Rock Katschnig, a fourth-generation farmer from Prophetstown, Ill., talks about growing corn to produce ethanol and the conservation measures that he uses on his acres to preserve the soil and the farms for the future generations.
Rock Katschnig, a fourth-generation farmer from Prophetstown, Ill., talks about growing corn to produce ethanol and the conservation measures that he uses on his acres to preserve the soil and the farms for the future generations.

HOOPPOLE, Ill. — Rock Katschnig chuckles when he’s reminded of that famous exchange in Atkinson on Aug. 17, 2011.

Katschnig, called on by President Barack Obama to ask the first audience question, asked the president not to impose more rules and regulations on farmers.

“Don’t always believe what you hear,” Obama famously told Katschnig.

“I sure didn’t expect that to go the way it did. By no means did I expect that to go the way it did, but his answer to my question kind of opened up that whole can of worms,” Katschnig said.

He found himself recalling that response as he talked about his own disbelief when he read a recent Associated Press story that ripped growing corn for ethanol production, using Iowa as an example, and blamed loss of conservation acres on increased ethanol production.

“It was very unfair,” said Katschnig of the story.

He’s maneuvering the big John Deere combine around cornrows to get the last rows out of this field that covers hills and dips and only occasionally a flat spot in Henry County, just north of Hooppole.

Pheasants take flight from where they’re dining on corn in the already-harvested ground.

A thick mat of cornstalk residue and the remnants of the stalks remain. They work as both soil anchor and a boost to organic matter in the sandy soils.

The flight for the pheasants isn’t far. They disappear, along with a couple of inbound waterfowl, into a thick and spacious wetland area that borders the field where Katschnig is combining. A stream and low-lying water holes glint in the late-afternoon autumn sun.

“We have a terrific amount of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program. And all that area you see over there? That’s in wetlands preservation. I get more enjoyment out of the wildlife, the ducks and the geese and the pheasants and the deer rather than row cropping every single acre,” Katschnig said.

In fact, he had acres he wanted to reenroll in the CRP. But a budgetary cutback in the 2008 farm bill removed funding for acres in the program, preventing farmers from reenrolling those acres.

The AP story blamed farmers for destroying conservation acres to plant more corn for ethanol.

“As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found,” read the story that ran in nationwide news outlets in early November.

“Those are acres we would have like to have reenrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, and the government said, sorry, these acres don’t qualify this time. They cut back on the acres. They said these acres aren’t eligible, so you’re going to have to farm them,” Katschnig said. “The true reason was not stated about why those acres went back into production. It was the cutback on the CRP acres.”

The land that Katschnig farms, that his father and grandfather farmed and that he hopes will see a fifth-generation of the family farming, is a mix of personalities.

Rolling hills are topped with sand more reminiscent of an oceanfront beach than an Illinois farm field. The soils range from dark and rich on flatter ground to light and easily erodible on the hills and slopes — and that can occur in a single field.

“We’re involved with an operation south of Atkinson that’s a whole different world from here in Yorktown Township. That’s where terraces and waterways come into play,” Katschnig said.

It’s the soils themselves — and the farming tradition — that affect how he farms.

“We have to. We have no choice. With these sandy soils, our biggest foe is wind erosion. With wind erosion, we have to leave residue here,” he said.

Katschnig also practices crop rotation.

“We practice conservation by not leaving bare soil. The next crop that will be here will be soybeans, and they will be planted right into these cornstalks next spring. As steep as this soil is here, we have to leave 100 percent of the residue,” he said.

It’s also his good memory for the past that puts conservation farming front and center for Katschnig.

“About 25 years ago, I can remember a windstorm in either late April or the middle of May. We had eight-inch-tall corn that was cut off completely level at the ground from a terrible windstorm when we had sand that was moving due to not enough residue cover on top,” said Katschnig, who can still see in his mind’s eye the field of obliterated crop and drifted sand.

“I can still remember that day like it was yesterday. It was one of the most discouraging and humbling feelings ever — to see that you had absolutely no control over that crop being destroyed from those 40 mile per hour winds and that sand cutting that corn off just like a sand blaster.”

