Archive for November, 2011

Livestock industry’s top “tweaker,” critiques today’s throwaway culture and advocates “hands-on problem solving.”

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The recent passing of Silicon Valley titan Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple Corporation) brought many assessments of the particular talents that made him a great technology innovator. His biographer Walter Isaacson and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell offered the notion that Jobs was one of the great “tweakers”—an innovator whose prowess lay not in wholesale technological change, but in the refinement of existing technologies to make them far more useful.

Temple Grandin, the premier “tweaker” of modern animal agriculture, spoke November 16 to an industry group in a packed ballroom at the Minneapolis Convention Center. It was the annual meeting of Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a trade group that brings together Minnesota’s Fortune 500 food processing companies, agribusiness and finance concerns and farmer groups. These industries employ one-in-five Minnesotans and generate a huge portion of the state’s economic activity.

Her diagnosis, not of livestock production, but of the culture of early 21st century America: Many people would rather dispense with whole industries instead of fixing problems.

This comes from decades of the development of today’s current, and wrongheaded notion of the proper field for activism, she said. Many people believe the only way to improve life is through tort lawyering.  At times hands-on problem solving offers more immediate and superior solutions, Grandin said.

Sitting together with Minnesota Public Radio interviewer Kerry Miller, Grandin conducted a conversation on her life, work and the current state of animal agriculture.  She wore her trademark black and turquoise western-style shirt.

Grandin has become famous for her pragmatic redesigns of cattle slaughterhouses that simultaneously make the facilities far more humane. As common sense would indicate, reducing fear and anxiety in the animals through very specific improvements in both the physical plant and methods of handling the cattle, result in both greater efficiency and less distress to the animals.

Grandin has risen to prominence in this field not in spite of, but because she is “differently abled” in modern parlance. Her condition as a high functioning autistic person allows her to process information differently from most people, and to gather and communicate unique insights about animal behavior and needs.

Among the changes she has brought to cattle slaughter: elimination of reflective surfaces and lighting problems (sometimes shadows, sometimes bright lights) at key points in slaughter facilities that frighten cattle; the elimination of slippery flooring. Just as important, Grandin has developed pragmatic diagnostic tools that help assess whether a slaughterhouse is functioning properly. For instance, the very concrete measurement that if more than three animals in a hundred are mooing constantly—a sign of alarm—the facility is not working right.

Looking ahead to changes that could offer still more improvements, Grandin suggested that slaughter plants not only offer educational tours, but actually livestream video of what they are doing over the Internet, in order to short-circuit erroneous claims made by animal rights advocacy groups.

“By the way, calling them harvest facilities is BS!” said the no-nonsense Grandin. “Call ‘em what they are—slaughtering plants.”   

She repeated to this audience her philosophical notion that without our use of cattle, these millions of animals would never have been bred and born.

Therefore, a humane animal agriculture is an undeniable good from the viewpoint of the animals themselves—a viewpoint into which Grandin’s autism allows her to have unique insights. She thinks far more visually than the average person, and so is able to look at cattle feedlots and register patterns in the motion of the cattle that indicate reactions to the physical set up and the methods of human handlers.

Her fame increased astronomically when a biopic film starring Claire Danes told Grandin’s compelling story. Rather than institutionalization—the fate of many autistic people growing up the 50s and 60s—her mother arranged for early one-on-one intervention and consistently advocated for educational alternatives that allowed Grandin to pursue her dreams and become a doctor of animal husbandry.

Asked about further needed changes for animal agriculture, Grandin told the group there is no excuse for “downers” – animals that arrive at slaughter sites too weak to stand and walk on their own so that they literally fall down. Improper treatment, inattention to proper breeding or a combination of both is to blame. Sow gestation pens must go, she said, criticizing the practice that doesn’t allow the pig enough room to turn around for most of her life.

“Two thirds of people can’t take the idea of gestation pens,” she said.

Grandin represents the need for a critical and pragmatic approach, but one that does not for an instant suggest that the solution is ending animal agriculture. Looking at both producers and consumers she noted that people seem to want “the thing without the management required to (properly) make it.”

