Scramble On to Deliver Record Corn Harvest

The ethanol boom that pushed up corn prices a few months ago may be leveling off. But in the nation's Corn Belt, farmers are just beginning to reap a record harvest. But some are worried the corn may spoil before all of it can delivered. Sarah McCammon of NET Radio in Nebraska reports.

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Could be that America's farmers have finally planted too much corn. The price of ethanol, which is made from corn, is declining. There's speculation the boom may be going bust. But you'd never know this driving down the highways of America's heartland. Farmers are gearing up for a record crop. The problem now is that they may have planted too much of it.

Sarah McCammon of NET Radio in Nebraska reports.

SARAH McCAMMON: Just few months ago, ethanol looked like the closest thing to liquid gold rural America had seen in years. Farmers watched eagerly as new facilities sprang up and corn prices nearly doubled from where they'd been a couple years before. So come planting time, they did what you might expect. Fields that once grew crops like soybeans were turned into acre upon acre of tall, golden corn. Now it's time to bring in what looks like the biggest corn crop ever; that has the industry scrambling to put out more storage bins and line up tracks and trains to get all of that corn where it needs to go.

Mr. TODD GERDES (Manager, Aurora Co-operative Elevator Company): We're nervous. If the weather turns bad, you know, we know that we're going to have a long harvest and it could be - it's going to be very much a challenge, you know, to keep grain in condition, what have you.

McCAMMON: That's Todd Gerdes, a manager at the Aurora Cooperative Elevator Company about an hour west of Lincoln. A robust man and well over six feet tall, Gerdes sits in the cab of the gray Chevy truck he uses to drive between the co-op's 40 or so facilities spread through Nebraska's Platte River Valley. Gerdes hopes for a smooth harvest for the thousands of farmers who rely on his company to store and market their grain, but he says things can go bad fast.

Mr. GERDES: The worst situation you could have is to have it - the grain go on the ground warm and then have moisture, you know, whether it be snow or rain or whatever the case, and then have fluctuating temperature throughout the winter, so that grain is warming up and cooling down all the time.

McCAMMON: That, he says, can cause grain to start spoiling within a matter of days. Grain managers will keep a close eye on the corn and try to move it quickly to permanent storage. But even in covered grain bins, Gerdes says there's always a risk some of it will go bad.

I'm standing inside of what's essentially a large, metal garage. It's a drop off point for trucks. About 450 trucks a day are expected to be here in the future, bringing in truckloads of corn to supply the ethanol industry. A year ago, this area was just a farm field and today it's a construction site - very busy, getting ready to bring in lots of corn and finish a grain elevator that should hold about a million bushels.

Even though the company has enough storage for more than 35 million bushels, Gerdes still expects to leave some 12 million bushels of corn on the ground this year.

Randy Gordon, a spokesman for the National Grain and Feed Association, says that happening all across the country.

Mr. RANDY GORDON (Vice President of Communications and Government Relations, National Grain and Feed Association): So there was some significant storage capacity added this year; obviously not enough, we don't think, to handle all of the increased storage needs that are going to emerge this year.

McCAMMON: That also means booming business for transporters like the Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, which expects a near record year moving ad products. Railroad officials are taking about 700 railcars out of storage this year and meeting with shippers to try to prevent backups and delays.

Back at the farmer's cooperative, Todd Gerdes says he's hoping for sunny, mild weather for the farmers bringing grain to his elevators this harvest, and he says for the occasional shower.

Mr. GERDES: Somewhere along the line, we're probably going to pray for some rain to keep them shut down for a day or two, so a chance to catch up.

McCAMMON: For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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