Category Archives: Nebraska

Water Used to Produce Ethanol in Nebraska

Do you notice any similarities between the two maps below? The top map shows us the corn production regions in Nebraska in 2012 (a drought year), the dark green areas having the highest production.

The red stars represent the ethanol plants in Nebraska.

The second map from year 2005 shows us the regions of Nebraska which irrigate most heavily using groundwater withdrawals. As you can easily see, the regions which irrigate most heavily, are the same as those that were most productive for corn in 2012.

Nebraska ranks as the third highest corn producing state, and it is also the state that is gifted with the most underground Ogallala Aquifer water. Seed corn companies prefer to use Nebraska’s irrigated corn acres for reliability during drought years and ethanol plants also like the reliability of corn production that Nebraska’s irrigated acres can provide. In 2008, 3.6 million acres in Nebraska were irrigated using center-pivots, and that number has surely grown since then.

According to a 2011 article out of Columbia University: “In Ohio, because of sufficient rainfall, only 1% of the corn is irrigated while in Nebraska 72% of the crop is irrigated. It takes 19 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn in Region 5, 38 gallons in Region 6, and 865 gallons in Region 7. (Region 5 includes Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri; Region 6 includes Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; and Region 7 includes North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.) The Baker Institute estimates that producing the corn to meet the ethanol mandate for 2015 will require 2.9 trillion gallons of water.”

Nebraska ranks second of all the states in ethanol production. I was curious to find out what percent of Nebraska’s corn was turned into ethanol. The clearest and most recent numbers that I could find using a non-drought year belong to 2011.

To do the calculation, I used data provided by the National Corn Growers Association:

1,536,000,000 bushels corn was produced in 2011 in Nebraska
2.089 billion gallons of ethanol operating capacity* in 2011 in Nebraska
(if) 1 bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons ethanol
then the % of corn going to ethanol in the state of Nebraska in 2011
= 49 %

From the University of Nebraska’s website, the issue becomes is it worth it?

Life cycle analysis (LCA) of ethanol production from corn grain has yielded a net energy ratio of 1.2 to 1.45 (Liska et. al. 2009). This represents just a 20 to 45% positive energy balance when producing ethanol from corn. This number has been the criticism of corn ethanol because of the large amount of fossil energy used to produce ethanol.

Yes, I know, the ethanol industry would argue that today’s conversion factor is more efficient, however… irrigated corn requires higher energy inputs even if the price of the water is considered to be free. It is possible that the energy returned on irrigated corn converted to ethanol in Nebraska is negative or about 1:1.

Where is the outrage on that, I ask the Nebraskans who proudly protested the Keystone pipeline to protect the state’s water?

In conclusion, the majority of the corn produced in Nebraska is produced by using irrigation water. And, around half of the corn produced in Nebraska is being converted into ethanol. Given ethanol’s negligible energy return, it looks like a hamster on a wheel that gets nowhere, a frivolous thing to do with this precious fossil water.


*note that this number should be quite accurate because ethanol plants were operating at near 100% capacity in 2011 in Nebraska.

See previous post: Pivots and Loss of Habitat in Flyover-Country

Pivots and Loss of Habitat in Flyover-Country

The middle of this nation is referred to as flyover-country, which is appropriate because much of our population lives on the East or West coast and flies over this area to get to the other side.

The satellite map above is of an area not all that far from where I grew up, in Northeastern Nebraska, an area squarely embedded within this so-called flyover-country. It’s really close to where Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” was filmed, in the towns of Plainview and Stanton. (I spent many days in Stanton when I was growing up, because my grandmother lived there.) We saw the movie last weekend, by the way, and it is true to Alexander’s style, artistic genius portraying a sorry story about the pitiful human condition made even bleaker with his choice of black and white film. It was winter, of course. Winter scenery can make bleak bleaker, and Alexander uses every bleak tool that he can find for this film.

Payne portrays realism well. He included the center pivot a few times in the film, and he showed non-English speaking Hispanics changing a tire in the local filling station. There were many camera scenes so desolate that they took my breath away. You could see that there was no new investment going on in his chosen communities, outside of roads and cars and pickup trucks, which he portrayed as being of prime importance to the people living there — evident through their conversations. Oh, and lest I forget, he never left out the brain drain, either.

Main Street of Stanton, Nebraska (Wikimedia)

There are many satellite maps of regions in Nebraska which look similar to the one above, but this particular one (up top) is an area north of Highway 275, northeast of the town of Clearwater. This region also made the national news not too long ago because of the huge vintage car auction held in Pierce, Nebraska, which you probably remember.

Don’t you love that town’s name, Clearwater? There aren’t many people that live in Clearwater, or near it for that matter, but the center-pivots are the new life-form, populating the region and enhancing the growth of corn by pumping out the clear water from underground. The town had 419 people in the last census. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, its Hispanic population percentage increased from 0.26 percent to 11.5 percent.

If you’ve never looked at this region using Google satellite maps, I wish you would. Maybe you’ve seen how pivots have taken over as you’ve flown over. It seems like they are almost everywhere that they can be, by now. For those of us who never invested in Valmont, we’ve missed out on a great investment opportunity.

