Cellulosic biofuels: what recent headlines left out

Posted on | April 23, 2014 | No Comments

by Davis Manoushagian, NFU intern

Recently the fossil fuel community came out strongly against rural America, heralding a study out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln claiming that cellulosic biofuels actually increase CO2 emissions.

An eye-catching headline, indeed, but sometimes the devil is in the details, and boy, did this study leave some out.

Cellulosic biofuel production is a way for farmers to recycle farm residues. The UNL study assumes that farmers don’t send any crop residue off the farm, which is a practice many farmers already incorporate in their operations.

An Argonne National Laboratory study has shown corn stover can reduce life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions by anywhere from 90 to 103 percent, although corn stover is not the only input of cellulosic ethanol. Farmers and cooperatives across the county add value to their operations by selling wheat straw, rice straw, cotton gin trash and various other farm residues for the production of cellulosic ethanol.

The UNL study assumes 60 to 70 percent stover removal, a level far beyond what farmers and researchers find sustainable.  The level of stover removal the study used is outlandish to those who know the facts, and does not represent existing best practices.

The fact is that this study is an outlier in a rich field of academic research that over and over again documents the environmental, economic and national security benefits of American-grown energy. Renewable fuels are plentiful, popular and important to rural America. Farmers, ranchers and the advanced biofuel industry help clean up the environment and provide good-paying jobs in rural communities. This issue is far too important to the rural economy and to our nation’s climate objectives to be jeopardized by flawed analysis.

Every day is Earth Day for family farmers and ranchers

Posted on | April 22, 2014 | No Comments

by Lauren Becker, NFU intern

Today is Earth Day, a day when the world pauses to appreciate our land and our environment, and to consider what action we can take to protect them. But what does Earth Day mean to farmers? Farmers and ranchers are the original stewards of the land, as their livelihood depends on their ability to produce from the land. Farmers interact with land, water resources and the weather every day. They are thus the most impacted by environmental issues like availability of water and energy resources, as well as climate change that has been affecting temperature and causing more severe droughts, floods and storms.

One way farmers act as stewards of the land is through conservation. Conservation practices include preventing erosion and ensuring richer soil with no-till farming, planting cover crops, rotating crops and pasture land, and preventing animals from entering streams. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides support for farmers by offering programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and with easements like the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

The second way farmers act as stewards is by preservation. The federal government helps farmers preserve land through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). By removing environmentally sensitive land from production, farmers help increase the environmental health of the land by improving water quality, preventing soil erosion, and reducing loss of wildlife habitat.

This month’s focus during the International Year of Family Farming is on renewable energy. Investing in renewable energy is one way farmers help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce reliance on limited fossil fuels. By taking concrete action to help reduce climate change, farmers benefit their business and protect our food supply.

Earth Day reminds all of us that we all share the earth and its ecosystems, and we all have a responsibility to care for our land. We must engage in sustainable practices. Conservation and preservation are not just ideals, they’re necessary if we’re going to continue to have healthy land, water and wildlife as our population puts ever-increasing demands on the land.

What does the EPA’s waters of the U.S. proposal mean for my farm?

Posted on | April 18, 2014 | No Comments

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rule on the Clean Water Act definition of “waters of the U.S.” has garnered a great deal of attention from the agriculture community — as well as some misinformation. Here are some myths and facts about the proposed rule, according to the EPA:

What it does:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rule will not add to or expand the scope of waters historically protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA).
  • The proposed rule will not regulate groundwater or tile drainage systems, and it will not increase regulation of ditches, whether they are irrigation or drainage.
  • Any normal farming activity that does not result in a point source discharge of pollutants into waters of the U.S. still does not require a permit.
  • If you were not legally required to have a permit before, the rule does not change that.

MYTH: The rule would regulate all ditches, even those that only flow after rainfall.

  • The proposed rule does not expand regulation of ditches.
  • The proposed rule would actually regulate fewer ditches than are currently covered under the 2008 Guidance.
  • For the first time, the agencies are clarifying that any ditch that does not connect to the tributary system or any upland ditch built wholly in uplands that flow less than year round are never jurisdictional.
  • Ditch maintenance activities do not require a CWA permit because they are exempt.

MYTH: This is the largest land grab in history.

  • Fewer waters would be covered under this rule than were protected in the 1970s.
  • The CWA is written and applied to protect clean waters, the lifeblood of communities, businesses, agriculture, energy development, and hunting and fishing across the nation.

