COBDEN — For all its scenic splendor in a mostly pancake-flat state, southern Illinois can be a hassle for farmers. The soil isn't as fertile as up north, and the hilly terrain lends itself to erosion.
That's why so many farmers, like others across the Corn Belt, set aside much of their land years ago to a federal program that paid them to keep it idle in the spirit of conservation. At a time when corn prices were flagging, it simply made sense, giving farmers guaranteed income that helped them cover property taxes and other farm costs.
But that has changed with America's increasing demand for ethanol, the fuel additive that since 2010 has been the nation's top use for corn. The government's push for green energy has changed both the economics and the land of southern Illinois. Farmers are planting more corn in this area known as "Little Egypt" for its place between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the town of Cairo on the state's southernmost tip.
In the 10 southern Illinois counties that lost the most conservation land since 2006, the disappearance amounts to more than 43,000 acres, a swath bigger than St. Louis.
The pullback from the Conservation Reserve Program has paid off for farmers like Bill Bass, who is unapologetic about what he calls his "unbelievable, astronomical" yields of corn and soybeans on hundreds of acres he farms. Much of it is property that Bass sharecrops with retired farmer Collin Boyd, who pulled it out of conservation in recent years and threw it back into production.
Neighbors in Union County, along the Mississippi, have done the same, returning nearly 4,200 acres of conservation land to farmland since 2006, the year before the ethanol mandate passed. Corn planting is up 33 percent over that period in a region that's always been agriculturally eclectic, home to traditional cash crops, peach and apple orchards, vineyards and pumpkin farms.
"The CRP saved a lot of people, and it had its place," said Bass, 63. He asked, "Why shouldn't the American farmer have more money in his pockets? Am I missing something?"
It is impossible to specify how much ethanol accounts for the spike in corn prices — and how much those prices led to the Midwest land changes — as farmers enrolled in the conservation program weigh whether to stick with it, tying that property up for another decade or perhaps longer.
In Wayne County, nearly 7,700 acres have been pulled out of the conservation program since 2006, and corn planting there has increased 60 percent over the same period. About 300 of those acres belong to Walt Townsend, leaving him with more than 100 still in conservation. But by 2016, he expects just 35 or so will remain in CRP.
To the northwest, in Randolph County, David Uchtmann doesn't like the trend.
Two years from retiring, the 63-year-old grower has 150 acres he plans to keep in conservation. He believes that despite the economic incentive to remove land from the program, doing so "could make us all collectively thought of as money-hungry."
"I think short-term greed rather than long-term commitment is associated with these decisions," he said. "I'm very much an outdoors person, and there's not enough wildlife. ... If I'm a maverick or a renegade, I'll have to apologize. But there's just too many pocketbook decisions being made."