May 25, 2013

Plows cutting Midwest for cash crops

Farmers take notice as demand sustains high prices for corn and soybeans.

By DAVID PITT The Associated Press

BIGGSVILLE, Ill. - Clark Kelly plans to spend a lot of time on the links this spring. The Illinois farmer is plowing the Hend-Co-Hills Golf Course near tiny Biggsville into a cornfield.

click image to enlarge

Farmer Clark Kelly holds a golf ball he dug out of a fairway on the Hend-Co-Hills Golf Course, near Biggsville, Ill. Kelly purchased the course with plans to plow it into farmland.

The Associated Press

He's not the only one turning over soil in unlikely places. Across the Midwest, farmers are planting crops on almost any scrap of available land to take advantage of consistently high corn and soybean prices. Growers are knocking down old barns, tearing out fencerows and digging up land that had once been preserved for wildlife. Some are even suspected of tearing into pioneer cemeteries.

Kelly moved quickly when he heard the golf course was for sale near the Mississippi River, about 80 miles west of Peoria. With nearby land selling for $15,000 an acre, the 133-acre course with a clubhouse and campground was quite a find for $775,000. At the $15,000 rate, it would cost $1.96 million.

"That's why I wanted to get my paws on it so bad," said Kelly, who estimates he can plant at least 80 acres on the property.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects farmers to plant 174.4 million acres of corn and soybeans this year, a record high. More than 97 million acres will be devoted to corn -- the most since 1936 -- as demand keeps prices high.

Prices soared above $8 a bushel last summer and have hovered around $7 recently. For farmers with production costs around $5 a bushel, there's still room for a good profit.

The growing world population, widespread use of corn for ethanol and other factors have produced significantly higher demand for the crop, said Dan Steinkruger, executive director of Nebraska's Farm Service Agency.

Gordon Wassenaar, who grows corn and soybeans near Prairie City, Iowa, east of Des Moines, said he's removed fences and trees to squeeze in more crops.

"In all honesty, it's easier to get rid of the buildings and crop farm as it is to take care of the buildings and mow and do a lot of that stuff," Wassenaar said.

It's a similar situation for Bill Bayliss, who raises cattle and sheep and grows corn, soybeans and wheat on about 2,000 acres near West Mansfield, Ohio.

"We tore out fencerows and tore down one old barn, and we farm right over it," he said.

In Minnesota, state archaeologist Scott Anfinson is investigating whether farmers plowed up pioneer cemeteries. He will soon inspect an area of Grant County in west-central Minnesota, where a farmer hired an excavator to bulldoze trees and headstones near a pioneer cemetery dating to the late 1800s. Headstones were knocked down, and Anfinson will determine whether human remains or coffin parts have been turned up by a plow.

The farmer, who is in his 90s and farms with his son, could be charged with a felony if graves were disturbed. He will probably be required to replant trees and reset the headstones.

Anfinson said the family whose ancestors are buried in the plots is appalled. "Families don't forget about these things," he said.

He's investigating three other cases in which Minnesota farmers are suspected of "nibbling" at the edges of pioneer cemeteries.

Many farmers have pulled land out of the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to plant land that could easily erode or is ideal for grassland, wetlands and wildlife habitat. It's become increasingly lucrative to farm or rent such land to another farmer rather than collect the government payments.

In Iowa, the average cash rent for corn or soybean fields is about $270 per acre, said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agriculture economist. The average conservation payment in Iowa is $141 an acre.

Nationally, the number of acres enrolled in the program has slipped to about 27 million acres from a high of more than 36 million acres in 2007.

Losing that land worries conservationists, who see dwindling habitat as a threat to wildlife. It also raises environmental concerns about soil erosion and water quality, said Tom Fuller, Iowa coordinator for Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit organization focusing on wildlife conservation.

 

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