November 26, 2022

What is the future of Iowa farming, ethanol?

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a two week series on changes to Iowa farming.

The ownership and usage of agricultural land is changing in America, and Iowa is not immune.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are also changing the future of the ethanol industry.

The Warren Cultural Center in Greenfield hosted four guest panelists Thursday, Oct. 20 to discuss the Farm Bill as a part of their successful community speakers series. Both of these topics were brought up in the discussion.

The farm bill is a package of legislation passed every five years that has a big impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown and what kinds of foods are grown. The bills also include subsidies or payments to farmers that meet certain criteria. Each farm bill has a unique title. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 expires in 2023.

The moderator, John Norris, was the former chief of staff for USDA, U.S. minister-counselor for agriculture to UN Rome-based agencies including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program.

“No farm policy is going to work forever,” Norris said. “I think it’s time we start looking at is that the right policy today?”

Norris said, since the 1970s, we lost more than 70% of farmers. “The top 1% of farmers get 25% of farm payments,” he said. “The top 10% of farmers get over 75% of all farm payments, yet we see devastation of rural Iowa, rural America and the farming community.”

The Iowa Legislature established a program to review farmland ownership and tenure in Iowa every five years beginning in 1982. The most recent survey, conducted in 2017, revealed 53% of farmland is leased, with the majority of farmland leases being cash rental arrangements.

“I don’t think this gets talked about enough,” said speaker JD Scholten of Sioux City. “Who is going to own our farmland?” Scholten is an independent farmer advocate.

“Iowa State University had a study that said in the next 20 years, because the average age of a farmer is north of 58 years old, in the next 20 years, we’re going to have one of the largest land transfers in our history,” Scholten said. “So who’s going to own it?”

The 2017 survey showed 60% of farmland owned by people 65 years or older and 35 percent owned by people 75 or older.

Panelist and Greenfield farmer Randy Caviness said his great-grandfather purchased their farm in 1917 and they still have the century farm today. “My son’s got it, I passed it to him,” Caviness said. “I told my son, you know you’re the last generation that’s going to be a family farmer. It’s sad. We operate about 4,000 acres. Moving through the 80s, we fought like the devil to stay in business.”

Caviness has been active in the agriculture community, having been involved in Adair County and State Farm Bureau volunteer leadership service, former director of Soil Conservation Districts of Iowa, ISU Extension Council service and county wind energy development group.

“What has land become?” Caviness said. “It’s become our asset better than gold. It’ll always produce something; there’s always income. You don’t have to guard it. Nobody’s going to steal it. It’s a hard asset of value.”

Scholten said this issue needs to be addressed in the next farm bill. “When land’s up for auction, who can afford it? Is it the farmer down the road or is it Wall Street backed corporate entities? Then you don’t even know if there’s foreign money that’s behind some of that stuff,” he said. “Foreign entities own enough farm land in the U.S. that’s larger than the size of Ohio and it’s rapidly growing.”

As of 2017, more than half of Iowa farmland is owned by someone who does not farm, of which 34% is owned by owners with no farming experience, and the remaining 24% is owned by retired farmers.

“We’re on track, I fear, that very few farmers and very little land in rural Iowa is actually owned by people who live in rural Iowa and operate that land,” Norris said.

Future of ethanol

As the nation’s largest producer of ethanol, Iowa is preparing to face a total agricultural overhaul as EVs enter the market.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association reports 57% of Iowa corn is used to make ethanol - nearly 30% of all U.S. ethanol. Iowa’s ethanol industry can produce more than 4.1 billion gallons annually, using more than 1.3 billion bushels of corn. That’s nearly double Nebraska - the second highest producer.

Caviness said his great-grandfather never made the switch from horses to tractors in the early 1900s. “Our biggest crop at the time was oats,” Caviness said. “He told my grandfather, ‘If we get rid of the horses, what are we going to feed the oats to?’”

“Ethanol is kind of like oats today,” said panelist Francis Thicke of Fairfield. “Electric vehicles are coming and the industry is not going to admit it.” Thicke is a dairy farmer, member of the Farmers Union, has a Ph.D. in soil fertility and worked in the USDA Extension in soil science.

Thicke said when he asked the Iowa ethanol industry about the changes coming with electric vehicles, they said electric cars didn’t work in the 1970s and they won’t work today.

“There’s a real tendency to fight it and not want to see the reality - it’s a kind of willful ignorance,” Thicke said. “We have to look at what we’re going to do with half of our corn in five years when probably we’re not going to be able to sell ethanol.”

The White House has a goal of 100% electric light-duty vehicles by 2027 and all vehicles by 2035. And California, the country’s largest auto market, has approved a plan to phase out new gas cars by 2035 — a move that will likely lead other to states to follow.

The transition to electric vehicles also has support from the auto industry. General Motors announced it would phase out gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

Caviness said he is unsure if the switch will be able to be made that quickly. “It’s going to be quite a shift if they do,” he said. “Obviously we know that ethanol cleans up the air; it does burn cleaner.”

According to the U.S. Department of energy, nearly 97% of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol, typically E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline), to oxygenate the fuel and reduce air pollution.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer said ethanol also displaces known carcinogens and harmful aromatic pollutants in gasoline such as benzene, toluene and xylene. These toxic aromatics, make up as much as 39% of the unleaded gasoline that comes out of the pump.

Thicke said there are a lot of factors not included in that data. “The coal used at the plant to make the ethanol, the diesel fuel and all the whole fertilizer and everything used to grow the corn, they often aren’t putting that into the equation of clean fuel,” he said. “People are starting to realize that ethanol is not that great of a thing. A lot of the drawbacks, for example, USDA data says for every gallon of ethanol we produce from corn, we lose a gallon of soil due to erosion. That’s never put into the equation. For every acre of corn used to make ethanol, we lose 30 pounds of nitrogen to our water resources. Those things are not put into the equation, and I think that’s a real problem.”

Research funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy, found ethanol is likely at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline due to emissions resulting from land use changes to grow corn, along with processing and combustion.

“We’re at 60% of the electricity generated in Iowa is wind,” Thicke said. “Once we start to power the cars with wind and solar, that’s going to change things too.”

While Caviness agreed he sees where the nation is headed, he’s still cautious about how fast we get there. “We all want to see America prosper,” he said. “How we get there – there’s a lot of challenges.”

Cheyenne Roche


Originally from Wisconsin, Cheyenne has a journalism and political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a passion for reading and learning. She lives in Creston with her husband and their two little dogs.