Machete to Sustainability

7 06 2011

This Geography guy really needs to get out of the classroom and the city for that matter once in a while.  Modern agriculture is probably demagogued and more poorly understood than energy efficiency, and since this opinion piece addresses both I will dispense with its shredding.

I grew up on the farm 30 years ago in southern MN and northern IA, and I stay in touch spending a week each year reliving my childhood farming days.  My elder brothers still run the place.  They grow maybe 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans and raise and market maybe 25,000 hogs per year.  To the ignorant, they would be perceived as ecology-destroying corporate/factory farmers.

Wrong.

When I was a kid, farm chemicals were more dangerous, less effective, and more heavily applied.  Yet since they were so ineffective, noxious weed and grass control was largely provided by tillage which is environmentally unsustainable in two ways.  First, it takes a lot more diesel fuel, obviously.  Second, erosion was rampant.  If there was one thing I always pressed my father to do as a kid it was to reduce tillage to leave more crop residue on the surface to reduce erosion – from both rainwater runoff and wind.

Back in those days, everything was plowed black – as in, all crop residue buried.  Why?  To bury grass and weed seed along with it.  The spring snow melt would leave three inches of topsoil in our grove (where the snow drifts / dirt dunes were) and road ditches.  Who knows how many tons per acre landed in Indiana or Tennessee?  Moreover, in the spring, we would typically have to scramble out to the fields to run rotary hoe to stop blowing dirt from sand blasting the young crop that just broke ground.

In total, we would make about seven or eight trips over the field to till, plant, cultivate (weed), harvest, and plow.  For soybeans, we would actually use machetes to chop weeds during the mid-summer heat.  Find a fourth grader who would do that nowadays.  Parents would be hauled away in handcuffs for child abuse and maybe reckless endangerment.  This one looks just like my Grandmother’s.   My father would sharpen them every morning before we took to the fields.  No sheaths, guards or any of that kind of crap either.

For livestock, we used to raise hogs and cattle in more “humane” ways in the open field.  This makes for a nice image to the Geography professor but in truth what would happen is the sows would root holes in the soil for a nice cool spot in which to snooze.  Soon they would give birth to a litter of pigs.  Then the rains come.  After having lain on and crushed two or three pigs, the remaining ones would be freezing in the cold water and mud.  Ninety degrees is perfect for these little guys – not 60F and mud.

The good old days weren’t so good.

Fast forward thirty years.  Unlike the Geography professor claims, farming has changed, hugely, and in the direction of sustainability AND increased productivity.  Most crops are now Roundup ready, meaning they are genetically modified to withstand Roundup, which otherwise kills everything rooted in the ground.  This may sound horrible but it only kills what it lands on and is benign to soil, doesn’t drift, and doesn’t run off.  What are the implications?  Fuel use is drastically reduced and the minimum soil tillage results in practically no soil erosion, which brings other benefits in addition to being intrinsically sustainable.

First, when I was a kid and everything was plowed black, soil erosion continuously uncovered rocks on hills and hillsides.  We used to spend weeks before and after planting hauling rocks off the fields – more child abuse.  Have you ever had your foot run over by a rock wagon?  Neither have I.  Rocks are not kind to expensive farm equipment.  It would beat the crap out of tillage equipment, planters, and god help you if you ran one into a combine.

Second, water erosion destroys crops.  First, as it washes down from highlands it takes crop along with the soil to the lowland.  In the lowland, crops will survive in standing water from the runoff for just a few hours.  With modern minimum tillage made possible with Roundup, erosion is practically nil.  In addition to preventing runoff, erosion, and associated crop destruction, residue, otherwise known as stover or trash, helps soil retain moisture to carry crops through dry spells.  It would be common to have 10-15% of our crop land flooded every year; now there is practically none.

The Geography professor claims 107 gallons of fuel are burned to produce an acre of crop.  This is crazy.  First, recent conventional thinking was that to break even a Midwest farmer needs about $500 revenue per acre.  That covers seed, rent or farm payments, chemicals, fuel, overhead, this, that, and the other.  Well 107 gallons is not far from $500 alone.  Second, it probably takes about a half gallon of fuel per acre each to plant and harvest and maybe another couple gallons for tillage (minimal) spring and fall .  That’s about three gallons per acre, direct.  Chemicals and fertilizers?  I have my Roundup booklet right next to me and that says it takes about 20 ounces per acre.  That’s a British pint, give or take a spit, per acre.  Does the fertilizer take the other 102 gallons per acre?  I don’t think so.  A ballpark estimate is 100 lbs per acre.  That’s probably in the 10-15 gallon/acre fuel equivalent, ballpark.  So, I’m seeing 20 gallons equivalent, maximum.

