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Agriculture's conquered agency

(Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2006 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Watching the dominoes fall
2. Agriculture's conquered agency
3. OCM calls for Senate hearings on USDA's failure to enforce Packers & Stockyards Act
4. Farmers note: Washington and Switzerland important to 2007 Farm Bill
5. All fired up over corn, coal: Rising oil and natural gas prices kindle interest in alternative fuel

1. Watching the dominoes fall

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

As in the rest of Canada, farmers in the west are discussing the results of the federal election. A fellow sitting beside me at a farm meeting the other day commented dryly, "It seems farmers are always voting against something. In this election, we finally got rid of Jean Chretien."

It is a point that hopefully will not be lost on the new government. While all governments like to believe they are elected on the merits of their policies, it is an unfortunate reality that Canadians usually vote out the party they see as the greater of evils. Since this is the case, the government might be wise to tread carefully when implementing party policies that are excessively controversial.

This note of caution may resonate with a new government but it doesn't appear to have much influence on the Western Canadian Wheat Growers. A press release, issued by the Wheat Growers while the ink was still drying on the ballots, implies that the Conservative policy to end single-desk selling by the Canadian Wheat Board is all but accomplished. Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel, Wheat Growers president, declared the group to be "elated that its long-term goal of marketing choice will finally be realized". According to the Wheat Growers, one of the results of such a move would be to "unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of prairie farmers." This would then "go some distance to restoring our profitability." Oddly enough, I had figured it was low grain prices and high input costs that were harming farmers. Thanks to the Wheat Growers, I now realize it is a lack of entrepreneurial spirit.

Since the Conservatives won nearly every rural riding in western Canada, the Wheat Growers maintain they have a strong mandate to cut the legs from under the CWB. Not everyone agrees. As agriculture commentator Kevin Hursh put it, "Farmer support for the Conservatives is due to an array of factors and the CWB is well down the list."

Nevertheless, some farmers fear the Conservatives may take advantage of the early days of their administration to move on an issue they have long seen as critical. Whether it does so immediately or not, it is difficult to imagine the new government taking no action on this issue.

It is a while since there has been much discussion about the CWB and the impacts of having a single seller of Canadian wheat and barley. The end of the single desk will have profound impacts on agriculture in western Canada, and not just on those farmers that grow wheat and barley. However, getting farmers to agree on what those impacts might be is no mean feat.

The academic community is more certain. According to Dr. Richard Gray, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Saskatchewan, "loss of the CWB single-desk status will result in a cascade of events that will fundamentally alter the economics of grain production in western Canada."

In a paper prepared in November, 2005, Gray points out that the loss of the CWB's single desk status would lower returns to farmers, reduce price transparency and market development activities, allow the railways to gain complete control over transportation, and shift power away from small and independent grain companies.

A further issue for farmers would be the loss of the opportunity to ship producer cars as the CWB becomes a small grain company with no inland or port facilities, dependent on other grain companies to handle its sales. In the last decade, farmers have invested in producer car loading facilities and have refined the concept to make it more effective and less risky. As producer car facilities go under, short line railways follow. In fact, there is hardly a single short line on the Canadian prairies that would survive the loss of producer car business.

As the short lines go down and this investment is lost, other dominoes follow. Processing facilities built on short lines will, of course, also fail as their rail transportation disappears. The loss of short lines would close the door to other economic activity that might have found a home in rural communities dependent on short line rail.

Before this devastating scenario comes true, farmers who elected the Conservative government should let it know that ending the CWB's single desk will yield dire implications for the rural economy. This is a decision that farmers are empowered to make through the elected directors of the CWB and that is where the decision should be left.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net

2. Agriculture's conquered agency

David Kruse, CommStock Investments
January 2006

Over the past several months the USDA Inspector General has delivered scathing reports on USDA implementation of bio-tech security protocols, BSE testing regimens, Canadian beef import oversight and plant inspection, mandatory price reporting and Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) Act enforcement. Those of us outside the Washington Beltway know USDA shortcomings without an official review, but the USDA only feints listening to public feedback, hearing what it wants to hear with its ear tuned into corporate agriculture.

