The Miami County landscape has changed because of corn prices, with old pastures being plowed and woodlots being cleared.
Farmers there planted 7,000 more acres of corn last year than eight years prior, a figure which almost mirrors the increase in cultivated land in the county. Farmers there are farming more ground, and they’re mostly planting it with corn.
Farm specialists see a business cycle in operation.
As corn prices, driven by drought and the demands of the ethanol industry, soared to near $7 a bushel, livestock farmers were hurt and converted from independent operations into contractors for larger companies.
Timber lots looked a lot less attractive when prime farmland started selling for $10,000 an acre, according to resource conservationist Rick Duff of Miami County’s Soil & Water Conservation District.
“Basically, we’re either going to pay for high-priced fuel or we’re going to pay for high-priced food,” Duff said. “There’s only so much production we can get out of the ground right now.”
In north central Indiana, the increase in corn production doesn’t seem to have come at the cost of conservation acreage. In Howard, Tipton and Miami counties, the amount of acreage set aside for conservation has held steady or even grown slightly, even as more corn is planted.
“Most of these guys are conscientious farmers; on the whole, they’ve been working with us,” said Calvin Hartman, resource conservationist at the Howard County Soil & Water Conservation District.
Even so, Hartman agrees that woodlots and even some land farmers would deem marginal in terms of crop production potential have been converted.
“Right now, I hate to say this, but it’s a lot cheaper to clear land than it is to buy land,” Hartman said.
Miami, Howard and Tipton counties all appear to be traveling different paths when it comes to fueling the nation’s need for corn.
In Howard County, where the new U.S. 31 bypass took around 900 acres of farmland out of production, there’s been a 9 percent decrease in the amount of land being planted with either corn or soybeans since 2005. Urban growth in Kokomo has also been a factor.
Hartman said he thinks the trend toward more corn acreage has hit a plateau in this area, but like everyone else who looked at the acreage numbers, he admitted it’s difficult to understand the full picture.
In Miami County, which lost upward of 10 percent of its population in the wake of Grissom Air Force Base being converted into Grissom Air Reserve Base, agriculture could also be taking over formerly populated areas.
Meanwhile, land used for agriculture is declining in Howard County and is more or less holding steady in Tipton County.
The trends which have turned so much of the Plains States’ prairie into cornfields can’t have the same effect in areas like north central Indiana, which have long been devoted to corn and soybean production.
“There’s so much acreage in this county devoted to agriculture that believe me, a few houses or even a factory is not going to change it much,” Tipton County Plan Commission director Steve Edson said.
In Tipton County, the most agriculture-based county in the state, farmers seem to have achieved equilibrium when it comes to corn.
For the past four years, the acreage planted with corn has barely changed in Tipton County, staying steady around 72,000 acres planted per year.
Jeff Wessel, Tipton County’s Purdue University extension educator, thinks farmers probably experimented a few years ago with planting corn crops in consecutive growing seasons, rather than alternating between corn and soybeans.
Eventually, declining yields from growing “corn after corn” probably convinced farmers it wasn’t the best idea, Wessel said.
In 2007, the year standards became law, Tipton County farmers planted 55 percent corn, 45 percent beans. Over the next two years, the pendulum swung back the other direction.
In normal years, the ratio between corn and soybeans is almost exactly 50/50, Wessel said. And for the past four years, farmers in Howard and Tipton counties have held to that ratio.
Tipton County might be more indicative of where the Corn Belt as a whole is headed.
Paul Marcellino, Purdue extension educator for Howard County, said a perfect storm of circumstances — including ethanol and drought —helped drive corn prices to the point where farmers began looking to cultivate marginal land.
That trend, which seems to have affected Miami County to a much greater extent than Howard or Tipton counties, was an economic boon to farmers “when they really needed it,” Marcellino said.
“I fully realize we’re going to make mistakes along the way, but unless you start doing something, nothing’s going to happen,” he said.
Without investment and incentives for agriculture and renewable fuels, it will be difficult to make progress on some of our biggest problems, he added.
“We’re a hungry nation for energy, and it’s going to come at some sort of cost, no matter how you produce it.”
The cost of $8 a bushel grain was too much for some ethanol and livestock producers and ultimately reduced demand for corn, said Tom Madru, grain manager at Kokomo Grain.
As of Friday, corn was around $4.10 a bushel, with prices declining as what could be a record Indiana harvest rolls into the elevators.
“It’s the old saying that nothing cures high prices like high prices,” Madru said. “A lot less people are willing to use $8 corn than $4 corn. As we get lower, it helps livestock operations, and it helps ethanol too … somewhere we’ll stop the bleeding, and demand will beef back up.”
Conservation acreage, 2005-2012 HOWARD 977 1,086 1,132 1,152 1,247 1,280 1,358 1,399 MIAMI 4,215 4,459 4,601 4,647 4,711 4,847 4,739 4,590 TIPTON 880 948 978 1,066 1,082 1,097 1,097 1,094 Land used for corn/soybean production, 2005-2012 HOWARD CORN 70,900 67,800 76,400 68,000 69,000 62,500 64,000 65,300 BEANS 72,100 74,500 63,300 71,600 70,500 65,600 67,000 64,300 TOTAL 143.0 142.3 139.7 139.6 139.5 128.1 131.0 129.6 MIAMI CORN 68,700 67,500 78,400 71,100 66,000 68,000 75,000 74,500 BEANS 79,300 78,000 69,100 75,700 80,300 85,400 83,300 83,000 TOTAL 148.0 145.5 147.5 146.7 146.3 153.4 158.5 157.5 TIPTON CORN 75,400 73,400 79,800 76,200 72,000 71,000 71,000 71,500 BEANS 71,400 75,600 64,800 72,600 81,300 70,100 71,000 71,200 TOTAL 146.8 149.0 144.6 148.8 153.3 141.1 142.0 142.7 Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service