MYTH:  Those 56 conservation practices may be exempt from 404 but not other parts of the Clean Water Act.

  • The 56 conservation practices were selected because they only involve section 404 discharges – dredged or fill material, and because they protect/enhance water quality.
  • The agencies are eager to promote landowner practices that help to enhance environmental protection and protect the nation’s clean water.
  • The agencies are clarifying that operators are exempt from the need to obtain a 404 permit when they follow any of these 56 conservation practices – practices that are good for farmers and for clean water.

MYTH:  EPA is increasing the number of jurisdictional waters by including ephemeral and intermittent streams as waters of the United States.

  • Ephemeral and intermittent streams have been covered under the Clean Water Act since the 1970s.
  • The agencies are clarifying that ephemeral drainages under tillage and grassy swales on farm fields are not waters of the United States.
  • Over 60% of tributaries nationwide have ephemeral or intermittent flow – the CWA recognizes that the health and water quality of larger streams, lakes and rivers depends on protecting the smaller streams and creeks that flow into them.

MYTH:  EPA is taking control of the pond in the middle of the farm.

  • The proposed rule does not change jurisdiction over farm or stock ponds.
  • The rule does not change the existing exemption Congress created for farm or stock ponds which are covered by the CWA.
  • Farmers and ranchers can continue to use and maintain their farm and stock ponds as they always have – this does not change.

MYTH:  Groundwater and drain tiles will be regulated under the CWA.

  • For the first time in regulation, the agencies are making clear that groundwater, including groundwater in drain tiles, is not covered by the CWA.
  • The agencies are also making clear that swales, erosional features, rills and gullies are never regulated.

MYTH:  Farmers need a permit for cows walking across a stream or wetland.

  • Farmers do not need a permit for cows walking across a stream or wetland.

Community-led development makes a real difference in a Senegalese community

Posted on | April 18, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org.

Driving through the countryside in Senegal, it is easy to become dismayed by all of the plastic bags. They are everywhere, becoming more noticeable as one approaches a community. They are mixed in with the earth in the ditches, on the road berm, and in the portions of the countryside nearest the roadway.

Guédé Chantier is no exception. After hearing Guédé Mayor Ousmane Pame talking on the radio about the Eco-Commune movement and Guédé’s participation in it, a group of young adults from Guédé approached him and said they wanted to do something about the plastic litter in town. The result was the formation of the Eco-Sentinelles in early 2013—they celebrated their first anniversary while Harwood was making his February visit. The Eco-Sentinelles is made up of young adults from their late teens into their forties. The President of the group is Binta Dieng.

In their first year, the Eco-Sentinelles held a large number of work days, open to the participation of the whole community, to begin to clean up the plastic litter. They also presented programs of traditional songs, clothing, and customs to the community, particularly the children. In addition, during big events they invite officials in the region—the Prefect, various NGO managers, and religious leaders like Imam Ly—to attend.

They stage theatre shows to sensitize the local population to the risks posed by agricultural chemicals and the necessity to preserve our natural resources—theatre is a perfect medium as many people can neither read nor write. The result of their action is that it has inspired other young people in the neighborhood in Guédé who now organize cultural events, clean up their districts.

The Eco-Sentinelles put in a significant amount of work clearing a large building of garbage. At one time, the building housed the water pumping station. It also sheltered the first electric generator installed by the Chinese to provide power to the village—Guédé was the first village in the area to have electricity. This was part of the Chinese campaign to try and convince Guédé to embrace communism. After the Chinese left, the “Station de Pompage” was abandoned when the city received electricity from the national grid. With no other use for the building, it filled with garbage, almost to the top.

Under the Eco-Sentinelles, the building has been renamed “Environment House,” a place of focus for the group’s activities and large community meetings. Recently they swept out the building and washed it in preparation for a report by the mayor and municipal council of their actions and expenditures since the last election in 2009. The meeting was attended by an overflow crowd of more than 260 people. Pictures of this meeting can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/p5aqwfb.

During Harwood’s visit, the Eco-Sentinelles met with him nearly each day as they were eager to learn about ways in which they could improve their community. In their first evening meeting with Harwood, they talked about the activities they had undertaken to acquaint the children of the community with their cultural heritage as Haalpulaar.

