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Ohio Farmers Consider Food-Fuel Options

At the grocery store and at the gas station, consumers are paying more this year for food and fuel. As a result, farmers in Ohio and across the United States face a critical financial choice as another growing season approaches. At issue: whether they should produce food or energy. W-O-S-U's Tom Borgerding reports.

On his Henry County farm in northwest Ohio, Ed Gobrogge electronically monitors prices for corn and soybeans. His decision on how much of each crop to plant hinges in part on grain futures markets.

"We've got about a thousand acres total. About 400 corn, 400 beans, a hundred wheat and about 150 or 200 for hay." Says Gobrogge. Gobrogge says both beans and corn can be used either for food or fuel production. Demand for both commodities has spiked in recent years as consumers, companies, and even local governments have begun to look for alternatives to oil and gasoline. Gobrogge says the corn-based ethanol and soy-based bio-diesel have become more economically practical as gas prices hover around 3-dollars per gallon or more. After looking at futures prices and weighing the costs of planting each crop, Gobrogge says he'll have a bigger field of beans this year.

"Well bean prices are up so we're swinging back that way a little bit more this year. Last year we were about two-to-one on corn, with the corn prices." Says Gobrogge. When Gobrogge sells his beans and corn they can be used either for food or fuel production. But, a bushel of corn or beans used for ethanol or diesel means it can no longer be used for corn syrup, corn flakes or soy-based cooking spray. With less food production often comes higher prices at the grocery store. Ohio Farmers Union spokesman Joe Logan says Gobrogge and many other farmers understand the concern people have about excalating food prices and even the long-term availability of food items.

"Well farmers are very accustomed to being food producers. They are only very recently accustomed to beginning to think about themselves as energy producers. But, frankly its an idea that's had a profound impact on their revenues, on their revenue streams, and so I think farmers are looking very positively upon the tension that has occurred in the marketplace and the importance of the products they produce for both food and fuel." Says Logan.

In Ridgeville Corners, in northwest Ohio, Brad Miller, and two other employees operate a small company called "The Fuel Man." Miller promotes renewable energy sources, including ethanol. As part of his sales pitch to farmers in Ohio, Miller cites research from an Oakland California Institute that estimates the U-S could greatly reduce its dependence on gasoline if it would only plant more corn and other so-called bio-mass plants on land now designated for conservation or used for export.

"At our current technology its estimated that we need between 60,000,000 and 100,000,000 acres to replace gasoline completely. Now the U.S has over 100,000,000 acres that's being used for export purposes and in invloved in the C-R-P program.(q)'And how much acreage would be needed to replace gasoline completely?'Between 60,000,000 to 114,000,000. So we can get about 78,000,000,000 gallons of fuel per year, right now from just C-R-P lands alone if we would use these lands for that." Says Miller.

Miller acknowledges that putting millions of acres of conservation land into crop production is controversial and would take a change in federal farm policy. But, more corn fields are only one option. He says other fiber-rich plants could also be used to boost ethanol production.

"One of the most oddball ones that people laugh when I tell them is the common cattail that grows in your ditch. That actually is extremely, extremely,good thing to get ethanol from. Another one would be Jerusalem Artichokes. Jerusalem Artichokes are a very hardy crop, they're considered a weed and they can turn into a weed if you don't cultivate them properly. But yeah, you can get alot of fuel from something like that." Says Miller.

Miler says if demand for both food and fuel keeps growing, then more farmers will turn to those cattails, Jerusalem artichokes and what he calls other "oddball crops."

Tom Borgerding