In fact, the USDA is staffed by corporate agriculture, which doesn't have a public service orientation. They believe what's good for corporate agriculture is the mission of the USDA. This is a change in USDA character that has been developing for some time but has accelerated it's consumption of the agency's body and soul under the current administration. Do you believe it's in the best interest of the country for the military industrial complex to run the Pentagon, setting military doctrine, protocol, and policy? Of course not.

But that's what has happened at the USDA. The corporate ag industrial complex that the USDA supposedly regulates: bio-tech companies, meat packers and processors, multi-national commercial grain companies, own the USDA. Ag Sec Mike Johanns is a mere figurehead, a mouthpiece. Corporate agriculture runs the USDA with White House authority. The only independent entity of USDA not compromised by corporate agriculture's control is the Inspector General (IG). Without independent oversight, corporate ag industry's hold on the USDA has been spliced into its DNA. Call me a pessimist but I believe there is more chance of corporate ag ultimately compromising the USDA Inspector General's office than there is of the people's agency being returned to the people.

The corporate ag industrial complex has acquired many key centers of power and key players, including congressional committee chairmanships, so that legislation passed in the public interest such as COOL, Mandatory Price Reporting or Packer & Stockyards statutes cannot be implemented as intended. Corporate ag industry has with sophistication, effectively destroyed legislation by control gained over the rules making process so that laws are not enforced or implemented as intended. Special interests have gone so far as to provide the USDA with assistance with legal council to circumvent implementation. They effectively neutered mandatory price reporting so that little real market transparency is being revealed. Packers successfully defined "markets" as proprietary information so where there is the least competition regionally, there is virtually no transparency as the result of rules allowing price reporting omissions. Sweetheart deals are still secrets. Their ability to manipulate data is part of the formula in formula-priced livestock purchases.

Packers fought Mandatory Price Reporting from becoming law. Unsuccessful in stopping Congress, they formed a second line of defense using their influence in the USDA rules making process to cloak the most sensitive valuable market information behind a procedural bureaucratic wall. So successful were they in doing that, now when the mandatory price reporting law came up for reauthorization, the corporate ag industry, packers and processors now support the law how they have fashioned it, pushing for immediate reauthorization to stop congressional changes that would threaten the system they have so painstakingly crafted into place. IA Senator's Grassley and Harkin, knowing what packers have done at the USDA relative to mandatory price reporting, both worked to delay 5-year reauthorization pending a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the law as reauthorization would make it much more difficult to change.

One might think that producer groups like the NCBA - NPPC would favor reform but these groups have been compromised in the same manner as the USDA, having become captured, described by Senator Grassley as 'packer lackeys.' Rarely do these groups or USDA policy ever conflict with corporate ag industry dictates nor do they represent producer interests. NCBA and NPPC describe themselves as industry representatives, not producer groups. The corporate ag industrial complex made the decision not to allow privatization of testing so beef from BSE tested animals could be sold for export to Japan. The USDA executed their order helping major beef packers protect the consolidation and concentration of their industry from competition from smaller technologically adept packers who requested USDA testing authorization to fill orders for Japanese customers.

Another agency watchdog, the GAO, as yet uncompromised by the corporate ag industry or political capture, issued the following report: "GAO observed lengthy lag times by USDA in correcting problems when packers failed to report or provided incorrect information. GAO evaluated 844 audits and found that packer incorrectly reported or failed to report required information 64% of the time. It took 85 days to ensure that a packer made needed corrections. Coordination between AMS and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, (GIPSA) has been limited, hindering GIPSA's ability to monitor and correct trends of anti-competitive behavior that could negative affect price reports. Since the enactment of the reporting program in1999, the USDA has yet to collect any penalties from packers for violations of program requirements, even for longstanding violations. Packers are not consistently and reliably reporting data to USDA within deadlines specified by the mandatory price reporting act. When USDA audits reveal violations of the price reporting act, the USDA has not been providing this information to the public, which undermines the overall transparency of the program."

