The debate over ethanol proved as combustible as ever this week.
On one side are people, including livestock producers in and near Stanislaus County, who say diverting feed corn to fuel has increased food prices for consumers.
On the other side is the ethanol industry, which points to research showing that it has had little effect on prices.
The debate flared over the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal requirement to gradually increase the amount of ethanol blended into transportation fuel.
Supporters say the standard has reduced demand for foreign oil and uses a source that is easier on the environment.
Opponents say the standard, by increasing demand on corn, means higher feed costs for livestock producers and, ultimately, consumers.
Some opponents also question whether ethanol is good for the environment if you factor in the impact of growing the corn and shipping it to ethanol plants.
Both sides are represented around here. We have big dairy and poultry industries, and there are ethanol plants in Keyes and Stockton. Both plants, it's worth noting, are trying to replace part of their corn supply with sources that could have less impact on livestock producers.
The National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation got their message across Monday with a conference call that included economist Thomas Elam.
He said wholesale chicken meat prices rose from an average of 68 cents per pound in 2005 to 91 cents in December, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A pound of turkey went from 79 cents to $1.20, he said.
"We must allow our scarce feed crop production to go to its intended and best use," Elam said, "and we need common-sense measures that benefit the entire U.S. food sector and American families not just ethanol producers."
The Renewable Fuels Association, an industry group, cited a recent study showing that ethanol employed 87,292 Americans directly and 295,969 others indirectly without jacking up the cost of food.
Bob Dinneen, the group's president and chief executive officer, ripped the critics in a news release Wednesday.
"As Congress returns and hearings are scheduled, Big Oil and Big Food will undoubtedly ramp up their multimillion-dollar campaign to smear the (standard)," he said.
Elsewhere on the farm and fuel beat:
About 100 growers learned about producing sorghum for ethanol plants at a meeting Tuesday in Modesto.
Advocates say this grain can tolerate marginal soil, heat and drought, thus expanding the raw materials available to the fuel plants.
Sorghum is widespread on the Great Plains but rare in the San Joaquin Valley. That could change quickly. About 10,000 acres will be planted this year, according to Chromatin Inc. of Chicago, the sorghum seed breeder that held the meeting.
The grain will be made into ethanol at the Keyes and Stockton plants, as well as in Pixley, in Tulare County.
Have an idea for the Farm Beat? Contact John Holland at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.