She said there are companies doing it right out there, including McDonald’s, which was among the first to employ her slaughter house animal handling methods and physical plant designs. Both Cargill and Swifts now use video auditing to assure that facilities hew to a humane and efficient practice.

“(Industry method) problems develop slowly, and ‘bad’ becomes ‘normal.’ You have to give me a fit animal. That I can handle,” said Grandin. “They (cattle) live a pretty good life. Other (domesticated) animals still have a ways to go.”

Ethanol demand, like oil demand, likely to last

(from an article “Is Ethanol Sitting on A Bubble?” By Christine Stebbins, published by Reuters news service)

Grain farmers in the Midwest may want to pinch themselves.

In recent years they have been buoyed by a dream scenario. Record high prices. Record high profits. Record high farmland values. Near record production. Farm debts paid off.

“Historically agriculture has been asset rich, cash flow poor, profit poor. This time we are asset rich and profit rich. That makes for a very combustible brew,” said David Kohl, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Virginia Tech.

“It’s a super cycle. It’s only happened four times in the past 100 years,” Kohl told U.S. agricultural bankers at their annual meeting this month.

But can it last?

Analysts often cite the rise of China and India as the main driver of the boom, with their hundreds of millions of hungry and wealthier consumers lining up at the table for grain from the United States, the largest food exporter in the world.

But the single biggest consumer which has changed the game in farm country in recent years is closer to home: ethanol.

The alcohol-based fuel has, in less than a decade, gone from consuming less than 10 percent to currently 40 percent of the giant U.S. corn crop.

That enormous slice of the pie — which exporters and starch makers and food processors and livestock feeders must also still fight for — is the key to the recent farm boom.

“That is a huge factor” and likely the single biggest cause behind the surge in corn prices and farm income, according to Leland Strom, chief executive of the Farm Credit Administration, regulator of the government-linked Farm Credit System, the largest real estate lender to American farmers.

The dynamic has been simple. The 2007 U.S. energy bill mandated that a total of 15 billion gallons of renewable ethanol must be produced by 2015 for energy independence. Almost all that fuel is “blended” with gasoline.

Demand for corn skyrocketed, with prices of corn and then corn land following it up. Other grain prices have risen just to assure that farmers don’t all switch to corn. Farmers have reaped the benefits, as have their suppliers from John Deere to Monsanto to fertilizer producers to land auctioneers.

“There are a lot of people betting a lot of money on land right now. Land wouldn’t be going for $9,000, $10,000 an acre in the Corn Belt unless people were convinced that corn prices were going to stay strong,” said Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University’s biobased industry center.

But will corn prices stay strong? More to the point, will ethanol prices? And if they don’t, will the bubble burst?

Confidence in ethanol is being tested in the current U.S. budget environment, where Republicans in Congress have been pushing for major cuts in spending that include long-standing subsidies and incentives for ethanol production.

A blenders tax credit and a tariff on ethanol imports are set to expire on January 1, 2012. Most experts do not expect either to be renewed given Republican-led budget pressure.

But the mandated use target remains 12.6 billion gallons of ethanol in 2011, peaking at 15 billion by 2015, or roughly 10 percent of the fuel burned by cars and light trucks.

FINE-TUNING OR PLAYING WITH FIRE?

“There is currently fine tuning going on in policy. We anticipate the blender’s credit is going away at the end of the year but the mandate is still going to exist to blend. It’s not going to change the amount of corn we’re blending,” Strom told Reuters in an interview.

“It would take a major shift away from the mandate to have a strong effect in challenging these corn prices and the demand for corn,” he said.

As for the lending stance of FCS to farmers who may be seeking loans to buy more land to plant corn?

“I’m not ready to term it an asset bubble. I think we are in an era that warrants extreme caution by those in the industry, the farmers or investors who are purchasing land,” Strom said.

If ethanol is the key to corn prices and land prices, then experts say crude oil remains the key to ethanol.

“A bubble implies it’s going to burst some time and the farm economy would go into the tank — or the ethanol bubble will burst,” Babcock said. “Demand for ethanol derives primarily from the price of crude oil. As long as crude oil is high, the demand for ethanol is going to be high and agriculture is not on a bubble.”

