the program have gotten smaller or disappeared completely.
When the CRP program was created, he said, it was because there was too much corn and Congress was looking for a way to take cropland out of production to reduce the grain supply. As the program matured, wildlife and conservation groups realized its potential for habitat improvement and it was touted as more of a conservation measure than one destined to lower burdensome grain supplies.
There were times when sign-up for the program was based on land being highly erodible (HEL) and there were other times when that didn't matter, he noted.
Part of the AP story reads as follows — "The ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.
"As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn," it continues, "they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found."
The story goes on — "Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil."
Some in the corn and ethanol community have criticized the angle of the story and some of its conclusions.
Wisconsin Corn Growers Association president Brian Long told Wisconsin State Farmer that the AP story is rife with errors about ethanol's impact on the environment.
"The good news is that we have a choice. We can continue to use oil or we can choose cleaner alternatives like ethanol," he said.
The article, says Long, was clearly biased against an industry that is creating jobs and prosperity throughout the country but the writers did get one thing right when they said that "the environmental consequences of drilling for oil and natural gas are well documented and severe."
"In our quest for cleaner energy sources, the one thing we know for sure is that burning fossil fuels is having a dangerous impact on our environment," the Weyauwega farmer said.
"Diversifying our fuel sources to include renewable fuel — both traditional and advanced — will ensure a cleaner, healthier future for all of us."
Long points out that the story's conclusions that millions of acres of land are coming out of CRP because of ethanol is dead wrong.
"The 2008 Farm Bill removed roughly seven million acres of CRP land nationally, therefore, based on this law, it is legally impossible to return to previous levels of CRP enrollment.
"This has NOTHING to do with ethanol," he says.
Wisconsin farmers value grass and alfalfa crops, which are important for the state's dairy cows and in fact dry hay acreage was up this year, Long said.
"Our increased corn acres are the result of fewer small grain and soybeans acreage, which is a yearly economic issue our farmers make based on price, yield and local demand."
Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association said the AP story "seemed to be based on a complete misunderstanding of modern agriculture generally and the CRP program specifically.
"It is discouraging that the Associate Press appears to be following a political agenda, which clearly targets our only alternative to imported petroleum."
Even the headline — "The Secret, Dirty Cost of Obama's Green Power Push" — is a colorful but inaccurate indictment, Barbre said.
"There are no secrets in how land is used, as their own reporting shows. Acres are tracked and the U.S. Department of Agriculture guarantees a high level of transparency."
Barbre said the use of the words "secret" and "dirty" clearly show the reporters were "sensationalizing the issue to a high degree, which is conduct unbecoming a true journalist."
The NCGA president said farmers today are doing a better job of meeting the dual challenges of productivity and sustainability. Land use per bushel is down 30 percent and soil loss is down 67 percent since 1980, he added.
Since the ethanol industry got rolling, the United States is using 465 million fewer barrels of oil each year and rural economies are improving.
The Carmi, IL farmer said the air is also getting cleaner and his organization has "no regrets about these outcomes."