"Randy Stevenson, OCM Vice-President, said one of the most problematic findings in the GAO report, beyond the USDA's obvious failures in enforcing the law, is the lack of information exchange between GIPSA and AMS. 'This situation is a bit like putting Matt Dillon on Festus Hagin's mule and sending him out to patrol Interstate 40 through Kansas for speeders. It is unacceptable for the information gathering arm of the program not to communicate violations of the law with the enforcing agency. Similar findings were published in a GAO report on GIPSA about six years, and have remained unattended. 'Price information must be complete, accurate and timely to be of any value to buyers and sellers,' noted Stevenson." Senators Grassley and Harkin plan to make changes to the law that corporate ag industry can not circumvent via the rules making process. That's why corporate interests want the law reauthorized as is.

Both Mandatory Price Reporting and Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws were passed as concessions in order to appease groups and lawmakers who were pushing to enact a ban on packer ownership of livestock. In fact, COOL was traded as part of the Farm Bill so that Senators would drop a packer livestock ownership ban passed by the U.S. Senate as part of the bill in conference committee. Corporate ag interests could not stop COOL from being legislated but they have been successful in seeing to it that it was never implemented. The corporate ag industrial complex used its influence in USDA to write COOL rules in the most intrusive, convoluted ugly way possible with the objective of undermining support for implementation.

As ardor to implement COOL under such rules faded, they effectively sabotaged COOL. It was brilliant strategy brilliantly executed only because they had control of USDA so had control of the process. Next they used their political Congressional henchmen to finish COOL off. Texas congressman Bonilla is to corporate ag industry what Tom Delay was to Abramoff, their political sugar daddy. You can follow large sums of campaign contributions from the corporate ag industrial complex right into Bonilla's campaign fund. Bonilla's payback is to kill COOL.

Let's review: Congress writes laws, Mandatory Price Reporting/COOL, then USDA rules making, controlled by corporate ag industry sabotages implementation to weaken public support so that key congressmen paid in campaign contributions can exploit that weakness to kill the legislation via sophisticated maneuvers and manipulation. It's developed into a system whereby government of, for and by the people has been circumvented/replaced with government captured by special interests. The GAO report raised suspicions about GIPSA failing to follow through on mandatory price reporting, therein, prompting a much more extensive review by the USDA's Inspector General of GIPSA Packer's and Stockyards Act enforcement.

We all know out here in the hinterlands of agriculture that GIPSA ceased to function some time ago. Its pulseless, cold, dead body has been lifeless for a long time. It's sort of like that New York subway rider discovered recently who spent hours on the train after having expired. When someone finally checked, they declared he was dead. GIPSA had been dead for a long time before the USDA Inspector General checked its pulse. It certainly didn't surprise us that they found none. The corporate ag industrial complex went to a lot of trouble to make GIPSA look alive so no one would suspect. GIPSA is owned lock, stock and pork barrel by the industry, packers and stockyards, it was intended to regulate. Carefully selected individuals were appointed to positions within and above GIPSA with a clear and express mandate to smother anything resembling a breath coming from the agency. The IG's reports exposed complete agency capture.

The Associated Press abbreviated the IG reports finding saying, "The Agriculture Department has pretended to investigate anticompetitive behavior among stockyard and meat companies since 1999 but in hundreds of cases didn't actually file complaints, a department audit found. Employees created the appearance of a high rate of enforcement by logging routine letter and reviews of public data as investigations, according to a report Wednesday by the agency's inspector general. Competition and complex investigations were not being performed and timely action was not being taken, the inspector general found. In fact, one regional office was reprimanded last year because it didnít count routine correspondence as an investigation. The reprimand came from deputy administrator JoAnn Waterfield, who quit abruptly last month without giving a reason. The report shows that USDA officials were 'blocking employees from pursuing investigations and then cooking the books to cover up the agency's lack of enforcement action.'"

Was GIPSA working? Absolutely. It was being run exactly how corporate ag industry wanted it run. They put key people in place fully intending that they sit on investigations, squelching enforcement of P & S statutes. There was a plan with intent coming together. There is a revolving door between USDA and corporate ag industry no different than what went on between defense contractors, generals, and the Pentagon before scandal separated the military defense industry from government. No similar housecleaning has been done yet at the USDA. NCBA and Swift and company lobbyist Chandler Keys, a card carrying corporate ag industrial complex member, was just recently appointed to a high level USDA post. He and a score of others like him have been put there as part of the corporate ag industry USDA capture.

