Energy concerns, Middle East conflicts and home-grown independence are all reasons why our nation needs to develop an energy policy that works for the people, the environment and for long term sustainability.
Alcohol-based fuels and vegetable fuels are both made from plants. Vegetable oils are being treated and made into bio-diesel. French fry cars! Corn is being processed into alcohol then denatured to make it into a non-drinkable alcohol based fuel. Denaturing is simply adding some hydrocarbon based fuels, like gasoline to alcohol making it a fuel and non-drinkable alcoholic liquor. The gasoline you buy at the pump today is a mix of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.
Using corn as a fuel is good for the midwest farmer, but is hurting the eastern and western dairy farmers who use grain in their feed rations. The cost of corn has risen and it eventually affects food prices. Increased corn prices, along with the western drought have increased beef and pork prices. Food should be for feeding people and animals, not fuel.
Switchgrass is an option that many energy scientists are looking at. Once the enzyme is found that can break down the switchgrass and convert sugars to alcohol, grass may be the fuel source instead of corn. Prairie land could be planted to switchgrass and harvested for fuel use.
The benefits would be long term perennial grasses planted instead of rotational crops, so carbon would be tied up, erosion reduced and overall fuel and energy used on the farm for crop production reduced. Corn could once again be used for food, hopefully reducing dairy farm feed costs.
Switchgrass is also an excellent pheasant cover grass if managed for wildlife habitat. Cutting the grass after the bird’s nesting period allows a new brood of birds to survive. Tall grass habitat is also made by simply not mowing some areas like along ditches, roads, stream corridors, and keeping conservation reserve fields for wildlife. Now midwest farmers would have two sources of income once again; grass for fuel and pheasant hunting which brings in millions to areas like South Dakota. When the prairie grass was plowed in and turned to corn ground, much of the bird’s habitat was lost. This would be a win-win for both the farmer and the pheasants.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.