BIGGSVILLE, Ill. — Clark Kelly plans to spend a lot of time on the links this spring. The Illinois farmer is plowing the Hend-Co-Hills Golf Course near tiny Biggsville into a cornfield.
He's not the only one turning over soil in unlikely places. Across the Midwest, farmers are planting crops on almost any scrap of available land to take advantage of consistently high corn and soybean prices. Growers are knocking down old barns, tearing out fence rows and digging up land that had once been preserved for wildlife. Some are even suspected of tearing into pioneer cemeteries.
Kelly moved quickly when he heard the golf course was for sale near the Mississippi River, about 80 miles west of Peoria. With nearby land selling for $15,000 an acre, the 133-acre course with a clubhouse and campground was quite a find for $775,000.
"That's why I wanted to get my paws on it so bad," said Kelly, who estimates he can plant at least 80 acres on the property.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects farmers to plant 174.4 million acres of corn and soybeans this year, a record high. More than 97 million acres will be devoted to corn — the most since 1936 — as demand keeps prices high.
Prices soared above $8 a bushel last summer and have hovered around $7 recently. For farmers with production costs around $5 a bushel, there's still room for a good profit.
The growing world population, widespread use of corn for ethanol and other factors have produced significantly higher demand for the crop in the U.S. and elsewhere, said Dan Steinkruger, executive director of Nebraska's Farm Service Agency.
Gordon Wassenaar, who grows corn and soybeans near Prairie City, Iowa, east of Des Moines, said he's removed fences and trees to squeeze in more crops.
"In all honesty, it's easier to get rid of the buildings and crop farm as it is to take care of the buildings and mow and do a lot of that stuff," Wassenaar said.
It's a similar situation for Bill Bayliss, who raises cattle and sheep and grows corn, soybeans and wheat on about 2,000 acres near West Mansfield, Ohio.
"We tore out fence rows and tore down one old barn, and we farm right over it," he said.
In Minnesota, state archaeologist Scott Anfinson is investigating whether farmers plowed up pioneer cemeteries. He will soon inspect an area of Grant County in west-central Minnesota, where a farmer hired an excavator to bulldoze trees and headstones near a pioneer cemetery dating to the late 1800s. Headstones were knocked down, and Anfinson will determine whether human remains or coffin parts have been turned up by a plow.
The farmer, who is in his 90s and farms with his son, could be charged with a felony if graves were disturbed. He will probably be required to replant trees and reset the headstones.
Anfinson said the family whose ancestors are buried in the plots is appalled.
"Families don't forget about these things," he said.
He's investigating three other cases in which Minnesota farmers are suspected of "nibbling" at the edges of pioneer cemeteries.
Many farmers have pulled land out of the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to plant land that could easily erode or is ideal for grassland, wetlands and wildlife habitat. It's become increasingly lucrative to farm or rent such land to another farmer rather than collect the government payments.
In Iowa, the average cash rent for corn or soybean fields is about $270 per acre, said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agriculture economist. The average conservation payment in Iowa is $141 an acre.
Nationally, the number of acres enrolled in the program has slipped to about 27 million acres from a high of more than 36 million acres in 2007.
Losing that land worries conservationists, who see dwindling habitat as a threat to the already falling numbers of pheasants and other wildlife. It also raises environmental concerns about soil erosion and water quality, said Tom Fuller, Iowa coordinator for Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit organization focusing on wildlife conservation.
Back in Biggsville, corn is returning to land that for 48 years was devoted to golfing. Kelly said his father farmed the land before selling it as a golf course. Although popular for decades, the course ran into trouble during the recession, and flooding by the Mississippi a few years ago hurt attendance.
"It was a well-run fun place for the community since 1970, and everybody was sad to see it close, including me," Kelly said.
Tractors have replaced golfers at the former Whittemore Golf Club near Algona, in north-central Iowa. It closed in 2011 after more than 40 years and was planted over by a farmer.
The same thing happened near Wayland, Mich., where the Hidden Valley Golf Course closed in November and was sold to a farmer.
In Hastings, Mich., the River Bend Golf Course has ended its 49-year run. Former owner Denny Storrs said a fifth-generation dairy farmer approached him about selling the 180 acres that had been carved out of his family farm in 1963 for the golf course.
Now the land will produce crops to feed Larry Haywood's cows.
"They made us a fair offer, and we thought it was an opportunity that might not come again," Storrs said. "It was more valuable as a farm than as a golf course."