The beginnings of agency capture by the corporate ag industrial complex was evident before the Clinton administration, but really came into it's own with control of the power centers of government at the USDA and Congress under George W. and Republican majority. It's not entirely partisan however, Bonilla is a Democrat. Corporate agriculture in buying control, will ignore political affiliation. The general environment to allow them access, broadened under this administration, removing constraints, facilitating their control. "According to the report, top officials at GIPSA had failed for the past five years or more to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act and had created an environment that stymied investigations and even punished employees who pursued cases without proper authority from the highest officials within GIPSA. The agency also inflated its investigation numbers in reports to Congress. Mike Stumo, the General Counsel for the Organization for Competitive Markets, said good employees at GIPSA either retired or transferred to other agencies within the USDA because of their frustrations with leadership in the Packer's and Stockyards programs. The home office obstructed them from doing investigations. They obstructed everyone who was trying to do any sort of semblance of their jobs."

The IG's audit "singled out deputy administrator JoAnn Waterfield, saying she was holding up 50 investigations as of last August. The report also said she reprimanded staff for not classifying letters asking companies for information as investigations. Waterfield quit abruptly last month after spending about 14 years at the Agriculture Department."

"But she has left and that gives us the opportunity to declare a new day and fix the problems," Mike Johanns said.

I don't believe that's what is going to happen. The corporate ag industry running the USDA will not allow anything new under the sun at the USDA as long as they can stop it. It's gone to a great deal of expense and trouble to position the sun right where it wants it to maintain control.

The embarrassing GAO and IG investigations are what have to be stopped and they will use every bit of political influence they have to accomplish it. The corporate ag industry that runs the USDA will circumvent any real change and do everything it can to retain control of government by shooting the watchdogs. They've got Congress and the USDA in their control. The only threat to them is the IG who also exposed incompetent USDA handling of BSE, trade and bio-tech protocols. Viewed individually each instance of USDA capture might escape notice. To someone, however, whose been positioned, like myself, to be able to gain the perspective overview over a lengthy period of time, the individual events are all interconnected pieces of a now fully assembled puzzle that puts together a clear picture of corporate ag industry's capture of the USDA and ag policy.

Authored By: David Kruse
CommStock Investments
207 Main St.
Royal, IA 51357
800-242-5014

About the Author: David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments,Inc. and AgriVantage Crop Insurance, his Northwest Iowa commodity brokerage firm and Risk Management Agency. For the past 20 years he has authored and produced The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis heard daily on many Midwestern radio stations and available by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet at www.thecommstockreport.com. He is also President of Brazil Iowa Farms, a U.S. based Investment Fund that farms and manages over 23,000 acres of land in Brazil. He has been called the "Mark Twain of the Plains for his writing style and is known and respected for his tell it like it is style and advocacy for the American farmer.

3. OCM calls for Senate hearings on USDA's failure to enforce Packers & Stockyards Act

Organization for Competitive Markets
http://www.competitivemarkets.com
For Immediate Release
January 25, 2006
Contact: Chase Carter, Executive Director 402.817.4443

Lincoln, NE ~ The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) is joining Senator Tom Harkin's (D-IA) call for hearings by the Senate Agriculture Committee to probe the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) failure to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act.

Last year OCM urged Senator Harkin to request an investigation into USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) performance reports. The subsequent investigation and report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) demonstrates that GIPSA administrators prevented employees from conducting investigations into complaints of anti-competitive market behavior and cloaked its lack of enforcement by inflating the number of investigations conducted.

"This report provides the evidence needed to initiate a thorough house-cleaning at GIPSA," said Keith Mudd. OCM President. "Through Senate hearings we can begin the sweeping reform that's so sorely needed. Congress must scrutinize these findings to discover how this situation developed and what needs to be done to correct it. While GIPSA administrators were blocking investigations and cooking the books, thousands of producers went out of business while concentration increased and anti-competitive market behaviors went unchecked. U.S. producers deserve to know why a federal agency failed to enforce laws specifically designed to protect them."

Randy Stevenson, OCM Vice-President said, "The OIG report is proof that a federal agency lied to Congress about its performance by cooking the books Enron-style. In fact, the GIPSA Eastern Regional Office was reprimanded for not following orders to inflate and distort the number of actual investigations performed."