Along with population losses, rural areas such as this one in Nebraska have lost too much wildlife habitat and biodiversity. A couple of barometers for us are the monarch butterfly and the pheasant. According to Harvest Public Media, in Nebraska, wild pheasant concentrations have fallen 86 percent since their peak in the 1960s. As for the monarch, there are no longer milkweeds in the Midwest which are necessary for them to breed on, and so their population is falling dramatically. No longer will first graders in science classes be able to marvel at the story about the massive and mysterious annual monarch migration, like you and I did.

Yesterday, I was reading a twitter feed from the Renewable Fuels Association, because they were testifying to defend ethanol mandates by our government at a hearing discussing the new EPA proposal to cut back the mandate to levels more in line with the blend wall problem. The ethanol-industrial-complex representatives kept saying that the ethanol industry is providing new jobs for rural America.

From what I’m seeing, if anything, the opposite is true, as increased corn production is leading to larger and too-expensive farms making it difficult to begin farming. As farm depopulation continues, the small communities also depopulate and lose their goods and services so that remaining rural residents drive farther for off-farm jobs and groceries.

There is a new USDA report out about ethanol industry job growth. It revealed that the new jobs created, which are negligible in number, are primarily for truck drivers and natural gas pipeline workers (to get the gas piped to the distillation plants and to get the corn hauled to the ethanol plants). Sadly, too, the USDA reports that net job growth in nonmetro areas since 2011 have been near zero, and that between 2010 and 2012, the rural areas have, for the first time ever, experienced a net population loss.

As for the population growth of pivots in the state of Nebraska, the most recent data that I can find out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, tells us that in 2008, there were 55,000 center pivots in the state, which irrigate about 6.7 million acres, and that center pivot irrigation increased by 5 percent between 2003 and 2008. It would be safe to assume that number went up a lot since 2008, as a result of high corn prices caused by the ethanol mandate. I can tell you that the farm next to my own family farm put one in exactly a year ago in our dryland corn farming county of Nebraska. I guess it was a knee jerk reaction to the drought of 2012, but doing so will punish those of us nearby when we have to dig our own general purpose water wells deeper.

The subject of irrigating corn for use as ethanol is a very interesting one, and important, too, as everyone tends to pretend it’s a rational thing to do in flyover-country.

Watch this space next week for more on this subject.

Agricultural Manufactured Exports from Nebraska Increased 15 Percent Last Quarter

This blip up in manufactured agricultural-related exports out of Nebraska during the second quarter of this year is rather interesting.

From the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, a report by Nathan Kauffman.

After holding relatively steady for the past couple of years, exports of Nebraska’s manufactured goods climbed 15 percent, reaching a value of $1.7 billion. Much of this growth was driven by demand for agricultural products. A surge in shipments of processed meat products to Japan and China was accompanied by a jump in orders of agricultural and construction machinery bound for China.

Is this a trend or an anomaly?


Observations While Driving Across Nebraska

Photo by Phillip Capper @Flickr CC

In late August, I did the infamous drive across Nebraska on I-80 from Colorado to Eastern Nebraska. Some call the road I-GO-80, and the trucks indeed used to, making those of us in small cars feel threatened, but trucks have slowed down these recent years in the interest of fuel economy. If ever there was a stretch of road that could serve as the 1978 trucker movie song “Convoy” this would be it, and I’ve been trapped in convoys on I-80 in Nebraska before. Today, trucks in these parts continue to dominate the road, and on this particular trip, at one point in West-Central Nebraska, I estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the vehicles on the interstate were semis.

The drive across Nebraska on I-80 is also what the average U.S. citizen knows of Nebraska, and they’re never shy about telling you “Oh, I just drove I-80 and was through Nebraska. It’s boring. It’s really flat….” Well, yes, I-80 through Nebraska IS flat, because it follows the wide and shallow Platte River valley, just as all river valleys are flat. Geographically, Nebraska is richly diverse with very different biomes in each corner of the state. So many times I’ve had to explain this to people.

Each time I do this drive to return to my roots in Eastern Nebraska, I try to make observations about what has changed, and I try to observe how quickly those changes are occurring.

On this road trip, I kept a notepad and pen next to me and jotted down words like “wind, sunflowers, onion truck, tumbleweeds, round bales, power lines, 98 degrees F, windy, pivots, large pick-up trucks, Behlen, Kent Feeds, prolife bumper stickers, more wind, more sunflowers, more pivots, more pick-ups, more power lines,” and the like.

It was remarkably green everywhere across the state, especially as compared to the drought conditions of last summer. The rivers were extra-high, too, compared to many years in late summer when they get very low or dry up from irrigation demands. The crops looked outstanding, both the irrigated ones, as well as the crops in the dryland farm belt that I hail from. This year’s main harvest concern is the ability to mature the crops before the first frost, as they got planted late due to wet weather, not only here, but in a wide swath across the corn belt.

