(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.