"GIPSA has competent economists in place who were not permitted to do their job while producers and rural communities suffered the consequences of increased concentration and anti-competitive actions. One has to wonder what the liability is for this dismal failure. The administrators who supported these actions should be brought to justice. OCM and producers across the nation are standing by to see how Congress will address this serious problem," said Stevenson.

"USDA's Inspector General Phyllis Fong is a courageous individual," noted Mudd. "The Inspector General is charged with a mission of promoting effectiveness and integrity in the delivery of USDA ag programs. It is clear that Ms. Fong takes her charge seriously and we applaud her tenacity."

The Organization for Competitive Markets is an agricultural free market and competition think tank working for honesty, prosperity and economic liberty for farmers, ranchers and rural communities.

4. Farmers note: Washington and Switzerland important to 2007 Farm Bill

By DAN MOSER / IANR News Service
January 26, 2006

Agricultural producers and others anxious about how the next federal farm bill might change the way they do business would do well to keep one eye on Washington and another on Switzerland this year.

In Washington, budget talks will play out in a highly charged mid-term election year, while in the latter, international trade negotiations will continue.

Little progress can be expected on the 2007 farm bill until those two complex processes reach some fruition, said Brad Lubben, University of Nebraska-Lincoln public policy specialist.

Discussions on the makeup of the next multi-year farm bill should begin this year, however. The secretary of agriculture has gathered information on issues for the next bill. Congressional committees likely will begin field hearings this summer.

Lubben also has students tabulating survey results from producers across the United States that should give a sense of their hopes for future federal ag policy.

He expects to provide some preliminary survey findings in February at the Cornhusker Economics Management and Outlook Conferences sponsored by UNL Extension. Sessions are scheduled Feb. 13 in York; Feb. 14 in Sidney; Feb. 15 in Cozad; Feb. 20 in Norfolk; and Feb. 21 in Falls City.

On the federal-budget front, the Bush administration originally proposed budget cuts in commodity spending in February 2005. Congress responded with a budget reconciliation bill that largely placed spending cuts in conservation, rural development and research.

"The president will issue a new budget proposal in February," Lubben said. That proposal might look a lot like Bush's unsuccessful attempt to make significant cuts in commodity supports a year ago."

"They certainly will be back on the table again," Lubben predicted.

Whether that attempt would get more traction in 2006 depends much on the election-year landscape. Although Bush is not on the ballot in November, all 435 House seats and about one-third of the Senate seats are.up.

"Is deficit control going to be a popular stand in this election cycle? Generally speaking, yes -- until you actually come up with proposals for what you're going to cut," Lubben said. "Promises can get you elected. Actual legislation tends to only disappoint certain audiences."

Federal budget cuts often seem to be a bit of a shell game. In a typical move, for example, Congress in 2003 approved cuts in future conservation spending to pay for disaster relief. Those funds later were reinstated. In late 2004, Congress again dipped into future conservation funding for emergency assistance.

"It's politically been very easy to, in a sense, borrow money from future promises," Lubben said.

Ultimately, though, that approach has a real impact on programs.

In this case, the process has slowed implementation of the Conservation Security Program, which provides funding to farmers and ranchers who promote conservation on their land.

Even if cuts are implemented in agricultural programs this year, they may come with the understanding that they could be reinstated as part of the farm bill negotiations, Lubben said.

International trade negotiations can be full of even more twists and turns than U.S. budget discussions, but they, too, will play a key part in U.S. farm policy. A World Trade Organization ministers' meeting in December in Hong Kong succeeded in large part because it didn't fall apart as have previous gatherings, Lubben said.

Ministers from the 149 countries did agree to end farm export subsidies by 2013 but have much work ahead this year.

"For the U.S., this is a simple argument because we've essentially stopped using those subsidies already," Lubben said. For the European Union, it's a major shift.

Members of the Geneva, Switzerland-based trade group next need to address domestic subsidies and market access, two exceedingly thorny issues.

"If the WTO comes to some agreement -- and they will come to some agreement because they can't afford not to -- it's likely to be pretty watered down," Lubben said.

Still, farm-bill negotiators in this country will "wait out the WTO and see where we stand" before beginning their work in earnest, he added.

"The future farm bill will have to make some real changes," Lubben said. "That doesn't mean we will spend less money; it just means we will have to change how we spend the money."