(Graphic: corn vs crude oil, ethanol: link.reuters.com/fuc25s)

But Babcock and others, including ethanol producers, also say $30 billion in investment and growth in ethanol in recent years has changed the outlook. Ethanol producers, for instance, now export almost 1 billion gallons a year, mostly to Brazil where sugar-based ethanol is common.

“If you let the free market work and crude oil fell substantially,” Babcock said, “you would still have a robust ethanol industry. Why they would stay in business is that the price of corn would fall. That is their number one cost.”

Kohl also sees ethanol on solid ground without subsidies: “Much of the industry could survive. If it went away four years ago it would have had a big impact. Today, much less.”

Ethanol producers cite the benefits of lower corn prices. But there is also a subtle political factor for those in Congress: corn is grown in most U.S. Congressional districts, where farmers have reaped the dream scenario of ethanol.

“The ethanol industry has rejuvenated rural America,” said Todd Becker, head of Omaha-based Green Plains Renewable Energy. “We bring high paying jobs back to small towns. It has huge impact on the local community. The brain drain out of rural America has been incredible. We’re able to bring it back with good, high paying jobs,” Becker said.

Kohl also said though lower ethanol and corn prices would hurt all those now benefiting from the farm boom, farmers would be in far better shape for a downturn now than 30 years ago when the last big farmland bubble burst in the 1980s.

“Today we have an asset bubble, we don’t have the credit bubble like we had in the 1980s,” Kohl said in an interview. “The owner has more skin in the game, has plowed their profits in. So when that corrects … they have resilience through the equity.”

Our Take:
The farm economy and energy markets have been inextricably linked for a while now, but ethanol forges that link in the strongest possible way. We have an ethanol industry that can stand on its own now, say the experts—thanks to the inherent fiscal conservatism of farming with its waste-not/want-not pragmatism.

At this point, if oil prices fall, all commodities will follow, including corn, which would help the ethanol industry to healthier margins. To the extent that corn farmers are invested in ethanol production, this will work as a hedge.

The key for farmers is to be extremely cautious about the current price of land. Since farmers have taken the profits of the last few years and invested these in land and capital equipment, they won’t face the same kind of bust from falling prices that created the credit crisis of the late 1980s. So say the experts quoted by Reuters. Knowing that all markets, including farm commodities, have always been cyclical, caution is always warranted.

With all these elements lined up favorably for farmers, the one major element beyond their control is public policy regarding farm-based energy. Ethanol can stand without subsidies, unlike the oil industry. But to compete with oil’s virtual lock on the transportation fuel market, the one thing ethanol needs is a guaranteed floor, a minimum required use. We are convinced that a tipping point will be reached—when say the 20 millionth flexible fuel vehicle hits the road and higher level ethanol is available at say ten percent of the nation’s fueling stations, then ethanol will be able to compete with gasoline on price alone.

Until then, Congress needs to realize that a lot of agricultural jobs and wealth are tied up in today’s renewable energy policy. To end the RFS would pull the rug out from under rural main street businesses and private family budgets across the US farm belt and beyond. People whose employment or wealth comes not only from farming, but also from equipment manufacture or agricultural tech providers like Monsanto and Pioneer—many millions of Americans would experience terrible losses without the renewable energy requirement that contributes to the value of today’s agricultural production.

Why we must be communicators for agriculture

By Kelsey Gunderson, MCGA Agvocate

On November 3-6, I was given the opportunity to attend the Agriculture Future of America (AFA) Leaders Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.  It was such a great chance to meet with other college students who also have a passion for the agriculture industry.  I participated in the second track of the conference where we focused on communication in agriculture. We went through sessions on using social media, understanding body language and how to make effective presentations.  Throughout the four days, I met with industry leaders, learned about different and effective ways of communications, and connected with other students from across the country.

While focusing on the use of social media, we talked with a panel of industry partners that explained their use of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube to advocate for agriculture.  Much of our society gets their information from these types of media, so a way to spread agriculture news is by engaging in social media discussions, linking articles, pictures and videos to our messages, and by simply talking with people directly.  We listened to speakers such as Ashley Collins of AgCareers.com, Betsy Beard of Monsanto, Michael Berry of Specialty Fertilizer Products, and Darin Grimm, a farmer. Each spent time talking about how they have made an impact on others by using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. 

