Farm Bill and Ethanol Production

The issue of alternative fuels and sources of ethanol continues to be in the news lately. I received this email from MnNPS Paul Bockenstedt, and thought it was timely and would be of interest to others:

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I wanted to jot you a note to mention something that might be worth mentioning at a MNNPS meeting this spring.

I was in Des Moines last weekend and attended a Farm Bill forum with three federal lawmakers, including Tom Harkin D-IA and Collin Peterson D-MN, Chairs of the Senate and House Committees on agriculture, respectively. The focus of the forum was on wildlife habitat and anticipated risks of the next Farm Bill on conservation. Based on what I heard, I thought it would be good to pass along observations on a few subjects that were discussed.

FARM BILL
It is clear that there is a huge amount of pressure on farm operators to take land out of CRP and plow up remnant prairie ground for conversion to corn in support of the ethanol industry. Last year, ~15% of Minnesota’s corn crop went to ethanol production. Until biomass ethanol production technology comes online that is capable of handling material from diverse prairie plantings, there will be a huge push to put more ground into corn production. Right now, it appears that that the technology is only to the point where it can handle single-species material (i.e. switchgrass). The estimate for 2007 is that 8 Million acres of CRP will be converted back to corn.

As well, sodbusting of remnant prairie is still a big issue in parts of the tall/midgrass prairie region. When the subject was brought up to the lawmakers on the panel, Peterson said that he thought sodbusting of remnant prairie is a bad idea, but said that he thought the best mechanism to deal with it is probably through the Federal crop insurance program, not the Farm Bill. Harkin was confused about what remnant prairie is, which was disappointing.

What I’m leading to is the idea that conservationists, native plant enthusiasts, hunters and others need to be contacting their lawmakers this spring about their support for the conservation components of the 2007 Farm Bill. A few of the items that hit my radar include:

  • CRP and other similar conservation programs should be increased, not cut.
  • A mechanism that prevents and/or penalizes conversion of remnant prairie to rowcrops needs to be put in place. Remnant prairie areas are sensitive and too important from a biological diversity standpoint to passively enable their destruction.
  • Reinstate the $20 Billion that was captured from the Farm Bill conservation programs in the last few years. That money was used to cover large, unplanned expenses such as oversees military ventures and should have remained in conservation.

BIOMASS ETHANOL PRODUCTION

All three of the congressional panel members only mentioned “switchgrass” as the biomass source for cellulosic ethanol production. Tilman, Hill, and Lehman’s research at the U of M points out that diverse prairie is much more productive, reduces inputs, sequesters more carbon and is better for the land than even switchgrass. Although multi-species cellulosic digestion technology is a few years away from being realized, lawmakers need to start hearing now about the importance and multiple benefits of diverse prairie plantings using local native species. Diverse prairie plantings is not just an exercise in conservation anymore, it is now economically important.

Thanks for taking time to consider my thoughts.

Paul

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Thanks for the email Paul!

This article from the Star Tribune explains why corn is not likely to be adequate to supply the nation with enough ethanol to meet current government goals for renewable energy.

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