Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Ag Hot Five No. 5

1. Sungold Cherry Tomatoes, Everyone's Favorite

Here's a reminder to plant the Sungold Cherry tomato in your garden this year. Since introduced in 1992 by the British mail order seed company Thompson and Morgan, it has become the favorite cherry tomato. It produces early and prolifically all season long. It is one of the sweetest tomatoes, is high in carotene, and remains firmer than other varieties. This is an F1 hybrid, indeterminate, and disease resistant.

2. Farms and Total Farm Acres Covered by Direct Payments, Crop Insurance, and Conservation Programs

In 2010, 261,000 farms, operating on 234 million acres of cropland, received direct payments and also purchased crop insurance. As the 2012 farm bill is being written, let's review where the subsidies are going and note the overlaps in the above graphic.

2010 Dollar Amount Totals for Top Three Farm Subsidy Programs:
  • Direct Payments $4,372,816,732
  • Conservation Reserve Program $1,819,697,348
  • Disaster Payments $2,534,890,885
(Note that corn subsidies totaled $3,519,507,154 in 2010.)

3. The Imperium Renewables Biodiesel Plant at the Port of Grays Harbor, Washington

Grays Harbor Biodiesel Plant is the second largest biodiesel production facility in the United States, with an annual capacity of 100 million gallons per year. It sits on 12-acres and has storage tanks capable of holding 17 million gallons. The facility manufactures biodiesel from canola oil and soybean oil. After opening in 2007, it faced numerous financial difficulties and nearly closed in 2009. It has turned around now, after two solid years of profitability. The year 2011 saw a fourfold increase in biodiesel production over 2010.

How did it turn around? Follow the mandates and follow the money.
  • A biodiesel mandate in Oregon and a new push to reduce the carbon content of fuels in British Columbia opened up strong new markets. The mandates require that percentages of biodiesel be blended with diesel sold at service stations.
  • A $1 per gallon biodiesel tax credit (which was allowed to expire in 2010) was reinstated for the year 2011 and was made retroactive for production in the year 2010.
  • Federal mandates require 1 billion gallons of biodiesel fuels to be marketed in 2012 (in the U.S.) and higher amounts are expected to be mandated through 2023.
  • Imperium, together with Lanzatech and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have received a $4 million grant from the DOE to work on technology to convert cellulose to ethanol to jet fuel, although price remains a huge obstacle. Alaska Airlines paid about $17 per gallon for 28,000 gallons of the biofuels used in test flights this fall.
Recently, a group of soybean growers from Nebraska were invited to tour this biodiesel plant. Because this plant does not give tours to the public, the video below via Market Journal gives us an opportunity to see the facility.


4. How is Ag Doing in India?

Terrace farming in Kasauli in the Shivalik hills, Himachal Pradesh. The roofs are yellow because of maize drying on them. Photo credit: flickr CC by Koshyk

Record crop production this year, increased mechanization, and a ramp up by the government to build grain storage, suggest that India's farmers are embracing industrialization of agriculture. As youth flock to the cities, the rural farmers are getting rid of old tools and bullocks while embracing tractors and precision technology. Having very small farms of less than 2 hectares per capita, the solution for affordable equipment is renting it, banding together with neighbors to purchase it, and buying very small tractors to work the small fields. Tractor sales have increased 42 percent in India over the last five years totaling 552,434 in 2011/12, and averaging 7-8 percent growth per year. Currently, India's farmers use half the amount of power that China's farmers use. As fewer work animals are used, less dung means that synthetic fertilizer demand is rising. Farmers are becoming more prosperous, building new concrete houses, and buying refrigerators, televisions, and motorbikes.

India is the world's second largest producer of rice, wheat and sugar. This year, India's wheat and rice harvests are 3-4% above last years record harvest. Sugarcane and cotton are are also expected to be bumper harvests. India's government owns 64 million tonnes of storage space for grains, 20-25 million tonnes of which is temporary. New silos are being planned and constructed along rail lines. The country, with a rapidly growing population, has an ongoing problem of food storage and distribution. Food grains rot while poor people go to bed hungry.

A normal monsoon season is expected this year.

5. "Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks" — D.C. Conference

On April 12th, the Future Tense Project sponsored this conference about global agriculture in Washington D.C. If you are interested in hearing any of the presentations, videos are available here. I selected a few quotes from some of the speakers via twitter below.

Edward Carr:
We can do more ag research to capture carbon in soil, where there is huge potential! You can't make generalizations about ag in Africa. Food waste: 40% of food never makes it to market! It's even higher for some veggies. There is the huge issue of distribution.

Hans Herren:
We don't need MORE food. We need food grown in different places, by different people, and of higher quality. 2.5 billion people depend on small farms.

Scott Faber:
Greenhouse gas gains can be found in reducing nitrogen and reversing course on ethanol crops. From 1995-2010, $250 billion in subsidies went to handful of farmers. Where's evidence that those dollars are needed?

Meghan Stasz:
In the U.S., we throw away 215 meals per person each year.

Fred Kirschenmann:
It takes 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food in the present U.S. agricultural system. Research dollars must be invested in developing perennial plants for a resilient food system. We can do without cars, computers, even underwear, but we can't do without food. Solutions are perrenials, agroforestry, and biological synergies. Priorities are restoring biological health (soil) and biodiversity. Only 6% of farmers are under 35, but there are more flying under the radar. We may reach "peak phosphorous" before "peak oil." If that happens, can't produce food the way we're doing it now. 95% of Iowa's cultivated crops are corn and soybeans. Climate change is not good for specialization. We need to convert the discussion from "greening up" to resilience. How do we keep ag resilient? Through simplification and economies of scale. The food system operates out of a single mandate: maximum efficient production for short-term economic return.

Graham Meriwether:
Ecological agriculture isn't a return to the ways of the past - it uses cutting edge models and technologies. The U.S. has more people in jail than farming. Test-tube meat doesn't "feel right."

Mark Hertsgaard:
Corn does not reproduce after 95 degree temps. Iowa experienced 3 days of 95+ once per decade in past. By 2040, Iowa will experience 95-degree stretches three years out of four, not one out of 10.

Nina Federoff:
We tend to forget Arab Spring started with food riots. Turning teosinte into the maize (corn) we eat today was the "most remarkable feat of genetic modification ever". A lot of food we grow goes toward feeding animals. Changing the food supply for animals may be easier than changing it for picky people. Genetic engineering of plants is not going to be enough to rescue us - it's just one of many things in the tool box. Increasing current crops salt, temperature, and drought tolerance won't be enough. (She is investigating Saudi Arabia plants called halophytes, like "sea beans," that can tolerate increased salt.)

Sara Scherr:
Using GE seeds on depleted soils in developing countries is like putting high octane gas in a car with flat tires. Plant breeding programs are too limited, focused on the 19th century food production model. One-half of the world's wild species are only present on agricultural lands.

Importance of technology:
By 2015 there will be 1 billion mobile phones in use in Africa. (More and more ag apps are emerging for use there such as the successful iCow app.)

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