The New York Times

Only a few years ago, ethanol was just a line in a farm-state politician’s stump speech, something that went down well with the locals but didn’t mean much to anyone else. Now, of course, ethanol is widely touted, and, within reason, rightly so – as an important part of America’s search for energy independence and greener fuels. One day, we may be using cellulosic ethanol, the kind derived from grasses. For now, the ethanol boom is all about corn. And the real question is whether that will finally kill American farming as we know it.

Farmers in the corn belt have watched the coming of the ethanol boom with an ill-concealed excitement. They’ve invested in small-town processing plants, and they’ve happily seen the price of corn fluctuate steadily upward. But land prices have also moved steadily upward. Land set aside for conservation is being put back into production. And a bidding war has broken out over acreage, a war that farmers are sure to lose to speculative investors.

In short, the ethanol boom is accelerating the inequity in the rural landscape. The high price of corn, and the prospect of continued huge demand, doesn’t benefit everyone equally. It gives bigger, richer farmers and outside investors the ability to outcompete their smaller neighbors. It cuts young farmers hoping to get a start out of the equation entirely. It reduces diversity in crops and in farm size.

For the past 75 years, America’s system of farm subsidies has unfortunately driven farming toward such concentration, and there’s no sign that the next farm bill will change that. The difference this time is that American farming is poised on the brink of true industrialization, creating a landscape driven by energy production and what is now called “biorefining”. What we may be witnessing is the beginning of the tragic moment in which the ownership of America’s farmland passes from the farmer to the industrial giants of energy and agricultural production.

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