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Last Tuesday President Donald Trump made a campaign trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa. There he told a very excited crowd his administration would be backing corn farmers and ethanol.
The President leaned into the mic and gave corn farmers a little insider news they’ve been clamoring to hear since U.S. EPA pronounced gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol would be ok to use in all cars made since 2001, “We are a little bit early. I shouldn’t say it now, but we are going with E15 year-round.”
Mr. Trump is a little early. Today E15 can be used about 9 months out of the year in much of the nation. During those other three months, the summer months, it has been prohibited. U.S. EPA will need to write some rules about how to make the year-round use happen. Those will need to be approved, and clearly the oil industry will mount court challenges.
If all goes well more corn will be used to make ethanol for E15, but it won’t make a difference in the balance sheets for corn says University of Illinois Agricultural Economist Scott Irwin, “Not for this year and I am confident not for next year.”
So the E15 announcement, while a long run win for corn ethanol, rings a little hollow. The Administration’s other big farm country biofuels problem is EPA’s use of the Small Refinery Exemptions or SRE. The good news here, says Illinois’ Irwin, is that ethanol usage has been holding strong despite EPA letting some refineries out of the mandate to produce gasoline blended with a home grown fuel like ethanol made from corn.
However, there is a problem with oil pressed from soybeans to make biodiesel says Irwin, “And the total amount of biodiesel, because of the Small Refinery Exemptions, has probably gone down at least 10 percent. So, there has been real demand destruction from the Small Refinery Exemptions, but it is in biodiesel and not ethanol.”
US EPA has through November to announce its final decisions related to the volume of biofuels it will require in the nation’s gasoline supply in 2019. It may or may not include some guidance on how it expects to use the Small Refinery Exemptions going forward. So far, it has said it will make no comment on that point.
President Trump at his Council Bluffs, Iowa rally Tuesday is expected to announce a waiver to allow year-round use of gasoline blended with 15% ethanol (E15). Todd Gleason reports it may make little difference in how much corn is used to make ethanol.
The numbers look bad for Illinois grain farmers next year.
That’s the only conclusion Gary Schnitkey can draw when he puts the costs up against the incomes for corn and soybeans in 2019. Schnitkey, an ag economist at the Univesity of Illinois, says fuel and fertilizer costs are expected to go up. Prices aren’t and that’s the dismal part says Schnitkey, "Probably the one thing that has changed relative to recent years is that corn is expected to be more profitable than soybeans. Again, that is largely due to our use of $3.60 for a 2019 corn price and $8.50 for soybeans. This switches the profitability around. That’s driven by trade concerns, particularly with China and what that has done to commodity prices."
Here’s an example of the bottom line for next year’s budget. A northern Illinois farmer might expect to have $174 to split between the farmer and the landowner for corn and $143 for soybeans. This return is considerably below the cost of cash rent and roughly, says Schnitkey, near the 2005 returns.