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Eight Forty-Eight

Ethanol Puts Strain on Immigrant Farming

Higher fares might have some commuters going behind the wheel. And more traffic on the roads could in turn affect farming. How you might ask? Well, demand for corn-based ethanol is growing. And it's also made farmland more valuable. This year, American farmers planted 14-million more acres of corn than they did last year. Some small immigrant farmers believe that's why they're having a hard time finding land to rent to grow fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Environment Report's Joel Grostephan has more.

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Jenny Chang doesn't want to change the government's policy on ethanol subsidies. She just wants some good land to raise her vegetables that she sells at the farmer's market. When planting time came around this year, she was still looking for a plot to rent. Chang is Hmong and she came from Laos more than 20 years ago with few job skills. For the last 7 years, she's made part of her income from farming on land she rents. In the past, finding land to rent wasn't that hard. But, Chang says through her daughter who interprets for her, this year was different:

CHANG: She said that this year, we couldn't find land, that's why we got stuck with this bad area. She's really sad.

With corn selling for double what it did last year, land values are going up. That means rent is going up. And the 300 Hmong farmers in this area are having a hard time finding land they can afford.

Kent Olson is an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. He says he thinks land scarcity is due to higher demand for ethanol:

OLSON: Your ethanol may have started the ball rolling, and created higher prices for corn, which pushed corn onto other land from other crops but that's pushed soybean prices up. So we are seeing higher rent from a couple different directions.

In theory, ethanol from corn is supposed to be good for the environment. It burns cleaner and means less reliance on foreign oil. But conventional corn farmers rely on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides. By the time their diesel-powered tractors plant the corn, combines harvest it, trucks transport it and ethanol distillery plants cook it, the energy gain from corn ethanol is marginal.

The Hmong farm differently. Most don't use fossil fuel-based fertilizers or pesticides. Instead, they do a lot of hand weeding, and put in long days. Jenny Chang fertilizes her tomatoes with chicken manure. Chang's daughter, who is also named Jenny Chang, says many older Hmong farmers are suspicious of chemicals:

CHANG: They like gardening the way they used to back in old Laos. They don't really know what insecticides and pesticides are, or how to use it so that's why they just don't use it. And a lot of people are afraid of cancer, so they just like to grow things organically because they eat it themselves.

And researchers say growing food this way seems more environmentally friendly than growing corn for ethanol.

Bill Moseley is a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. He studies the environmental effects of agriculture:

MOSELEY: Conventional corn production is displacing, in this particular case, a form of agriculture that is more environmentally sound in terms of it's using fewer fossil fuel imports, and it's producing crops for the local market, it's particularly ironic in this instance.

Government officials don't think increased corn production for ethanol is the problem. Perry Aasness works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency. When he learned the Hmong farmers were having a hard time finding land to rent, his agency helped them. But Aasness believes corn production for ethanol is NOT the cause of the land shortage:

AASNESS: Well, at least in Minnesota I think it's very, very minimal. I think the real issue that I have seen in Minnesota is that the Hmong farmers, the Hmong community is primarily based in the Twin Cities metro area. They have to go further out to get land -- a lot of it I think is just due to urban sprawl.

For many people in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the Hmong are the face of agriculture at farmers markets. But since no government agency keeps track of their numbers, it's hard to know if their tradition of raising crops on small plots of rented land is going well, or if ethanol and high corn prices are actually putting their small businesses in danger of.

For the Environment report, I'm Joel Grostephan.

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