Zero-tillage is another conservation practice that Katschnig uses on his home farm. Again, lessons learned from the past are being used to preserve the soils for the future.

“It’s very hilly and very sandy. We have to zero-till it. For years, my grandfather and my father would spring plow those sand hills. It was the only production practice available to them. When the sand would blow in the spring, there were fences there when they raised livestock, and that sand had blown over the top barbed wire on the fence. I still suffer from that sheet erosion,” Katschnig said.

He likens sheet erosion to a structure that golfers dread.

“This is an area where there was sheet erosion. They spring plowed this, and the wind would come from the west. If you’re familiar with a sand trap on a golf course, fields would more or less do the same thing,” said Katschnig as he slows and stops the massive combine to point out the unexpected — even in this rolling field — dip in the landscape. “Right there is exactly what our conversation is about — about erosion.”

The battle to repair that soil and to conserve soil, to maintain and increase the organic matter and the productivity in those soils, goes on for Katschnig and millions of farmers like him. He emphasizes that the first people to suffer from eroded, depleted soils are farmers themselves.

“Erosion only hurts themselves. When they lose topsoil, they’re losing the productive part of that soil profile. The general public doesn’t understand we’re trying to save that topsoil so it’s more and more productive. We care for it in a much better manner than what that article stated,” he said.

The Patriot Renewable Fuels plant in Annawan has been a boon in other ways. For Katschnig, it’s helped him cut down on the miles his farm trucks have to travel to get grain to a market.

“We would spend January, February and March, a couple of us, living in a semi, hauling grain to the Illinois River. Now we go just 10 miles to Annawan, to Patriot,” he said.

The ethanol plant that occurs suddenly in the midst of farm fields that line Interstate 80 west of Joliet and all the way to the Mississippi River has been a boost to the area economy and the area farm economy.

“The employment, to have those jobs that close in the area, is tremendous. For the farmers of the area, the miles we save and the fuel we save versus our previous destinations to deliver grain and the wear and tear on trucks, the labor involved and the safety — the safety of less hours on the road. We can deliver so much in a short period of time, and it’s so good when you can keep those jobs so close to home,” Katschnig said.

The growth of the local ethanol industry — with the Big River Resources LLC plant in Galva, Marquis Energy in Hennepin and Illinois River Energy in Rochelle — also has been a boost to other industries and jobs connected to agriculture.

“I notice, driving through the country, how farmsteads have changed. Machinery has changed. People are able to afford a new pickup. They’re able to afford a nice farm shop. It’s just put money back into the farm economy,” Katschnig said.

It angers him that petroleum interests are able to have such an impact on both the media and the American public’s view of the ethanol industry and row crop farming.

“It’s kind of hard to believe that when ethanol cleans up the air and supports our local economies, that we have to battle the huge amounts of dollars from Big Oil to promote our product. What Big Oil fails to mention is how they can produce a lower-quality product and add ethanol to it to boos the octane. They can make a lower-quality product and still maintain their profitability. Those kinds of facts didn’t enter into that story,” he said.

Defending what they grow and what those crops are made into is one more task that has been added to the farmer’s “to do” list, Katschnig said.

“Thirty-eight years ago, it seemed like our job was just to do our job, keeping the crop clean and searching for yield. Now, not only do we have to grow our crops as efficiently as we can, we also have to defend those crops. We have to sell our crops and defend our crops from the media. Another part of our job now is to tell our story and in a proper and correct manner so it gets to the right markets and they don’t get so much misinformation,” he said.

For Katschnig, the proof is in the balance sheet and in his farm fields, their rich soils anchored by residue and minimum and zero tillage, the most delicate land painstakingly preserved in CRP. He can see his increased crop yields and soil fertility as he works to preserve and improve soils for the future generations.

He only needs to look out the windows of the combine to see what ethanol has brought to the farm.

“It’s just changed the whole landscape of agriculture,” he said.