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Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Al Mills, process operator at Green Plains Renewable Energy, counts yeast cells to make sure they are forming correctly. Green Plains is one of 13 completed ethanol plants in Indiana.

Farm, conservation groups dispute criticism of ethanol

Hoosier farmers contribute about 420 million bushels of corn to the ethanol industry.
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Green Plains’ Bluffton plant consumes 42 million bushels of corn annually.

Corn farmer Roger Hadley isn't giving credence to critics who say growers have ignored environmental concerns in a rush to supply the ethanol industry.

"Today, we are so much more aware of conservation than we were in the past," said Hadley, president of the Allen County Farm Bureau. "We have so much in place to make sure we are protecting the environment. For a report to say that we're not … it's just activists trying to get a message across, without a clue of where their food comes from."

An Associated Press investigation found that the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.

But hold on a minute. There are also thousands of acres that are being protected annually, say officials at the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Indianapolis.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program is a 10-15 year effort where farmers are paid a yearly rental payment in exchange for agreeing to remove "environmentally sensitive" land from agricultural production and plant species.

Jennifer Boyle Warner is executive director of the group. She said more than 207,000 acres of farmland is set aside in Indiana to guard against potential chemical runoff into rivers, streams or creeks.

Even so, cornfields harvested for ethanol is a concern.

"It's not alarming, but it is something that we are aware of," Boyle Warner said. "As the 10- to 15-year contracts have expired, we have seen farmers not renew them."

Rising commodity prices, though, may be a bigger reason for growers taking back their land, she added.

"The more corn and soybeans they harvest, the more money they make," Boyle Warner said. "Don't get me wrong, the CRP is still a very popular program, though."

Besides farmland, Conservation Reserve is credited with protecting water quality, wildlife habitat and other environmental concerns. The volunteer effort began in 1985.

That's nearly 30 years ago, which is proof that growers care, said Jim Stark, spokesman for Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc., which is based in Omaha, Neb., and has an ethanol plant in Bluffton. As of May there were 13 completed ethanol plants in Indiana, according to the State Department of Agriculture.

"It's been our impression that for a long, long time farmers have been stewards of the land they own," Stark said. "They know if they take care of the land, it will take care of them."

Green Plains' Bluffton operation consumes 42 million bushels of corn annually. Hoosier farmers contribute about 420 million bushels to the ethanol industry, with 4.9 billion nationwide.

Stark said the Bluffton plant benefits farmers – and consumers. The Bluffton plant is one of 13 ethanol plants in Indiana, according to the Indiana Department of Agriculture.

"About a third of the corn goes back to the growers, which they use for livestock feed," he said.

"Through our process, we separate the starch from the corn, so what's left is protein and fiber resulting in a better quality animal feed."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.