Corn production in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland is expected to grow by 200,000 acres this year, reflecting the surging demand for ethanol which is boosting corn prices.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that more than 90 million acres of corn will be planted this year, a 15 percent increase from last year, and the most since 1944.

The estimate from the USDA’s Prospective Plantings report issued March 30 was based on surveys of 86,000 farms nationwide during the first two weeks of March.

In the Bay region, the report projected corn acreage would increase from 1.35 million acres in 2006 to 1.45 million acres this year in Pennsylvania, from 490,000 to 550,000 acres in Maryland and from 480,000 to 520,000 acres in Virginia.

The increase is fueled by rising corn prices as ethanol demand increases; the price per bushel has risen to nearly $4, double what farmers were getting last year.

Although a boon for farmers, the surge in production has raised concern among scientists because corn “leaks” the most nitrogen per acre of any crop. Some agricultural scientists expect corn acreage to continue rising, possibly resulting in an additional 1 million acres to be planted in the Bay watershed over the next several years.

Scientists estimate that that could result in an additional 15 million to 16 million pounds of nitrogen runoff a year—offsetting a quarter of the nitrogen reductions achieved by the region since 1985—unless efforts are stepped up to promote cover crops and other conservation practices. (See “Nation’s new thirst for ethanol could leave Bay with hangover” April 2007).

In April, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Program, created by the region’s agricultural universities, and the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, conducted a two-day workshop to start developing a strategy about how to address water quality issues stemming from increased corn production for ethanol. A report is expected later this year.

Meanwhile, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in March that he would not allow the early release of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take marginal and environmentally sensitive lands out of production, without penalty.

Farmers, livestock groups and the ethanol industry have been eyeing the millions of acres of land in CRP for corn production, a prospect that had alarmed environmental groups because of the habitat and water quality benefits attained from the program.

Demand for ethanol is growing as Congress has established a federal renewable fuels standard that calls for 7.5 billion gallons of the nation’s fuel to come from renewable sources by 2012. President Bush, in his State of the Union Address, called for a new national mandate of using 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels a year, including ethanol, by 2017.

To meet those goals, the Renewable Fuels Association says the United States has 113 ethanol plants with a total production capacity of 5.6 billion gallons, and another 78 plants are under construction, including several in the Bay watershed. When completed, U.S. ethanol capacity will be 11.8 billion gallons.

Many hope that the ethanol will eventually be produced from biomass crops, such as switchgrass, which produces more energy per acre than corn and has far fewer environmental impacts. Cost-competitive ethanol production from such cellulosic materials, while touted by many including the Bush administration, remains several years in the future according to experts.

But administration officials say that, because corn cannot meet the ethanol needs outlined in the 35-billion gallon mandate, it will force a switch to cellulosic ethanol over time. Most experts believe corn ethanol production would top out at roughly 13 billion to 14 billion gallons a year.