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Experts push for farm change

BY JOSEPH BELK | FEBRUARY 18, 2010 7:30 AM

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Iowa’s thousands of farmers face a slew of issues in contemporary agriculture, including energy efficiency and skyrocketing prices.

Experts gathered to discuss these issues’ role in the future of farming on Wednesday night, as part of the UI Public Policy Center’s series of sessions in contemporary problems.

Oil and energy sources were the focus of the two-hour long seminar.

Among the three panelists was Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He said he thinks oil could reach $300 a barrel in the next decade.

“Our current industrial model of agriculture is only possible because of cheap fossil fuels,” said Francis Thicke, a candidate for Iowa secretary of Agriculture. “We’re nearing the end of our cheap fossil-fuel era.”

Laura Krouse, the owner of Abbe Hills Farm, said even her small, non-industrial farming operation is affected by oil prices.

“We’re totally dependent on petroleum,” she said.

Thicke said he would like to see development of new technology for “farm-scale” energy production. Possible avenues of sustainability are farmer-owned mid-size wind turbines and technology allowing for on-site production of biofuels.

“I would like to see us transition our biofuels production toward fueling agriculture,” he said. “Most of the biofuels produced are not for fueling agriculture.”

He would like to see a different utilization of ethanol in particular.

“I think we’re not using ethanol very efficiently,” Thicke said. “We’re using a third of our U.S. corn crop to produce ethanol [for vehicles].”

A 10 percent increase in passenger vehicles’ fuel efficiency would save more gallons of fuel than ethanol would, he said.

He also raised concerns about the environmental consequences of ethanol production. Two gallons of soil are lost to erosion for every gallon of ethanol produced, he said.

“I want to have a dialogue on these issues,” Thicke said. “People with a vested interest [in ethanol] do not.”

The panelists suggested that Iowa farmers diversify their crops to combat rising energy costs.

Kirschenmann said corn and soybeans grow on 92 percent of cultivated land. Agricultural “monoculture” is hard to maintain and requires significant energy — a concern when cheap energy is no longer a reality — and relies on a consistent climate, he said.

He described agricultural systems that utilize “biological synergies,” the mixture of species in which the waste from one species becomes the energy of another.

“Instead of energy inputs, you have energy exchanges,” Kirschenmann said.

Coping with variability because of climate change is one of agriculture’s biggest challenges, Thicke said.

Kirschenmann said diversifying crops would also help combat this problem.

The next session in the series — scheduled for Feb. 24 — will focus on energy.


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