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association uses social media on a daily basis where people can find information about corn, ethanol and agriculture on Facebook by “liking” Minnesota Corn, Ag News by Farmgirl and Rooting for Ag.  On Twitter, the public can follow @mncorn or @AVoiceofAg for information. 

The ways we communicate are always important when we are talking to others about agriculture and we have to be sure to convey our key messages correctly. These were points made by Jana McGuire of Center for Food Integrity and Hugh Whaley of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance as they discussed the importance of spreading our agriculture message.  Each gave participants many key tools in talking with consumers, discussing the correct words to use and the importance of listening to what each side of the story has to say.  We know how important agriculture is and it is our responsibility to talk to the public about what farmers do.  We need to be the instigators, start the conversation, and tell people about the food they are eating and what we do as farmers on a regular basis.  We can also try to reach people through the media, writing blogs, engaging in social media and writing to newspapers.

It was an exceptional conference that reminded us that we have a continued job ahead of us and we all need to be advocates for agriculture.  This year’s theme was “My Piece. My Place. Our Future.”  We each are a piece of this agriculture puzzle and we have to find our place in this world to help sustain our future.

Scientist developing new biomass estimates for Minnesota

By Jonathan Eisenthal

A farmer may be able to take a ton of biomass off each crop acre.

But what conditions will encourage farmers to take part in harvesting biomass? And how much biomass could we then expect Minnesota’s farm acres to sustainably yield?

Those are the questions being explored by Joel Tallaksen, a scientist at University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris. His research project, funded by Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council, is called “Implications of Corn Producer participation Rates on Stover Biomass Markets” through which he is working to develop a more precise, concrete estimate of how much biomass would be available from Minnesota’s farms, for use in renewable energy and value added products.

Biomass could be used to generate power and serve as feedstock at ethanol and other industrial plants where there is a ready supply of agricultural residue close by. Biomass could also be used to produce ethanol or other value-added products.

Tallaksen plans to survey a cross section of the 6,000 farmer members of Minnesota Corn Growers Association sometime in February or March, and he is hoping for a good response—from both producers who want to harvest biomass and those who don’t—so we can understand that factors affecting the farmers’ preferences.

“If biomass is done right, this could be a significant new revenue stream for farmers, ethanol producers and Minnesota’s rural communities,” said Chad Willis, a farmer in Willmar and chairman of Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

Farmers are expressing concerns about not wanting to remove biomass from their fields for agronomic and sustainability concerns—the fear that it could reduce soil organic matter too much or lead to soil erosion.

“Our recommendation right now is to harvest biomass on corn acres every second year of corn in a 50/50 corn and soybeans rotation, on good land,” said Tallaksen. “But we have to emphasize the need to check soils to make sure they are healthy. When we conduct our survey, we want to try to figure out where in the state people are more or less willing, and what other factors might be involved—for instance, the age of the farmer, or the amount of land they have could have an effect on their willingness—another key factor would be how much they would profit per ton of biomass.”

National studies of biomass availability, looking at the range of agricultural, forestry and even municipal waste residues, may have overstated the amount that would be available for commercial use, at least initially. Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Billion Ton” studies give a general overview, according to Tallaksen, but this previous work may not provide a complete picture for potential investors and entrepreneurs who need a better sense of the supply before building facilities that can use these materials.

One element often left out of the equation is weather patterns, according to Tallaksen. The unpredictable and local nature of weather would have an impact. A very basic analysis of the first snowfall date and when Minnesota’s peak harvest activity happens shows that about one third of the time, the state experiences its first snowfall before harvest is completed. Since biomass would have to come off after the crop, this can present a major problem. Corn can be combined in light snow, but once biomass is wet, collecting and storing it become much more difficult.

At the E3 conference on November 7, Tallaksen presented preliminary work on the issue he has conducted with Michael Reese, but the team looks forward to the MCGA survey to get a more complete picture.

