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
“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,”
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,”
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
“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
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
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