It's becoming an increasingly common sight in Bartholomew County — livestock farmers hauling trailers loaded with hay to feed their stock.
Normally, those farmers would rely on corn they've grown, pasturage, their own hay and corn-based feed to care for their stock. But this year has been far from normal.
The drought has rendered a significant portion of this year's corn crop nearly worthless. Some farmers plan to simply plow the plants under, as the harvest won't even pay for the fuel to run a combine.
In the face of that, livestock farmers are seeing the price of feed skyrocketing as supplies of corn dwindle.
Now livestock farmers are asking that the Environmental Protection Agency waive production requirements for corn-based ethanol.
One-third of House members have also signed onto a letter urging EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to relax ethanol production targets in light of corn supply concerns and spiking prices.
The EPA says it is working with the Agriculture Department and is keeping a close eye on crop estimates and how they might relate to the biofuel program. But so far, the Obama administration, citing ample ethanol supplies, sees no need for a waiver.
"If not now, when?" Randy Spronk, a Minnesota pork farmer, said of the EPA's authority to defer the ethanol production requirement when it threatens to severely harm the economy of a state or region. "Everyone should feel the pain of rationing."
Spronk, who is president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council, said livestock producers will have to reduce their herds and flocks because feed is becoming scarce and too expensive. Cattlemen and chicken farmers have the same concern.
"We do support the American ethanol industry," said Kristina Butts, executive director of legislative affairs at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "All we are asking for is that competition for that bushel of corn be on a level playing field."
The government, she said, "is picking the ethanol industry to be the winner to get that bushel of corn."
The Renewable Fuel Standard, enacted in 2005 and then significantly expanded in 2007, requires that 13.2 billion gallons of corn starch-derived biofuel be produced in 2012. The intent was to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change and dependence on foreign oil.
One consequence is that 40 percent of the nation's corn crop now goes to ethanol producers, compared with 36 percent for feed. The rest is divided between processed food and exports. Critics say ethanol also is a big factor in the price of a bushel of corn going from an average $2.15 a bushel in the 1997-2006 period to more than $8 today.
With half the nation's corn crop now in poor condition, "relief from the Renewable Fuel Standard is extremely urgent because another short corn crop would be devastating to the animal agriculture industry, food manufacturers, food service providers, as well as consumers," 156 House members wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in urging her to issue a waiver. Twenty-five senators, about evenly divided between the two parties, wrote a similar letter to Jackson this week.
In this extraordinary weather year, relaxing the mandate would be a reasonable move. Livestock farmers are in a precarious position in terms of feed. And as feed costs go up, ultimately so will the cost of the food everyday Hoosiers put on their table.
We are not asking that the ethanol share be permanently set aside. That's a debate for another time.
But for now, temporary relief would help struggling Hoosier livestock farmers.
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