A Little Quibble I Had With Ken Salazar Last Week

(photo taken with a keychain digital camera)

This time of the year, governors are holding agricultural forums across the country. The theme of many of them this year seems to be innovation and a futuristic focus. I ventured into our own Gov. Hickenlooper’s conference last week here in Colorado. This year’s forum, held on a snowy Valentine’s Day in Denver, was titled “Cultivating Innovation – Creating Ideas for our Future.”

First of all, let me tell you that my governor is better than your governor. He’s been referred to as “presidential material” more than once and he does a great job whether the role is introducing the President of the United States or the Dalai Lama. His occasional gaffes are priceless and could easily qualify him for a spot on The Daily Show. Besides Hick, he’s been called Hickenblooper and Frackenlooper. He told us that the other state governors envy him because even though Colorado is a divided state, budgets get passed by large margins. He leads bicycle tours through farm country to educate urbanites about farming, something I can’t really see Dave Heineman or Chris Christie doing. He boasted to us about how he had to explain to one cyclist last summer how many calves are in a litter. Next September his Pedal the Plains will be in Southeastern Colorado.

Hick told our audience of 290 that agriculture took us out of the recession by contributing 40 billion dollars to Colorado’s economy last year. Since the budget supporting agriculture in the state is 40 million and only 17 percent of that comes from the general fund, agriculture is a “lean and mean machine”. (These days, many states, as well as our nation, are looking to agriculture to solve fiscal problems.)

Our very own Salazar brothers added a feeling of comfortable homeyness to the day. John and Ken enjoyed telling us that they grew up on a Colorado San Luis Valley potato farm, where six siblings shared a bedroom in a house that had no electricity or running water. They told us about their potato cellar building contest when they were kids, and the fights that they had. John is now our Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture and Ken will soon be retiring from his position as U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Not even NPR’s darling cowboy poet, Baxter Black, can top that story. Yup, he was there too, in video form, crooning away from the seat of his saddle in New Mexico.

One statement repeated throughout the day by different speakers was that the public needs to be better informed and educated about agriculture. Farming only employs one percent of our population and most of us are now several generations removed from our farming roots. The system is complex, yet vitally important and there are few people who really understand it. In response, our education system aims to become more interactive across the multiple disciplines with which agriculture intersects.

We were told by the USDA’s representative for the event, Under Secretary Michael Scuse, that progress continues in agricultural foreign trade negotiation agreements, his niche of expertise. He went on to tell us the patriotic benefits of biofuels and how they can and will be used to fuel the U.S. military as well as our airline industry, saying that “the best is yet to come” — familiar phrases that those of us who have been paying attention have heard many, many times before.

The promotion of pie-in-the-sky biofuels by Scuse was expected. But, I didn’t expect it from our Secretary of the Interior.

That brings me to the title of this post, which has a literal interpretation. After Ken Salazar told us how proud he was to have played a role in passing the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, I just had to ask him why.

That Act has been responsible for more environmental destruction of our nation’s “interior” that any other legislation passed in recent history. It included our renewable fuels standard and the mandated use of corn ethanol. The policy dictates the amount of corn that we as a nation consume for fuel up through the year 2022, now accounting for more than 40 percent of our entire corn crop.

Since it passed, 1.3 million acres of grasslands in the Western Corn Belt have been plowed under in just five years to grow more corn, a rate unseen since the 1920s and 1930s according to a new PNAS study just released this week. The Renewable Fuels Association has already denounced the study, but the Environmental Working Group gave us reports months ago about the loss of grasslands over the past five years.

I see the destruction first hand on trips back to my family farm in Eastern Nebraska. Here and there one sees stacks of bulldozed trees, old farmplaces, and the removal of grassy buffer strips to eek out more corn acres. Any regional pheasant or duck hunter can tell you that the habitat loss has been tremendous in the corn belt. Conservation Reserve Program lands in the Midwest have given way to “fencerow to fencerow” farming in the name of fulfilling a biofuels policy that promotes all out monoculture crop production. Wildlife habitat has declined. Soil and water are being degraded.

Furthermore, water was a main theme of the day for obvious reasons. The Colorado River is already over-subscribed and its basin is expected to receive 10 to 20 percent less runoff in the coming decades, as will the Rio Grande basin. With water one of the greatest challenges facing us in the future, it seems unconscionable to use precious aquifer water and groundwater to produce corn ethanol, which is happening especially in Nebraska, but also here in Colorado, Kansas, and other states. The International Energy Agency predicts that biofuels will consume 30 percent of energy’s growing share of water use by 2035 as part of the energy-water-food nexus.

