Ethanol Prompts Largest Corn Planting in More Than 60 Years

Inspired by the fuel ethanol boom, U.S. farmers intend to plant the largest amount of land to corn in 63 years -- 90.454 million acres -- the government said on Friday, potentially enough to produce a record 12.5 billion-bushel crop.

The high acreage figure could calm fears that renewable fuels will steal grain needed for food and feed.

Growers surveyed told the Agriculture Department they will cut back on soybeans in the Midwest and on cotton and rice in the South to sow more corn.

Soybean plantings are projected at 67.140 million acres, the smallest area since 1996, while upland cotton would be the smallest since 1989 at 11.855 million acres. Rice, at 2.64 million acres, would have the smallest seeded area since 1987.

If farmers follow through on plans to plant over 90 million acres of corn this spring, the crop could total 12.5 billion bushels this fall -- 700 million bushels more than the 2004 record, assuming normal weather and yields, for a larger supply than expected for livestock feeders, exporters, foodmakers and ethanol distillers.

"The weather is going to drive it all," said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, pointing to the uncertainties of the growing season.

Ethanol distillers are expected to use 3.2 billion bushels of this year's corn crop, up 1 billion bushels from their share of the 2006 crop. Explosive growth in the industry has pushed corn prices to near-record levels, with cash market prices nearly doubling since last fall.

USDA forecasts only a modest rise in food prices this year, but said, "with high corn prices increasing feed costs, beef and poultry price increases should begin to accelerate in 2007."

USDA's figures are based on a survey of 86,000 growers during the first two weeks of March. The "prospective plantings" report is the first broad-scale measurement of planting intentions this year.

Farmers say they will plant 60.3 million acres of wheat, up 5% from 2006.