E3 posters provide forum for MCGA-sponsored research

Project to increase ethanol yield, value of DDGS “comes at the perfect time”

By Jonathan Eisenthal

While we worry about the general public getting the facts on distillers grains—namely that ethanol plants make feed as well as fuel—the E3 conference provides a great forum for sharing information and creating excitement among renewable energy scientists and entrepreneurs about MCGA-sponsored research in the biofuels field, including an exciting project that promises to enhance ethanol production profitability.

The kind of exposure found at E3 can leverage additional funding, and help make matches that will lead to commercialization.

The annual E3 Conference on Renewable Energy Innovation, which took place last week Monday, brought together hundreds of scientific researchers, graduate students and private industry representatives at the University of Minnesota to share the latest developments. A key medium for this information exchange is the display of research project posters.

Among those presentations getting attention was the poster of Dr. Pavel Krasutsky, who leads a team at University of Minnesota Duluth that is developing technology that separates the oils from distillers grains and processes them into ethanol and biodiesel while it renders the distillers grains a more purely high-protein feed. Economic analysis of the technology estimates a significant return.  Their project is called Development and Commercialization of a Biorefinery for Processing DDGS in Biofuels and Other Value-Added Products.

The technology can be bolted on an existing plant or included in new construction, at a cost of about $30 million. Using this technology, an acre of corn would produce 440 gallons of ethanol–a ten percent increase—and in addition it would yield 35 gallons of biodiesel. The resulting distillers grains offer a higher protein concentration, from the current industry standard of 28 percent, up to 40 percent. The process also removes water from the distillers grains, making transport more economical. An additional high value product, corn zein, could be derived—this is a clear substance that can be sprayed on fruits and vegetables to enhance their appeal and preserve them during transit and on the store shelf. The value of these products would repay the investment in about two years, according to Krasutsky, who noted that agribusiness giant ADM has approached the team and expressed interest.

“With the blender’s credit likely going away, this model of ethanol production becomes very important,” said Riley Maanum, MCGA Research and Project director. He pointed to an economic analysis that found that this technology could increase the returns to an ethanol plant by approximately ten percent.

Throughout the day, conference participants view the posters, and have the opportunity to chat with the researchers, who stand beside the posters, ready to offer additional information. Five research projects sponsored by MCGA were displayed.

The E3 conference is put on by University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, IREE, along with supporters like MCGA.

IREE explicitly offers the forum to help funders and high quality projects find each other. The conference program noted that IREE “seeks out promising new renewable energy ideas and provides them with the resources needed to bring them to life. Since 2003, IREE has invested nearly $37 million in more than 240 promising research projects. This investment has not only enhanced our energy security, but also generated jobs and more than $69 million in additional funding.”

Of climate hawks, traditional environmentalists and finding energy heroes

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Atlantic Monthly senior editor Alexis Madrigal gave the noontime address at this year’s E3 conference in Minneapolis last week and offered his view that the Green Tech movement will gain momentum, and the ones who will bring this new message to the public will be….engineers.

Madrigal wrote the book Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, launched Atlantic Monthly’s “energy” Internet channel and previously was a major contributor to Wireless magazine’s blog, Wired Science.

Green Tech can and will find new heroes who can capture the public imagination and effectively convey the need for alternative energy, according to Madrigal.  He noted that today’s two big protest movements—Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party—share the common feature of drawing power from and contributing power into an Internet-based system of distributed knowledge. A similar groundswell for new energy technologies could arise the same way.

To point in the direction of how Green Tech might win the day, Madrigal projected a slide of Brooklyn. The photo showed the city brought to a complete halt by a major snowstorm last winter. In a stark, graphic way, these city dwellers were made to face the results of climate change. Anomalous weather events have become more and more frequent and are not just something that happens to the environment, but now they are events that overwhelm the way we have engineered our cities to serve our everyday lives.  That’s harder to ignore than other phenomena that impact the environment.

His prescription for a winning political message—“Green Tech has to get away from the rhetoric of “saving the earth” and talk instead about ‘saving the civilization we have built.”