I’m on the farmers side. I grew up on a farm in Nebraska and my family still farms there. I want the farmer to make a respectable living and to have guarantees when weather wipes out crops. I want policy to support the economic viability of the small and mid-sized farmer so that the fabric of our rural communities is preserved. We need the next generation of enthusiastic young farmers to be able to begin farming if that is what they want to do to replace our aged farmer of today. But, unfortunately, today’s biofuels, direct payments, crop insurance, and quantitative easing policies have driven up farmland prices to levels that make it nearly impossible for them to pursue farming as a career.

No corn farmer is complaining about the corn price tripling since the renewable fuels standard became law, including the farmers in Argentina and the Ukraine. The ethanol policy has played havoc with grain prices, livestock operators, and ranchers — because if you mess with the corn market, you pretty much mess up everything. It rewards agribusinesses, ethanol interests, and certain states and farm producers, but there would be better ways to reward our farmers than by creating artificial mandated demand of corn and soybeans for biofuel. (Fifteen percent of our soybean crop is being turned into biodiesel.)

Agricultural policies and regulations need to protect both the farmer, and the natural resources of our state and our nation. I’m proud to now live in a state which values sustainability and innovation for an agricultural future that is comprised of more than a few monoculture crops. A state which harbors a land grant university that is more innovative than most land grant universities teaching the subject of agriculture, and where my own son is a student.

Our national agricultural leaders and policy makers have their work cut out for them. I wish them the best of luck as they forge on in trying to write a new Farm Bill that all Americans can be proud of, later this year, and then, I wish them luck in getting it passed.

15 thoughts on “A Little Quibble I Had With Ken Salazar Last Week

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Thanks. He cut my question short and said “I know what you’re going to say.” But, as usual in these situations, time is limited. He gave me the reply that he likes grasslands, too, but that today’s ethanol is paving the way for advanced biofuels and that we are making progress on cellulosic which is coming. The canned response.

        1. K. McDonald Post author

          Nice phrase. I was talking with a mentor last night, a retired journalism professor, who read this piece and commended me on it. He reminded me that not all readers understand what I assume they understand. Like, that the energy returned on energy invested is pretty dim for most biofuels from the engineering perspective, that cellulosic will barely ever scale because it doesn’t pay to move the low energy density of the mass around, and that by following the money one understands where the damage control public service type announcements come from. You and I share similar roots and a similar perspective on this story, as to us it is more than just “fly-over” country. Though I assume everybody already knows the environmental damage being done, the fact is, they do not.

          1. DonEWG

            And the thing that gets glossed over is that a major feedstock that cellulosic relies on — field stover — means scraping all that off the fields and eliminating the huge environmental benefit. I don’t buy it that harvesters will leave plenty behind — if they are making money on it they are taking it all.

  1. Lee Hethcox

    You tried! I tell people around here (semi-rural Virginia, but only 60 miles from DC)about the down side of using corn and soybeans and if they raise any kind of animals for home use, the lights go on and they say, that’s what’s happened to feed costs! I explain to my customers why the eggs cost more to raise and they are astounded. Not enough people know the facts.

  2. Valerie

    I really appreciate you speaking up. Policy does have impact. People unconnected with agriculture know little about the imact of subsidies and programs on habitat and soil quality.

  3. DB

    Coincidentally, when I was growing up in Iowa we had an ultra-conservative Senator Bourke Hickenlooper, These Hickenloopers are everywhere!

  4. Brady

    I would be interested to know how you plan to fuel your car in the future and your solution to feeding the world. This kind of thing drives me crazy, if Americans aren’t complaining about one thing they complain about the other. They’ll whine about MTBE contaminating water supplies, they’ll whine about rising gas prices and relying too heavily on foreign oil. While in the next breath, bash the solution to weaning ourselves off foreign oil and saving our oil reserves for future generations. Is it environmentally friendly to pump chemicals into the earth and frack our way into Energy Independence? Is that sustainable? One small crisis in the middle east or Europe and you can watch oil prices climb, gas prices climb because there is no competition. Why hate ethanol? and why hate corn? What are your solutions? You certainly seem to know the problems..

