Friday, July 27, 2007

Ethanol and Iowans

I recently made a trip to Iowa where I learned about ethanol. Corn and soybeans abound in North East Iowa, where you're more likely to 90-degree-turn your way for hours through farm land then you are to see a stop light. I already new ethanol was important and with rising fuel prices and a depleted supply of fuel there was more love for ethanol than I every really understood.

Ethanol has brought many benefits to agricultural producers in Iowa. Counties are now building economic development strategies around attracting new ethanol plants. Farm land has become more and more expensive as the demand for ethanol soars.

This can be great for some and not so great for many more. Family farms are being replaced by the Monsantos and ADMs of the world. This is not news for most folks who have at least had passing aquitance with the notion of corporate farming. These corporations are heavily involved in ethanol production as well. I saw a 200-car ethanol freight trail rolling down a track just south of Cedar Rapids--the ADM logo affized to every tanker car.

As land prices increase, starting a farm is a difficult if not impossible dream. Farming is expensive and much of that expense is the land. As prices rise, Iowa is facing a "farmer drain" much like many areas without institutions of higher learning or large corporate presences claim to be battling a "brain drain." Young farmers are moving on to school, manufacturing jobs, and other positions that do not require the tremendous outlay of funds.

Is this bad? Yes and no. To think about the agricultural United States slipping away into an antiquated oblivion is surely a tragic thought. Development is good, economic development specifically. Iowa is not the richest state in the U.S. and without ethanol's rise, I wonder how many more families would slip below the poverty line. The landscape is surely changing, but it seems that even though a very central tenant of American identity is fading, economic development is bringing new opportunities and breathing new life into a struggling segment of the population.

Farms will always exit in the United States and Iowa will always farm corn. It runs in the blood. I'm not sure how long ethanol will stay around, but for now King Ethanol rules the land.

We'll have to see where ethanol takes the country and what ethanol does in the long run for Iowa's farmers.

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