Over the last several weeks, there has been a lot of talk in the press regarding a recent report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory about the capacity for biomass in the United States. I was intrigued by the references in these articles to the use of hay to produce ethanol rather than corn. I've always viewed using corn to produce ethanol as something akin to burning the best topsoil -- wasteful and distasteful. But you never till the ground for hay, you don't have to use pesticides or fertilizer for hay, growing hay is easy on the soil, and some very marginal farmland can grow hay. If the scientists in the field can figure out how to produce more energy from ethanol from hay than is used in its production, then maybe I should set aside my objections and take another look at ethanol's virtues.
One astounding chart in the report gives average U.S. corn crop yields over time (see page 37, numbered page 28). For 40 years prior to World War II, average corn crop yields were a steady 20 to 30 bushels per acre. However, since that time, corn crop yields have grown quickly to over 160 bushels per acre. From the year 2000 to 2003 alone, corn crop yields jumped by about 30 bushels per acre. Amazing! I can remember 80 to 100 bushels per acre being a bumper crop and I'm very young.
Take that, Malthus!