Don’t Bet Against the American Farmer

By Dallas Tonsager, Under Secretary
USDA Rural Development

peaking at the annual Commodity Classic farm conference in Tampa, Fla., in early March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack took a strong stand in support of our nation’s biofuels industry. He said American agriculture can produce enough crops to supply both our food and biofuel needs.

“Don’t bet against the American Farmer,” Sec. Vilsack said. “If you do, it’s a losing bet.”

The Secretary’s words resonate deeply as Americans are once again watching, with that all-too-familiar feeling of helplessness, as gas prices soar in the wake of the political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East.

According to one estimate, each penny increase at the gas pump sucks $1 billion out of the U.S. economy. Petroleum imports account for 50 percent of our nation’s trade deficit.

American farmers and their co-ops are not the types to just wring their hands over the situation; they have stepped up to the plate and are trying their best to do something about it.

To help our nation progress further along the road to energy independence, Arkansas farmer Joey Massey and his fellow board members of MFA Oil are supporting an ambitious plan under which its farmermembers would plant a special grass crop (Miscanthus x giganteus) on nonproductive farmland in Missouri and Arkansas as a feedstock for biomass fuel. As you can read on page 4 of this issue, the co-op would then process the grass into biomass pellets, which will be marketed to power plants and the poultry industry (for heating poultry barns). At a later date, the grass could also be used to produce ethanol.

Massey looks forward to the day when he will not only help feed the nation and world with his rice, wheat and soybean crops, but will also run a farming operation that produces all of its own energy needs. MFA Oil CEO Jerry Taylor cites a study that shows that the project could create 2,700 new jobs and have a $150 million impact on the region.

Those who attended a session on biomass power that I moderated at the recent USDA Ag Outlook Forum heard about the Tennessee Biomass Innovation Park, where a demonstration cellulosic ethanol plant is producing fuel from switchgrass supplied by a farmer co-op (this project will be featured in an upcoming issue of Rural Cooperatives).

Meanwhile, in Iowa and elsewhere, progress is being made by ethanol processors developing technologies to use crop residues — such as corn stover — as a source for ethanol.

All of this underscores that there will probably be a number of different sources for biomass fuel — including dedicated energy crops (such as Miscanthus and switchgrass), crop wastes and waste woods.

As readers of this publication know, livestock wastes can also be used for energy production. More dairy farmers are turning manure into methane gas energy.

It’s not just what farmers can grow on the land that produces renewable energy. On the high plains of the Dakotas, the nation’s largest co-op wind farm is being developed (see page 10). With 108 wind turbines that can generate 150 megawatts of electricity, the Crow Lake Wind Project — backed with a loan guarantee from the Rural Utilities Service of USDA Rural Development — is a joint effort of the Basin Electric Cooperative, a local association of landowners (which owns seven of the turbines) and a technical college (which owns one turbine that will be used to help train future turbine technicians).

When fully operational, the new turbines will mean that the Bismarck, N.D.-based co-op will be producing 12 percent of its total power capacity from renewable resources. From the vantage point of just 10 years ago, that is an amazing accomplishment. Basin Electric is also recovering heat from the exhaust of the compressor pumps on gas pipelines.

These projects represent just a small fraction of the renewable energy projects ongoing, or being planned, across the nation. Ultimately, rural America’s greatest source of power is the ingenuity and drive of our people. If we can help nuture their ideas and determination, I have no doubt that someday this nation will achieve energy independence. As Secretary Vilsack indicated, never under estimate the American farmer. And if I may add to that: never under estimate what our farmer and utility co-ops are capable of when the power of one is multiplied by the many.

March/April Table of Contents