Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ag wish list

The recent E.coli outbreak in spinach and last year’s string of hurricanes indicates our vulnerability to disease and disaster. Now states want the federal government to better address food safety standards and preparedness. Illinois and other farm states also want the feds to help farmers grow more fruits and vegetables, fund research and development of renewable fuels and create a standard disaster response program. Illinois’ Department of Agriculture Director Chuck Hartke this week provided a taste of Illinois’ wish list for agriculture, including the alternative crops we discuss in-depth in our October issue (due out the first week of October). Hartke recently attended a weeklong meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in Norfolk, Va. Here are a few talking points:

Ethanol “Ethanol is just exploding in the Midwest, especially those states that produce corn and soybeans,” Hartke said. Illinois has six ethanol plants online, one more coming soon. There also are another 50 or so plants in various stages of development, from studying the feasibility to filing their permits to build. While Hartke said not all of the “wannabes” will work out, he gave an optimistic outlook: “Within two years, we’ll be producing 2.8 billion gallons of ethanol and utilizing 1 billion bushels of Illinois corn, which is half of what we have.”

At the same time, Illinois has dipped from No. 1 to No. 3 in the gallons of ethanol produced a year. But there’s a reason for that. Hartke said Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota saw the light a year-and-a-half ago and went gung ho to develop ethanol plants while the market was hot and the corn was cheap. They’re also big cattle states, meaning they can feed a lot of animals with their corn. Illinois, on the other hand, has more corn and fewer cattle. That means farmers have to spend more money and energy to dry the grain before they can send it down the Mississippi River to other states or countries. “I don’t think we’re behind the eight ball,” Hartke said. “We have a lot more corn, and at some point in time, we will be able to produce more corn than those plants are willing to buy and pay for.”

Biomass While corn ethanol benefits Illinois’ economy and environment, it’s not the magic bullet. “We know that if you took all the corn and we planted every acre of corn in the United States, we would not have enough to be energy independent,” Hartke said. “And so we’re going to have to look at other sources that would produce more ethanol per acre and still conserve our soil and our land as we now know it.” That includes experimenting with more switchgrass, miscanthus and other plants that form biomass, which can turn into clean-burning, renewable fuel. “We know it’s a possibility. We can do it in the labs, but the technology and the enzymes for mass production of that is just not there yet.” That’s where the federal government’s research and development would come in. Read more in our October issue.

Farm Bill Congress is considering an extension of the Farm Bill beyond 2007. Hartke said he supported an extension in Illinois, at least. A wish list could include more assistance for conservation programs, standard disaster insurance coverage for all crops and support for young farmers to get into the agriculture business.