The subject that I spent a lot of time thinking about on this trip was that of the ongoing changes in demographics and the depopulation that is occurring in rural Nebraska and across the rural areas of the Midwest. I tried to come up with the best guess as to how this trend will play out in, let’s say 50, 100, or 200 years.

With the coming age of robotic farming, will these regions continue to depopulate as farms trend yet larger? Or, might this century-long depopulation trend be reversed with small and energy independent farms of the future, along with revitalized small rural communities, as a new generation of farmers replaces the old ones while searching for security, independence, and missing meaning in their lives? Might they bring with them a societal change, a new holistic value system in food production? As the populous southwestern states become more and more water stressed, might urban centers grow larger in Nebraska due to its abundant aquifer water resource? Or, will the Popper’s predictions of a buffalo commons come true at last if a failing economy or other resource constraints end policy support of today’s over-produced commodity crops?

The extreme weather of this driving day in late-August reminded me of the inhospitable climate that the Midwest is for people. It felt like Hades as I walked the dog at a windy rest stop near North Platte with the car thermometer reading 98 degrees and the wind at 40 miles per hour. Extremes in weather occur both in winter and in summer in much of our crop producing heartland. The heat comes with humidity and wind, the cold is a damp cold, and snow comes with wind, too, blowing it into high drifts. The corn loves this day’s weather, however, and so do the insects. “But I’m not corn,” my Mother-in-law used to say. She grew up in tiny Oakland, Nebraska and eventually settled in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is a weather Shangri-La by most Nebraskan’s standards.

Only the tough people stay in corn country, not the softies, and not the dreamers, like myself. We eventually vote with our feet. As long as other people can be relied upon to produce our food and get it to our nearest grocery store, given our druthers, the rest of us tend to opt for more moderate climates in crowded coastal, desert, or mountainous regions.

After driving through town after town in which I marveled at the quietness, the emptiness, the ghosts of their former selves, I stopped in the town of North Bend to grab a shot of main street on a Sunday afternoon. Not much was happen’n.

Edward Hopper-esque scene of North Bend, Nebraska

Back in Willa Cather’s day, these small Nebraska towns were vibrant. The best theater troops and opera in the country passed through, traveling by rail, to entertain the members of these newly formed communities that were so rooted in a hope for the future. Now the rail spurs are gone and the old opera houses have long been abandoned.

Today, instead, we have very aged rural communities. Growth, if any is occurring at all, is in the nursing homes and hospitals.

Farmers that are 60, 70 and 80 years old are reluctant to retire and pass their land on to the next generation, making it about the most difficult business that there is to transition. Finally, when a farm does sell, sometimes for the first time in two or three generations, the old farm place and shelter-belt gets bulldozed and burned, to make way for more corn acres. This very thing just happened to the long standing place next door to my own family’s farm just two months ago. The buyer was a neighbor who is trying to expand his operation.

Because of these currently high priced land values, it is difficult for the younger generation to begin farming unless they are given land. The next generation also is reluctant to settle in an area that lacks the latest in quality health care, schools, internet and cell phone service, reliable roads and electricity, postal service, quality grocery stores, and like-minded community members for friendship. It is necessary for taxpayers and urban centers to help subsidize needed services, roads, and utility upgrades in the rural areas.

Small town services like grocers and hardware stores left many years ago, replaced by Walmart’s and Orscheln’s in hub towns sometimes 60 miles away from what is now nowhere. A significant number of people who are residing in these rural areas commute to jobs that are also often an hour or more away. Who’d have thought that my Mother-in-law’s birthplace of Oakland would eventually become a bedroom community for Omaha, over an hour’s drive away? As the millennial generation desires walkable urban communities in which to live, our rural areas are requiring ever-greater commutes for work, schools, goods, and services.

Something’s gotta give and it’s gonna.

Currently the movie producer, Alexander Payne, of “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” fame, who hails from Omaha, has a new movie out titled “Nebraska”. Payne is a brilliant film editor and producer, and because everybody knows everybody else in the small state of Nebraska, somewhere in my files I’m proud to say that I have a photo of myself taken with him.

Payne has the ability to capture the spirit of a place and people dwelling in this region of the country by way of painful truth, the likes of which I’ve only seen elsewhere from the genius storyteller, Garrison Keilor. Keilor also knows how to exhibit the qualities of a Midwesterner by using the true-to-life conflicting emotions of funny and sad to an audience. His portrayals of irony are so real, that some rural people listen to him and simply don’t even get it.

I’ve watched the reviews and movie trailers of Payne’s movie “Nebraska”. One British viewer said, “It’s like everything is in the rear view mirror. There’s nothing ahead.” No, the comment wasn’t about the state of Nebraska, but it refers to the seasoned life of the movie’s main character, played by Bruce Dern. One could certainly wonder whether the quote might pertain to these little rural Nebraska towns, too.

In my own life, Nebraska is truly in the rear view mirror. These days I return to Colorado following my visits. And I’ve got the bug juice on my windshield to prove that I’ve been there. But, perhaps, less bug and butterfly juice than there used to be, another observation that I was contemplating on this latest trip back home.