CHAMPAIGN — Though corn acreage has increased dramatically in recent years in some parts of the Great Plains, that hasn't been the case in East Central Illinois.
Despite record-high corn prices the last three years, corn acreage in 2012 dropped from 2011 in seven of 11 East Central Illinois counties. It rose slightly in two counties and remained the same in two others.
All 11 area counties had fewer acres planted in corn than they did in 2007, and most counties have seen little change in acreage since 2005, the first year of seven years for which The Associated Press collected figures.
Part of the reason is that East Central Illinois agriculture is heavily concentrated in corn and soybeans, unlike the Great Plains, which traditionally had a lot of land in wheat and pasture.
Like corn, soybeans have been commanding record prices the last three years, so there's little incentive for farmers to switch from beans to corn.
"In Illinois, Iowa and Indiana, there's been very little shift into corn," said Jack Murray, secretary-treasurer on the board of directors for the One Earth Energy ethanol plant in Gibson City.
Soybeans have been selling for $13 a bushel — a hefty price by historical standards — so $4-a-bushel corn isn't a big deal to farmers in this area, said Murray, who farms in northern Champaign County.
But there's a different situation in the Dakotas, where wheat hasn't been very profitable. Some of those acres have been converted to corn.
Corn also looks attractive to owners of pasture land.
In recent years, cattle operations have become more efficient, with cattle moving into large feed lots and out of century-old pastures, Murray said. With less need for pasture, corn has become a reasonable option.
Another factor that triggered more corn production out West is an improvement in corn genetics, said Bruce Stikkers, a conservationist with the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District.
The Dakotas have a shorter growing season that wasn't well-suited for corn. But crop scientists have developed varieties of corn that can be planted there and get good yields.
North Dakota used to be considered "out of corn-and-soybean range, but they are now into it," Stikkers said.
Thanks to genetics, corn yields have continued to increase. But improvements in wheat yields haven't kept pace, Stikkers said.
Figures collected by The Associated Press indicate that 292,500 acres in Champaign County were planted in corn in 2012, down from 306,500 acres in 2011.
In Vermilion County, the number of acres planted in corn was 239,500 in 2012, down from 245,500 acres in 2011.
The Associated Press also looked at the number of acres enrolled in the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program.
Through that program, farmers are paid to remove "environmentally sensitive" land from agricultural production and to plant species that will improve environmental quality.
Though some areas of the Great Plains have seen conservation-reserve acreage drop in recent years, six of 11 counties in East Central Illinois saw that acreage increase during the 2012 fiscal year — the most recent year for which figures were available.
Five other counties — including Champaign and Vermilion — saw conservation-reserve acreage drop in 2012.
Champaign had 9,964 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in 2012, down from 10,273 acres in 2011. That was the lowest acreage in eight years.
Vermilion had 8,027 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in 2012, down from 8,307 in 2011.
But Coles and DeWitt counties saw increased conservation acreage every year for seven years, and Piatt, Moultrie, Edgar and Iroquois also had a steady march upward in conservation acreage over that time.
"The last few years, we've seen a little loss in the (Champaign County) Conservation Reserve Program, but not to the extent they've had in the Dakotas," Stikkers said.
Jonathon Manuel, the district's resource conservationist, said the local program lost some grass filter strips along waterways, but gained some larger-acreage tracts better suited for wildlife.
Some of those tracts — which have pooling and are almost like a wetland — actually have a bigger effect on water quality than do the strips, which are intended to filter fertilizer runoff.
Conservation Reserve Program contracts tend to run 10 to 15 years before coming up for renewal. Stikkers said the loss of land in the program is also due in part to new rules about what land is eligible to take part.
WHAT AREA EXPERTS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT BIOFUELS
How much is ethanol responsible for the spike in corn prices?
"It really is difficult to separate out factors that influence price," said Darrel Good, a professor emeritus of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.
"The ethanol boom is probably responsible for moving corn prices from about $2.50 (a bushel) prior to 2006 to about the $4 to $4.50 level," he said.
"Price spikes above $4.50 have been associated more with shortfalls in (corn) production, particularly in 2012," he said. "I think that is verified by current prices near $4 as production has rebounded (this year)."
What advanced biofuels are on the horizon, and how soon are they likely to come into use?
Hans-Peter Blaschek, director of the Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research at the UI, said that beyond corn-based ethanol, researchers are focusing on cellulosic ethanol, biobutanol and a hybrid process involving butanol and acetone.
Two companies, POET and Royal DSM, are developing cellulosic ethanol plants, Blaschek said. The plants use corn cobs and other parts of the corn plant as feedstock.
Biobutanol is being developed both by small startups and large chemical companies. Its feedstock includes switchgrass and miscanthus. Among biobutanol players are Gevo Inc., with a production facility in Minnesota, and Butamax Advanced Biofuels, a joint venture between BP and DuPont. Blaschek looks for biobutanol to come to the fore in the next five years.
Blaschek said there's also interest in a hybrid biofuel process that involves both fermentation and catalyic conversion. The resultant fuel has attracted particular attention from the aviation industry.
According to Blaschek, advantages of those biofuels over corn-based ethanol are:
— They use feedstocks that would presumably be cheaper than corn.
— There wouldn't be a fuel-versus-food argument because their feedstock isn't edible.
— In the case of biobutanol, they wouldn't need a dedicated pipeline, as ethanol does.
How is ethanol production changing in terms of efficiency and resource usage? How does it compare with petroleum?
Jack Murray, secretary-treasurer of the One Earth Energy ethanol plant in Gibson City, said increased availability of natural gas has helped made ethanol cheaper to produce. He said the Gibson City plant is using less natural gas and electricity than it did five years ago.
Murray said producing ethanol requires much less water than producing gasoline. He said it takes 37 to 40 gallons of water to refine a gallon of gasoline and less than 3.5 gallons to refine a gallon of ethanol.
He also contended that ethanol is more "ecologically friendly" than oil, given how much effort it takes to clean up oil spills.
Murray said 40 percent of every acre of corn in this area goes to ethanol production. Without ethanol, the price of U.S. corn would be much lower, he said, because it would not be able to compete cost-wise with corn produced in other parts of the world.