Work on the Farm Bill has been slowly chugging away, deadlines written in stone have come and been extended, now House and Senate negotiators are working out the differences in their respective versions of the bill. There’s already been an interesting development in regards to ethanol production. Corn is down, cellulose is up.

The corn ethanol industry could take a nearly 12 percent hit in their subsidies in the next farm bill, as farm state lawmakers shift their support to new cellulosic ethanol.
The farm bill agreement that key House and Senate negotiators reached Friday would extend and reduce the tax credit for conventional ethanol and the tariff on imported ethanol. It would also give new subsidies for cellulosic ethanol — derived from crop debris, woody plants and grasses.

Corn as a fuel has always had problems attached, energy needed to convert to ethanol plus the amount of fresh water used up in the process make it barely a break-even deal, add in rising food prices the consequences of intensive corn farming with its water-polluting use of nitrous fertilizers and the balance tilts against growing corn for ethanol. The backers of cellulosic fibre think they’ve found a better way.

There’s an expression of surprise, in the article linked above, by House Agricultural Chairman Collin Peterson on how fast the turn towards cellulose has come, but he had to know before the press conference at last January’s Pheasant Fest. Subsidies for cellulosic ethanol production were a big topic there, and obviously drew a lot of interest among the good-sized crowd of farmers and ag business people.

Unless that part of the bill has been drastically re-written, the subsidies for growing a cellulose producing plant like switchgrass will be part of the Conservation Reserve Program. That means the farmer still has to meet all the requirements of CRP, including preservation of wetlands and wildlife habitat in order to grow the plant.

Switching to cellulosic plants and waste materials in order to produce ethanol has the potential to alleviate several of the problems associated with using corn. It reduces the pressure on farmers to convert all available space to corn production, and should increase the amount of corn going into food production at the same time. if the conversion process is also, as claimed, more efficient than turning corn into ethanol, it’s a double winner.

Overall, the farm bill still supports growing corn for ethanol. But it does cut back some and recognizes that a better way could be emerging soon.