The next day, during a meeting with Amadou Saïdou Diallo, the District Chief of Fresbe, he showed Harwood a traditional building made of mudbrick. He explained how the building was warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than a building made of concrete block with a tile or corrugated tin roof. As he talked about the nature of the building, he lamented the fact that the traditional knowledge about mudbrick construction was being lost because young people were not interested.

At that evening’s meeting with the Eco-Sentinelles, Harwood was to respond to the information they had shared the evening before. Among other things, Harwood suggested that maybe some of them might want to meet with Chief Diallo and learn how to make mudbricks. During the meeting the next evening Binta announced that she was dividing the group into four committees, culture, social, environment, and economy and assigning the learning about mudbrick construction to the culture committee.

In a recent Skype conversation with Mayor Pame, Harwood was flabbergasted to learn that the Eco-Sentinelles had not only learned about making mudbricks, they had used them to build a new classroom for one of the elementary schools in the community; the number of children who can attend school is in part limited by the number of classrooms, so this activity will have a long-term beneficial impact on the community.

The members of the group have also decided that they need to learn to speak English so they can take part in the ecovillage design courses being offered in various parts in the world, mostly in English speaking countries. In May a young American volunteer will begin conducting English classes.

The Eco-Sentinelles look after the computer room in the community and take time to learn computer skills and the use of basic programs like Word and Excel. During the rainy season they planted trees in the schoolyards and other areas around town. They are also following up on a suggestion by Harwood that they work on reestablishing the Genetic Resource Center in Guédé, an assignment given to the economy committee. It will be interesting to see what exciting, but unanticipated, activities come out of their work on the Genetic Resource Center.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.

Top five reasons you should “root” for soil health farmers on Earth Day 2014

Posted on | April 17, 2014 | No Comments

by Ron Nichols, USDA National Resources Conservation Service

View the original post here.

What's underneath? Healthy soil has amazing water-retention capacity. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service is celebrating Earth Day by highlighting the importance of soil health.


Earth Day is next Tuesday.  To meet the growing sustainability challenges of the 21st Century, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is reminding people that many of the solutions are right at our feet — in the soil.

Here are the top five reasons NRCS says why on Earth Day 2014 you should “root” for soil health farmers:

5. A lot of people are coming to dinner. We all rely on the soil for our food and fiber. By the year 2050, an estimated 9 billion people will join us at Earth’s dinner table, meaning we’ll have to grow as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the past 500.

The Soil Health Solution: Improving soil health increases the productivity and function of our soil (including nutrient uptake to plants), which offers increased food security in a growing world.

4. There are fewer acres of land to grow the food we need. Globally, millions of acres of cropland are lost to development or resource degradation.

The Soil Health Solution: Improving soil health naturally can protect our working lands from erosion and desertification and ensure that our food-producing acres stay fertile and productive.

3. Weather extremes like drought and climate change pose increasing food production challenges.

The Soil Health Solution: Healthy soil is more resilient soil, with greater infiltration and water-holding capacity, which make farms more resistant to periods of drought. And since it holds more water, healthy soil helps reduce flooding during periods of intense rainfall.

2. There is growing competition for water and other food production resources — and many resources are limited (or in some cases finite) in their supply.

The Soil Health Solution: Healthy soils help optimize those inputs and maximize nutrient use efficiency. In addition, healthy soil keeps production inputs like fertilizers and pesticides on the land and out of our streams, lakes and oceans.

1. We can repair and rebuild it. For years, it was believed that a certain amount of cropland soil erosion was inevitable.

The Soil Health Solution: By using conservation techniques like cover crops, no-till and diverse crop rotations, an increasing number of farmers are proving that we can actually build our soils — and, in some instances, increase soil organic matter by as much as 3-4 percent. In the process, farmers are actually using less energy, maintaining or increasing production and improving their bottom lines. Meet some of those farmers.

In fact, there are many more reasons why soil health is important to all of us on Earth Day — and every day. Learn more about the basics and benefits of soil health and how NRCS is helping our nation’s farmers “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil.”


Healthy soil retains water, and is a key to the need to feed the world's estimated 9 billion people by 2050. (NRCS photo)



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About NFU

National Farmers Union was founded in 1902 in Point, Texas, to help the family farmer address profitability issues and monopolistic practices. NFU works to protect and enhance the economic well-being and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities through advocating grassroots-driven policy positions adopted by its membership.
Learn more at nfu.org

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