Cost of the Cornhusker Economics Management and Outlook Conference is $25 and pre-registration is necessary by contacting Sandy Sterkel at (800) 535-3456. The conference begins at each site with registration and refreshments at 9 a.m. local time, with the first session at 9:30 a.m. and the last one ending at 3:30 p.m.

More information is available at http://agecon.unl.edu; click on Calendar of Events in the left column.

UNL Extension is part of the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

5. All fired up over corn, coal: Rising oil and natural gas prices kindle interest in alternative fuel

by JoAnna Daemmrich
Baltimore Sun
Jan 26, 2006

On chilly nights, after he tucks 3-year-old Grace into bed, Mark Flory turns up the heat the old-fashioned way. He checks the flame in the downstairs stove, lifts the lid and pours in a big bucket of dried corn.

It could be a scene from a century-old farmhouse on the prairie. But Flory, his wife and their little girl live far from the American heartland in a congested suburb inside the Capital Beltway.

Nevertheless, like a small but growing number of homeowners nationwide, the Florys are keeping their Takoma Park house cozy this winter by burning dried, shelled corn. They belong to a Takoma Park corn-buying cooperative that's quickly attracting new members: It boasts 33 families and a storage silo in town.

Fed up with high heating bills, some homeowners are shutting off their furnaces and switching to stoves that burn fuels earlier generations used: coal, wood, feed corn, even cherry pits.

"It's a lot cheaper than natural gas," says Flory, 48, a state and local liaison for the Environmental Protection Agency, who heated his two-story brick house last winter with nothing more than $360 worth of corn.

The year might have gotten off to a balmy start, but stove dealers were doing a brisk business even before sudden snow squalls blew through the region yesterday and a significant storm began blanketing Western Maryland. As much as 10 inches of snow was forecast by early today for some ridgetop areas.

It's not just environmentally minded folks who are turning to organic fuels. Last fall, as natural gas and oil prices soared in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, scores of worried homeowners around the country rushed to buy modern versions of the cast-iron stoves that first became popular during the 1970s energy crisis.

In Boyertown, Pa., near Philadelphia, Groff's Stove Shop doubled its sales of coal stoves, selling out all 40 by Christmas. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, Jerry and Betty Jackson's corn-stove dealership shipped 100 stoves to customers across the country; they're taking orders for next year. And in Western Maryland, Ed Bodmer sold off his floor models of stoves that burn wood pellets - uniformly sized chunks of compressed wood that burn far more efficiently than logs.

"They can't build them fast enough this year," says Bodmer, who had to return a few down payments when stoves took too long to arrive, something he hadn't done since he opened in 1978. Bodmer expects to get his first shipment of pellet stoves in a month but already has a waiting list.

Manufacturers are busy ramping up production of the pellet, coal and corn stoves, which cost $1,800 to $4,000. In Maryland, as in many areas, wood pellets are hard to find.

"Before we could get them, everyone else did," says Bob Shaffer, a computer technician in Cresaptown, who searched for weeks before finding pellets, typically made from waste wood such as sawdust or saplings cut by road crews.

He wound up paying $180 a ton, $30 more than in the past. But that hasn't dampened Shaffer's enthusiasm for the pellet stove he installed when he threw out his oil furnace eight years ago.

"I've always loved a fireplace," he says. "Here, you've got the look of a fire, but the fuel is convenient. You just dump it in. You can start [the stove] in a couple of minutes and adjust it from blazing to almost nothing."

Once rarely found except in cabins and farmhouses, stoves that burn old-time fuels have been redesigned in recent years to be more efficient - and sleek enough to fit in upscale homes.

Despite their growing popularity, such stoves make up only a tiny fraction of the home heating market.

In Maryland, for example, nearly half the 2.2 million households use natural gas, according to a 2003 census survey. Electricity heats 681,330 homes, the survey found, followed by oil in 296,061 homes. By contrast, wood was used by 27,307 of those surveyed and coal by 6,240.

That's because alternative fuels aren't always as practical or cheap as they might seem, says Dennis Buffington, a professor and expert on corn stoves at Pennsylvania State University's agricultural college.

