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Envisioning Future Farms

By Loni Kemp

Mon, Feb 27th, 2012
Posted in All Columnists

Just about everyone wants clean, homegrown energy. Whether we are concerned about the high price of gas, dependence on foreign oil, or the environmental problems of fossil fuel extraction and use, we turn our eyes toward a future where we can produce nonpolluting renewable fuel right here in America.

Corn ethanol has taken us one step toward that future, with farmers growing a crop that now constitutes ten percent of the nation’s gasoline. It is a success story, but one that is probably nearing its zenith. With 40 percent of corn already going into ethanol (more than is fed directly to livestock), and concerns about increasing water pollution from the corn belt, Congress stopped the tax credit that supported the ethanol industry’s growth for the past thirty years. Corn ethanol will continue to thrive at its present capacity, but future growth in biofuels is going to come from other sources.

The second generation of biofuels is most likely to come from biomass—organic matter from recently grown plants. Biomass has the potential to be much kinder to the environment.

I like to envision a future for this region that keeps farmers and local communities economically thriving while they expand into biofuels production from a new crop—grass. Perennial crops including switchgrass, miscanthus, alfalfa, and mixed prairie species will be planted for annual harvest, leaving roots and stubble in place year after year to protect soils and provide habitat. The new biomass crop will not only be profitable in itself, but simultaneously improve conservation for neighboring croplands.

Imagine diverse and profitable farms incorporating resource-protecting biomass crops into their production. Each farmer will carefully assess every acre of their particular farm. Flat, productive fields will continue to grow food crops, while biomass becomes a profitable crop for other lands. Grass will be established on slopes and eroding lands. Wide buffers around every stream, river, sinkhole, and even roadway ditches will become water-cleaning energy crops. Pastures will be expanded as farmers manage them for both livestock grazing and biomass production, depending on markets and their own choices. Vulnerable places subject to disaster payments from drought or floods will become productive with hardy and tolerant grasses or fast-growing poplar, hazelnut, or willow plantings.

Biomass production will only expose the land once, during establishment, and then protect it for years to come. Harvests will be conducted in late fall or early spring, when grasses have pulled nutrients back down to hold in their roots. Other biomass harvests such as judicious corn stover removal or hay and pasture mowings will even out the work year.

Historically, Fillmore County has changed its farming mix several times. Native Americans grew some corn along the rivers, but mostly managed the land with fire for wildlife. Early settlers plowed extensively to grow wheat, until erosion and soil depletion took its toll. Farmers then adopted systems of crop rotations including small grains and hay to protect the soil, along with much pasture land in rougher areas. Then many rotations gave way to simple corn-soybean systems, and today even continuous corn is expanding.

Now it is time to move on to the next cropping system, with biomass crops woven all around the most productive food crop acres. Our local economy will benefit from the new industry. Perennial grass systems can produce two to three times as many gallons per acre of biofuels compared to corn, with lower input costs. At the same time there will be clear streams, clean groundwater, and a resurgence of wildlife living in the biomass-covered lands. Soils will improve, and organic matter levels will rise, helping to mitigate climate change. Best of all, there will be more farm families able to make a living with diverse production.

Cellulosic biofuels are the subject of amazing research and development. A wide diversity of feedstocks, conversion processes, and final biofuel types are being tested in pilot projects. Actual construction, while slowed by the economic recession, is now beginning at several locations.

Envisioning the future we want is the essential first step to getting there.

[Google “Growing a Green Energy Future: A Primer and Vision for Sustainable Biomass Energy” to read the full report I wrote for the National Wildlife Federation.]

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