Harvesting the land or mining the soil
By Ken Root
There is a new crop being grown across the country: corn stover. It is called material other than grain, or MOG, which will be the primary ingredient in making ethanol from cellulose. There is debate as to whether farmers can be sustainable in selling their corn and their plant material (stover) to processors for refining into cellulosic ethanol.
DuPont-Pioneer held a high profile media event March 29 at their headquarters in Johnston, Iowa, to sign an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will allow collaborative research into the risks and benefits of removing stover from fields. DuPont-Pioneer has a strong vested interest in this work as the mother company is constructing a 30 million gallon annual capacity plant near Nevada, in central Iowa. The need for stover is staggering with a projection of 590,000 large square bales per year. (Put a pencil to that pile and tell me how big it is.)
Landowners are notorious for selling more from their land than can sustainably be produced. From the trees in Missouri that became railroad ties in the 1890s to the coal that was strip mined across the country, the temptation to gain cash on the short term has overwhelmed the need to keep the land intact on the long term. When the trees were gone, erosion was rampant. When the coal shovels dug across the landscape, it was never the same again.
While removal of stover is not this dramatic, it does raise questions as to the advisability of baling and hauling plant material that has been recycled into the soil as a means to increase organic matter and reduce erosion. Many farmers who consider themselves “sustainable” will have to re-examine their system to see if it can meet that measurement when extracting several tons of plant material per acre.
It may be a very good thing that Cellulosic Ethanol production is at least five years behind USDA projections. The process is not easy and the enzymes needed to break down long strands of cellulose are much more expensive than those for breaking down starch in the grain. Assuming the biological processes are workable, the logistics of this endeavor still astound me. Bringing in a huge volume of baled corn stalks (about one bale per minute to be used by the plant year round) is going to take a lot of equipment to bale and haul from the projected 25-mile radius of the plant.
For farmers, it will come down to money. They will have to explore the economics of contracting for a price that allows them to purchase balers to bundle the stover and use expanded transportation resources to haul it within a two month window each fall. Government incentives for Cellulosic Ethanol production will combine with DuPont’s bid to bring the price high enough to be attractive.
It would appear that the incentive to sell stover would be greater when the harvest is large and the price of corn is low. The region selected for the cellulosic ethanol plant is some of the finest soil in the Midwest with average yields exceeding 200 bushels on a normal year. But the success of this model could cause many more cellulosic ethanol plants to be built in areas with lower productivity and very different soil type.
The agreement to research the effects of stover removal may be viewed as “greasing the skids” in favor of DuPont. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Services will take up the task of determining what amount can be removed without risking erosion or depletion of the soil. What works here may not work in other areas. This land in central Iowa is mostly flat and very heavy. In regions where soil is highly erodible and sloping, the formula may be much different.
Some of the industry watchers at the media event said there was another factor that could influence the success of the cellulosic ethanol industry: “The Blend Wall,” or the mandate by the federal government that a certain percentage of ethanol must be mixed into each gallon of gasoline that is sold by petroleum refiners. This is a very sore point right now with the oil industry and there are dire predictions by members of Congress that there will be a showdown on the Renewable Fuel Standard sometime this year. The oil industry wants to get rid of it and the ethanol industry wants to expand it. If oil wins, future expansion of the ethanol industry may be without a guaranteed market for production. Some think exports may be the future as other countries like ethanol more than we do.
No matter the political clout of the big players in the cellulosic ethanol industry today or the appearance of endorsement by the government, the final decision on selling plant material will be made by farmers. So I ask these three questions:
Has the individual owner/operator evolved enough to make long-term decisions in the face of a short-term bonanza?
Has science progressed enough to formulate “sustainability” on a single field?
Does industry have the moral base to source its enterprise in harmony with the
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.