Caretakers of the Land

By: Anthony J. Gerst.

iowa.jpgThe following is derived from a report issued by the Sierra Club and Worldwatch Institute entitled ‘Destination Iowa: Getting To a Sustainable Biofuels Futures.’

Iowa is 88% farmland. This breaks down to 24.5 million acres of cropland with 51% planted in corn and 41% in soybeans. The next generation of biofuels can offer farmers the opportunity to truly practice their profession. Using legumes and plant cover crops, not to mention switching to perennial crops will restore the air, land and soil. We have the opportunity to greatly increase our state’s abilities to perform carbon sequestering the old fashioned way, by letting Mother Nature do her job.

In 2004, DNR studies concluded that streams in Iowa averaged from two to ten times higher than the appropriate levels for nitrogen. From the report we find that “returning more of Iowa’s land to grasslands and forested lands would make it much easier to regain soil fertility, clean the waterways, and import agriculture’s carbon balance.”

Ethanol has it problems – it’s a new industry, after all. It would be a mistake to figure out what is wrong and fix it with the current crop; we must up the ante to the next level and tweak the process once we have established proper facilities and industrial support of new crops. In June 2007, The Des Moines Register ran a report on the Iowa ethanol industry that cited 394 environmental violations in the past six years. The vast majority of these violations dealt with water pollution.

So many farmers fail to acknowledge the water crisis facing this nation. It should of course be painstakingly obvious. Farmers, you really need to get better organized. You can farm in a more ecological, purifying manner, improve the ecosystem and still make a living. At your current pace you are feeding a cycle that only serves to deplete your water resources. Corn uses about 20,800 gallons of water per bushel during the ethanol process; a perennial crop would filter and improve water quality.

The next generation of biofuels will rely upon quick growing crops that have high ratios of lignin and cellulose. From willows to prairie grasses, the Midwest is ideal for growing these types of crops.
From the prospect of willows to prairie grasses the Midwest is ideal for growing these types of crops. What is needed is a full federal commitment to launching this industry, as so many aspects of it are currently unavailable. Who, if not farmers, are better prepared to create and design (and patent!) new equipment for the harvesting and storage of these crops? As farmers it is important that you drive these changes, or face the fact that your children and grandchildren will be farming in the new American desert.
That or face the fact, your children and grandchildren will be farming in the new American desert.

Actions can yet save the land. Converting an average corn farm to switchgrass can save up to 66 truckloads of soil each year. In one model, planting all available land in a central Iowa watershed with switchgrass reduced sediment flows by 84%, nitrogen by 53%, and phosphorous by 83% over 20 years. Iowa researchers have found the land can largely close the nitrogen cycle (up to 78%) and recover many other nutrients when growing native grasses for gasification by capturing and returning the ash from gasification to the soil– meaning future grass-energy farmers could nearly stop buying fertilizer altogether. Properly done, bio crops and other plants that can replace oil polymers for plastics could reset the carbon balance of the planet.

The amazing thing is that cellulosic crops exist that can provide a 400% increase in energy over what is required to produce and manufacture it.

Already, pilot projects have been carried out to integrate advanced riparian buffers with the production of grasses, trees, and other biomass. . Wind energy should be of particular interest to farmers in the state as the going rate is between 2000 and 4000 a year for every wind turbine setting on your property. So basically this is like farming two crops at once.

Farmers, the caretakers of the land, you are the key to safeguarding your progenies right to farm. The key to fighting climate change resides with you. Demand programs that will help shape a better world. Here in the Midwest they say, “If you don’t like the weather stick around for 15 minutes, it will change.” Many things are changing; will you as the caretakers of the land change?

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