One interesting development noted by Madrigal is the conflict arising between camps he calls the “climate hawks” versus “traditional environmentalists.” Climate Hawks are those who have accepted global climate change as the most fundamental environmental challenge facing us, and so would prioritize the deployment of green tech. Some of the most heated resistance against green technology has come from traditional environmentalists who worry about wind power arrays that threaten bird life or solar power installations in deserts that threaten tortoises.

Traditional environmental groups are ‘built for certain things’ like preserving land and endangered species, or fighting pollutants that might be called more traditional than atmospheric chemistry. In contrast, the entrepreneurs and science students at the E3 conference are the ones who not only will develop the solutions to climate change, but will be uniquely suited to helping America get excited about renewable energy.

“We need heroes, and I like to look to the people who built the current power generation system,” said Madgrigal. He acknowledged how it has become fashionable to criticize them, but “think about what these engineers and inventors and business leaders were able to do from 1900 to 1965. They drove down the cost of electricity and at the same time increased the size of generators and the amount of power at our disposal.”

Although Madrigal said the profit motive was a strong element, these people did what they did “to make the country a better place….we need to draw some of these people into our narrative—the people who wanted to build it bigger, better.”

One audience member, in asking a question of Madrigal, proposed that Prof. Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineer and longtime proponent of grain ethanol and other renewable energy sources, is a bona fide Green Tech hero.

Madrigal said this can be the story of Green Tech—the next step in an ongoing effort to build America and make it bigger and better.

Madrigal also offered the notion that the Green Tech scientists and entrepreneurs in the room could strengthen their position by including the concept of ‘resilience’ into the technology they are trying to develop. Today’s technological civilization offers wonders like just-in-time delivery but at the same time suffers a kind of fragility whereby a single problem can bring a whole system to a halt.

He ended by telling the attendees of the E3 conference of his confidence that they will win out. Madrigal said, “You are on the right side of history!”

Fly the Earth-Friendly Skies

(“United marks nation’s first biofuel-powered commercial flight” by Jon Hilkevitch, Chicago Tribune, November 8, 2011)

Continental Airlines Flight 1403 made history when it landed at O’Hare International Airport on Monday, becoming the first revenue passenger trip in the U.S. powered by biofuel.

The Boeing 737-800, which was painted in the new environmental “eco-skies” livery of United Airlines and flown by Continental pilots, burned a “green jet fuel” derived partially from genetically modified algae that feeds off plant waste and produces oil.

In completing the Continental flight from Houston, parent company United Continental Holdings Inc. thus won by a scant two days the competition to launch the first biofuel-powered air service in the U.S.

On Wednesday, Alaska Airlines is scheduled to begin 75-passenger flights along with its sister airline, Horizon Air, that will take place over the next few weeks using a biofuel blend made from recycled cooking oil. Alaska Airlines officials said the 20 percent biofuel blend its planes will use will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent.

More U.S. airlines are expected to join the effort to fly more cleanly — and eventually more economically — than the use of traditional, petroleum-based Jet-A fuel allows, based on a crude oil price of $100 a barrel or higher, experts said.

(Full article at http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-1108-united-airlines-biofuel-plane-20111108,0,1786646.story)

Our Take:
How about that? Turns out B40—40 percent biodiesel– is a ‘drop-in’ fuel for jetliners. We think applications for renewable biofuels await around every corner. Without the politics of EPA’s fuel approval process, and without all the smoke the oil industry blows, we think E30 would be considered a drop-in fuel in today’s conventional car engines (no, don’t try this just yet—you’ll void your warrantee), but Detroit’s commitment to making every other car that comes off its assembly lines a flex-fuel vehicle pretty much accomplishes the same goal.

The big thinkers are telling us that solar is going to happen to the electric generation industry in America. It’s working in Germany, where they have 75 percent acceptance of a system to pay a premium on electric power that promotes renewable development.

Along with our new awareness of solar power, we hope everyone will recognize biofuels—from grains and plant matter alike—represent the most efficient method for putting solar energy into the gas tanks of our vehicles.

Together with plug-in electric vehicles, we could really clear the air, put a lot of people to work, and stop sending our hard earned dollars to OPEC.