Note however, many modern factory farms produce their own fertilizer for free.  The Geography professor may think the factory farmers are ruthless dingbats, thriving on tortured, cramped, sick livestock, quietly dumping manure in the creeks because it’s cheap and easy.

The modern confinement barn where livestock is mass produced is always portrayed as a hellish inhumane place for livestock.  Wrong.  Sick, stressed, uncomfortable livestock does not eat or grow.  Growing is the key to making a profit.  It’s that simple and irrefutable.  The modern farm is as productivity centric and competitive as Wal-Mart is with its supply chain.  Adapt or die.  Everything revolves around keeping livestock healthy, dry, cool/warm, and frisky.  They even get lots of natural ventilation and daylight – how is your work station in this regard, by the way?

Back to the fertilizer.  The manure produced by the confinement barns provides nearly all fertilizer for the corn crop needed to feed the hogs.  Let me clarify this: the waste displaces an enormous amount of “artificial” petroleum-derived fertilizer – and it’s produced and applied locally.  It is knifed into the soil in the fall in precise quantities to maximize value of all fertilizer needs: potash, phosphate, and nitrogen.  Its nutrient content is better known than it is for a Snickers bar.  Typically, just enough is applied to satisfy the most abundant one of these so as to not over fertilize or waste any of it.  The remainder, which is hardly any, if any is made up by petroleum or natural gas derived fertilizers.

Fields are mapped for soil nutrient levels with GPS positioning systems.  “Fertilizer” application is adjusted continuously as it is spread to provide just enough per the specific needs of each location.  Resources are leveraged to the maximum extent possible.  Like any other business, sustainability, energy efficiency and profit are not exclusive competing interests in Midwest agriculture.

Did I mention, an acre of land today produces about 50% more crop than when I was a kid?  And another thing – crop genetics have improved such that grain drying, often provided by propane, a petroleum derivative, has declined significantly.

Is it perfect?  Heck no, but it’s a world better than most people realize and I could go on for several more pages regarding how much more sustainable and less abusive things are today compared to the “family farms” of the 1970s and earlier.  The only digression I see is the absence of machete wielding 4th graders earning a few bucks for college.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP





Spring Forward Monday Afternoon

16 03 2010

I was blindsided by the onset of daylight savings time this weekend.  Wonderful.  As though I don’t already have enough work to do before I can get outside to do some badly needed yard work – hack an hour off my weekend to boot.

If I remember correctly, daylight savings time used to begin at the end of April and end on the last weekend of October.  I also believe that these dates were moved to the current dates of mid March and early November as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  This is supposed to save energy.  I can generate as much energy to displace the savings using a hydropower generation station in my back yard.  I have a stream about four times a year: once when the snow melts, but only when there is enough and it melts fast, and three other times when it rains hard.

Folklore has it that daylight savings time was developed so farmers could take advantage of more daylight hours and/or it saved candle wax and whale blubber.  How is this supposed to save energy in modern times?  It was just starting to be light enough in the morning so I wouldn’t need my flector for my morning run starting around 6:15.  I didn’t need lights in the house.  Tomorrow (Monday), it will be pitch black when I grumble my way out of bed.  Lights are required when they weren’t last week.  Savings at night is offset by more lighting use in the morning, but in our house more lights are used in the morning for numerous reasons.

Moreover, more daylight allows people to be goofing around outside later at night using even more energy for cruising around in their giant yachts, personal watercraft, golf carts, and other evil stuff people don’t need.  They should be inside reading a book by daylight that is so graciously bestowed upon them.

At the office, our heating and cooling system shuts down at 7:00 PM, period – whether it’s light or dark outside.  I’ve seen a lot of cockamamie control sequences in my time but I’ve never seen a heating and cooling system tied to daylight.  Already last week it was light till about 6:30 in the evening.  We average only 4-5 people in the office after that time of day and we only use task lighting, but then we’re energy efficiency freaks, not normal people.  No savings here.

What else is there?  Planes, trains, automobiles, busses, and water-going vessels?  Water heaters, clothes washers and dryers, refrigerators, and toasters?  Nothing there.  Street lighting.  Ditto.