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Thanks for your comment. I hate hypocrisy as much as you, and it is rampant everywhere. Since you want to know what my plan is, I use my bicycle and drive very little. I get groceries on my bike, for example. Most Americans aren’t so lucky because they live in a place that doesn’t allow for that easily or they have too much pride to bike. The MTBE story was unfortunate, because it provided the excuse for corn ethanol which was never a viable fuel answer.

      Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet answer to our energy problems because we’ve built a society and an infrastructure and an economy based upon cheap fossil fuels. It’s my #1 interest and the reason I write about Ag. I’m trying to help find solutions.

      Policy could do the most to help plan for the future but government and economics are so short sighted that that is unlikely. Efficiency gains hold promise for the near term, but again, economic interests sometimes hurt with greater efficiency. So, we need smart proactive policy.

      Corn ethanol has cost us valuable time and monetary resources which could have been directed to some better research projects or infrastructure.

      I’m not anti farmer. Please know that. Ag policy needs to help the farmer make a decent living, but through sustainable farming and farm systems that create a vibrant rural America. Today’s Ag policy is causing rural areas to decline. I believe that aesthetic values in the rural areas such as more public land and natural prairies would help attract young people to rural areas and help tourism and pride in the local communities.

      Your question requires a book to answer it, but I hope this helps show you my view.

      1. Brady

        You are a great writer, your pieces flow nicely, your words are colorful and are fun to read. I can apprecitate that.

        But underneath the colorful words and well structured sentences is a lack of meat. Your sentences paint a picture of the evil world of industrial agriculture, money laundering politician teaming up with greedy corporate farmers.

        Bashing the current solutions is not “trying to find solutions” Its very easy to sit along the sidelines and heckle the current players when you cannot put together a better solution. Oil isn’t the answer? Ethanol isn’t the answer? Planting prairie and grassland is? Everyone riding a bicycle and planting there own vegetables will feed the world? I like living the the 21st century, having running water and electricity. I have no desire to go back to the old testement, where famine and disease were rampant. Erase hundred years of invention and creation to support our worlds over-population problem. Advances in farming and science helping to feed more people, and maybe even fuel our cars. I like where we are, but if you want to live in a cave and eat nuts and berries go ahead. Attacking the policy and solution makers isn’t the solution, I’d look at the heart of the issue, can the world support us? We are born to this world, take from this world until we die, then return to this world. How many can take from the world before the world must take back?
        If you’d like to see people riding bikes, trying to garden themselves and living this “Sustainable way” go to any third world country, where poverty, disease and violence rule their worlds. Too me, that is not a better place or a better way

        1. K. McDonald Post author

          First, let me say that unless you’ve read every blog post that I’ve made, please don’t judge what I represent. Often, someone discovers this site, reads one or a few posts, and rushes to a judgment. That’s not fair. I see myself as a rare in between writer who is far more open minded to methods than the “religious” organic people and I think that industrial Ag is remarkable by its efficient productivity. That’s just the problem. We have over-production, then we need policy to destroy the excess crops we’ve created, all at the expense of the environment.

          I’ve spent years reading about the science of energy and biofuels. If you’re interested in learning more in those areas, I’ll give you some site suggestions.

          No one is willing to compromise their lifestyle, like you said here, which means that we’ll be forced to compromise it at some point:

          ” I like living the the 21st century, having running water and electricity. I have no desire to go back to the old testement, where famine and disease were rampant.”

          You represent all Americans and developed world persons including myself. No one is willing to give up their energy or the nice life that energy allows them to live.

  5. Brady

    No, I have not read nor plan to read all of your blogs, posts or articles.
    I don’t think I’m one to rush judgement on your posts but maybe I am wrong. From the posts I have read, you seem to be against corn, against ethanol and against industrial ag. You seem to support smaller farmers and hobby farms.
    Its amazing what we’ve done to disassemble the corn kernel and make so many different products from one plant. A plant that can be grown in America and has been bred to adapt across multiple soil types and climates. A product with so many uses that we can afford to use it as fuel, as food, make-up, plastic, thousands of products… this is a solution we have in place to provide for billions of people. Would destroying this system help America? the World? I don’t believe so, I believe we’d create thousands of peasant farmers, hungry people, decreased GDP and millions of people without jobs..or maybe they could go help the peasant farmer pick his tomatoes or harvest his potatoes.


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