Coal is often considered dirty, he said, though today's tightly sealed stoves let virtually no dust escape. And corn can attract mice, birds and squirrels if it's not properly stored.

"It's not for everybody," says Buffington, who has created a model comparing the cost of burning corn with conventional fuels. "Corn can be cheaper and it's a renewable resource. But it depends on where you live."

For a farmer, a $3,000 corn stove can quickly pay for itself in saved heating expenses. But for a suburbanite, Buffington said, it might be less cost-effective and a hassle.

The corn that's burned is the type usually used to feed livestock and is a tougher variety than the sweet corn that people eat. It sells for about $2 a bushel in the countryside but can cost $6 at a feed store.

It takes about a bushel a day to heat a home, so corn burners usually stockpile 25 bushels or more at a time, a lot to keep dry and rodent-free.

Given the spike in fuel costs this year, though, corn is a good buy. (To compare alternative and conventional fuel costs, see Buffington's cost model, the energy selector at burncorn.cas.psu.edu.) Corn has been running about half the price of natural gas; coal is even less. Wood pellets, while scarce, are still cheaper than conventional fuels.

If projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration prove true, consumers will spend 24 percent more for heating oil than last year - and 38 percent more for natural gas.

Such predictions have prompted homeowners such as Jim Muzyka, 40, a retail manager, to consider organic fuels a common-sense choice.

In October, Muzyka invested in a $4,000 pellet stove and loaded up bags of pellets in his basement. It's paying off: The stove comfortably heats his four-bedroom home in Bel Air.

"I haven't run the furnace since I got it," he says happily. "No matter what the oil prices are, now we have an alternative heat source."

Stove-making began as a backyard business during the 1970s oil embargo. Since then, it has matured into a national, EPA-regulated industry that sells brand-name appliances.

But it's still simple household economics that drives sales, says Don Johnson, a statistician at the Hearth, Patio, Barbecue Association, a national trade group.

"If you're a consumer and want to heat your home more efficiently when traditional fuels are high, then these types of products come to the forefront," he says. "It's cyclical, and right now, we're in a positive upswing."

Johnson has the numbers to support that. Sales of alternative fuel appliances climbed 16 percent in the first three quarters of 2005. Pellet stove sales doubled during that time, to 66,000. And corn stove sales, according to American Energy, the largest supplier, jumped from 65,000 in 2004 to 150,000 last year.

In Maryland, an increasingly suburbanized state that is steadily losing farmland, corn burners have not caught on as fast as pellet stoves. Coal is even rarer here, though it is often the cheapest fuel. It burns hotter than wood or corn and costs $160 a ton. Corn is second in efficiency; wood pellets come in third and cost about $180 to $200 a ton now but often have gone for less.

For some, it's not about the savings. Dennis Walters, 60, retired to Frederick County, built his own home and installed a coal bin under the deck. It was his dream, he says, so he "decided to get a coal stove, do some farming and have some horses."

Early last fall, after oil refineries shut down in the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast, two men on opposite ends of Maryland had similar epiphanies.

In the rolling countryside outside Cumberland, Dan Twigg, a cattle farmer and father of five, spent $700 to fill his oil tank. "All our extra money was getting tied up with heating costs," he said.

Meanwhile, in the crowded Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Jim Groves, an employee of the National Education Association and father of two, worried about heating his poorly insulated brick home.

As he stared across the cornfield, Twigg knew what to do - and let the last of his crop dry on the stalk.

And as Groves drove past the Takoma Park silo, built by the co-op when it started in 2001, he figured the time was right to sign up.

Today, after equally long searches and repeated calls to stove suppliers, both men have corn burners. Twigg's stove is in the basement, next to his girls' bedrooms. Groves' stove is tucked in the living room fireplace.

Both men like to fiddle with the stoves and watch the corn drop steadily into the flame. Both can't wait for the weather to get colder; Groves even wants to have a party to show off his corn stove.

"I expect to pay myself back," says Groves. "If costs go much as they say and it does get cold, it could pay for itself in five years."

Twigg, of course, is even more fortunate. He has to clean out ash every day, more than he expected because his corn isn't quite dry enough. But the stove is "pretty slick," he says. It's odorless and quickly heats his ranch-style home.

Best of all, the fuel is almost free.