If this is such a brilliant idea for saving energy, why move the clocks with such a difference in daylight hours at the time of springing forward versus at the time of falling back.  Clocks are moved forward in the spring about one week before the equinox.  In the fall, clocks are moved back about six, maybe seven weeks after the equinox.  This is a huge difference in daylight hours.  Once again, I blame congress, this time for not only knowing nothing about energy efficiency, but they also can’t handle this symmetry thing.

There should be more engineers in congress.  Engineers are symmetry freaks.  Just put some graphics in front of an engineer to see which they prefer – one sample is curvy, eclectic, and abstract – is actually interesting – and the other is all squares with a perfect balance of ink on all sides and non threatening colors, like blue, white, gray, or black.  Anyway, engineers would vote to have clocks moved in spring and fall on days with exactly the same length of daylight.  In fact, it may even be at a precise time like the start of spring, at 8:46 Greenwich mean time, Sunday March 21.  (I don’t know when it really is, I’m just making this up – I’m ok with that)

If we can’t abolish it altogether, like Hawaii and maybe Indiana (someplace over there) my suggestion is to at least change the law to move clocks forward in the spring at 1:00 PM, Monday afternoon.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP





Save Energy – Get Out of Jail

15 12 2009

Unless you were living in a cave four or five years ago, you know Wal-Mart was under relentless assault by, I’ll just call them activists.  Complaints included: They weren’t providing health care to enough people.  They weren’t paying overtime.  Their goods were manufactured in sweat shops overseas.  When unions tried to organize their meat cutting operations, Wal-Mart exited the meat cutting business.  Their executives were making too much money.  The company was making too much money.  Part of the real gripe was that Wal-Mart had saturated the rural and small town markets and they had started to impinge into larger markets.  Social elites in university towns did NOT want to sip cappuccinos across the street from Wal-Mart, or see Wal-Mart flyers in the Sunday paper, or perhaps worst of all, they did not want to attract the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart to their enclave.

It seemed all of a sudden, the whining stopped, overnight.  Why?  I would say their green construction, energy efficiency, and purchasing muscle to get suppliers to become more efficient and green probably shot the knees out of this protest movement.  Suddenly it seems, Wal-Mart had become one of the greatest corporate forces for green business practices in the country.  This was like one of the Hatfields marrying into the McCoys – a reluctant truce between the activist crowd and Wal-Mart.  This was a Joan Rivers kind of a makeover (have you seen her lately?).

I attend a half dozen or so mid-size to major energy efficiency conferences a year.  Wal-Mart’s energy efficiency and green purchasing requirements are showcased at many of these events by keynote speakers.  Ironically, Wal-Mart was lambasted for its hardball thuggery in negotiating pricing deals with its suppliers.  I don’t hear the same for these green requirements.  Playing the green card has gotten Wal-Mart out of protester jail.

Not only has the green card gotten Wal-Mart out of jail, it has new competitors scrambling.  As one case in particular, a grocery spokesperson stated a few years ago that [paraphrasing], “We do not want to become Wal-Mart.  We do not want to compete with Wal-Mart.”  To one extent this was smart.  If you compete with Wal-Mart on price, they would crush you.  However, Wal-Mart’s green initiatives have positioned them to gain market share at the expense of these former non-competitors.  When another company is stealing your customers, it’s competition whether you want to compete with them or not.  Not only is Wal-Mart greening its business and its supply chain, it is greening its competitors.

As the skeptical engineer, I ask myself, are they really saving energy in their stores?  You can see it when you walk into their stores.  As their skylights stream copious daylight, their lighting fixtures are dimmed down to a tiny percentage of full power.  I am told that in some stores as you walk the refrigerated case isles, occupancy sensors flip on their low-power LED case lighting.  Now that is demonstrable energy savings.  Even energy neophytes can see what’s happening there.  Ok.  This is all dandy.  What’s the bottom line?  It appears these stores are not the Toyota Priuses of the grocery and retail world if you look at their “gas mileage”, or energy use per square foot.  There is plenty of room for improvement.

On a completely unrelated note, it seems the State of California is following my advice to see that stimulus money spent on energy efficiency is actually resulting in energy savings (November 17 rant).  The California Energy Commission has issued a $4 million request for proposals to verify savings occur.  I’m sure I influenced that – heyaaah, right.  Hahahaha.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP