Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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November 16, 2013

Prairies vanish in the US push for green energy

(Continued)

"The last I checked, it is still an open market. And farmers that own land are free to farm their land to the extent they think they can make money on it or whatever purpose they need," he said.

Yet Chris Wright, a professor at South Dakota State University who has studied land conversion, said: "The conversation about land preservation should start now before it becomes a serious problem." Wright reviewed the AP's methodology for determining land conversion.

The AP's analysis used government satellite data to count how much grassland existed in 2006 in each county, then compare each plot of land to corresponding satellite data from 2012.

The data from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Agriculture identify corn and soybean fields. That allowed the AP to see which plots of grassland became cropland.

To reach its conservative estimate of 1.2 million acres lost, the AP excluded grassland that had been set aside under the government's Conservation Reserve Program, in which old farmland is allowed to return to a near-natural state. The AP used half-acre sections of earth and excluded tiny tracts that became corn, which experts said were most likely outliers.

Corn prices more than doubled in the years after Congress passed the ethanol mandate in 2007. Now, Malsam said, farmers can make about $500 an acre planting corn.

His farm has just become profitable in the past five years, allowing him and his wife, Theresa, to build a new house on the farmstead.

Four miles south, signs at each end of the town of Roscoe announce a population of only 324. But the town, which relies in part on incomes like Malsam's, supports a school, a restaurant, a bank, a grocery store and a large farm machinery store.

The manager of the equipment dealership, Kaleb Rodgers, said the booming farm economy has helped the town and the dealership prosper. The business with 28 employees last year sold a dozen combines at about $300,000 apiece, plus more than 60 tractors worth between $100,000 and $300,000, he said.

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