How Minnesota’s land is used

Last week’s visits to Minnesota ethanol refineries by the campaigns of Gov. Tim Walz and his likely GOP opponent Scott Jensen were a reminder that whatever their differences, Minnesota Democrats and Republicans are united in their commitment to turning corn into gasoline. According to a report by the University of Minnesota Extension, nearly one third of Minnesota’s corn crop was converted into ethanol last year.

This raises the question: How much of Minnesota’s total surface area is devoted to ethanol production? And how does that compare with the other major uses for land in the state?

Let’s start with the topline numbers: Minnesota farmers planted about 8.5 million acres of corn in 2021, according to the USDA. That works out to more than 15% of the state’s total surface area. Think of it this way: If you were to randomly toss a dart at Minnesota from orbit, you’d be almost three times as likely to hit a patch of corn as you would one of our famous 14,380 lakes.

The 31% of those corn acres devoted to ethanol works out to about 5% of Minnesota’s total surface area. That’s just a hair more than the acreage for all towns, cities and roads in the state. Just for ethanol. 

Corn aside, another 20% of our total acreage goes to other field crops, primarily soybeans. Lakes and rivers account for about 6% of the state’s area, with swamps and wetlands making up another 5%. Roughly 7% of the state is reserved for cows and other livestock as pasture and grazing land. State and federal lands, including parks, forests, wildlife management areas and the like, make up another 16%. Other forested land, most of it privately held, accounts for the remainder of the state.

Do note that these estimates come with some error bars. Most of the data comes from various state and USDA publications whose categories sometimes overlap each other: One publication may tally up all forested land, for instance, while another may look only at federally-owned forests. I’ve tried to put everything in buckets that make sense to a typical person, which in some cases requires making additions and subtractions and assigning remainders elsewhere.

Note also that the map above takes inspiration from a fantastic Bloomberg map of land use across the lower 48 from a few years back.

Regardless, it’s clear we devote a staggering amount of space to ethanol production. That production is propped up, on one side, by massive federal farm subsidies available to corn growers, and on the other by a federal mandate requiring gasoline producers to incorporate a set amount of ethanol into their products. 

All that government intervention is great for the farmers who directly benefit from it, as well as the additional economic activity those subsidies support. Ethanol runs cleaner than traditional gasoline, and it’s an affordable way to increase fuel octane, which tends to improve engine performance. It typically reduces gasoline prices at the pump, and using it makes us a little less reliant on authoritarian petro-states whose activities otherwise run contrary to American interests.

But in recent years a growing chorus of experts have begun questioning whether the trade-offs are worth it. Economists question whether the heavy subsidies that support ethanol production would be better spent elsewhere. Environmentalists worry that relying too much on ethanol will slow the transition to an all-electric vehicle fleet. And while corn ethanol is somewhat greener than traditional gasoline when measured directly at the tailpipe, recent studies have found that once you factor in all the inputs from farm to refinery the carbon footprint of ethanol is actually worse than that of regular gas.

Findings like that have led to the awakening of a bipartisan federal effort to roll back government support for ethanol. 

But if the Walz and Jensen campaigns are any indication, it’ll be some time before Minnesota signs on to it.

This article was first published on the Minnesota Reformer.

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