Still, the outlook for renewable fuel -- especially ethanol -- appears to be bright. And with corn prices soaring, analysts are predicting a huge shift in acreage this spring.
Some agricultural groups, including the Iowa Farm Bureau, claim the logical place to grow more corn is on land currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. But CRP proponents -- especially hunters -- are worried about a decline in wildlife habitat. This week, Congressional leaders outlined their plans to balance demand for corn and conservation.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D – Minnesota: "There are people talking about pulling CRP acres out of conservation and putting them into production. There's only 5 to 6 million CRP acres out there that can be pulled out… and I'm not inclined to do this."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D – Iowa: "We have lands that are as flat as this table that we can't stop from coming out of CRP. We have to stop the highly erodible land from coming out of conservation."
Both men consider themselves staunch defenders of CRP and pledged to balance the demands of conservation and renewable energy.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D – Iowa: "Our challenge is to provide transition payments for farmers who can grow energy crops that are by their very nature conserving crops. And I'm talking specifically about switchgrass."
Harkin and Peterson's pro-conservation stance dominated much of the discussion. But when talk shifted to more general aspects of the 2007 farm bill, both men took issue with an upcoming proposal from USDA Secretary Mike Johanns that may overhaul the structure of farm payments. The changes could include a shift in funds from traditional commodities to more non-traditional crops and potential alterations to world trade agreements.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D – Minnesota: "I don't know who he was listening to but we had eleven hearings and it was like he was on a different planet because he came back with stuff we've never heard before."
Harkin also warned that any WTO agreement by the Bush Administration must meet certain criteria for support on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D – Iowa: "If, for example, the proposal says we will only do what the European community says we will do then it's dead on arrival."