NORMAL, Ill. — Princeton-area farmer Denny Denton appreciated hearing some good news at the 45th annual Illinois Corn Growers Association meeting Nov. 21.

“It was encouraging to hear some positive export news. Everything you read is so very negative,” Denton said.

While low corn prices were on the minds of attendees, ICGA Executive Director Rod Weinzierl emphasized both the challenges and opportunities for corn growers this year.

“Corn exports this year were up with added-value products of animal feed and ethanol,” Weinzierl told corn producers at the meeting in Normal.

While national ethanol markets seem “somewhat hung up,” the industry is still growing and new ethanol plants are being built, he said.

There continues to be developing demand in other countries, especially where there is concern about pollution.

One of the greatest challenges is “uncertainty” for profits, trade issues, prices and legislation, he said.

“Profitability is going to be a big deal as we go through this coming year and beyond,” he said.

In a survey of the 4,200 ICGA members, “profitability is far and away” the biggest concern, he said.

Corn growers also ranked among their concerns: infrastructure, especially on the rivers; trade; ethanol markets; and consumer education.

Infrastructure has been in the news this fall with long delays for barges on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Moving the crop has gotten attention during what has become a long, slow harvest for some.

“It seems like a long haul,” Weinzierl said.

USDA reported 90 percent of corn harvest was complete as of Nov. 20.

“From our area and north, there are still a lot of crops in the field,” said Illinois Corn Marketing Board chairman Paul Jeschke. “There’s a lot of harvest yet to go.”

Justin Durdan, ICGA president whose family farms about 7,000 acres near Streator, compared the corn growers’ experiences this year to “juggling chainsaws.”

One of those chainsaws represents “the next farm bill,” which may or may not come to pass in 2018. He said the association is preparing to defend crop insurance.

At the same time, different farm groups are vying for the same dollars in the farm bill.

A priority for beef and pork producers is assistance with vaccines, and dairy farmers and cotton growers are both asking for better safety nets, Weinzierl said.

Conservation issues are also on the list. Weinzierl said it feels like the new administration is “taking its foot off the accelerator” when working on national nutrient loss reduction issues and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, but that at the state levels in Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois, for example, efforts are going forward.

Potential lawsuits and stiffer regulations could come about if farmers don’t keep focused on this issue, he said.

Jeschke said there also has to be public education about farmers’ roles in water quality issues. He said information is being compiled to show what farmers might be responsible for and what they are not.

“Our carbon footprint is nothing like perception,” Jeschke said.

He also sees a positive future for corn and ethanol, but says there is a need to find other “new uses” of corn.

“We need to increase profitable demand,” Jeschke said.

Phyllis Coulter writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern.