Sustainable Farm Partners

Archive for the ‘Learn’ Category

October 31st, 2017 by sfp

Can farming save the planet?

Courtesy of Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin
by Constantine von Hoffman

Private equity group invests in organic practices as a solution for climate change

Climate change rightfully scares a lot of people. The changes already occurring—from the die-off of coral reefs and shrinking polar ice to increasing global temperatures—are almost too much to take in. Conventional wisdom would tell us that any solution must match the magnitude and complexity of the problem.

Don Wiviott (MBA 1984) begs to differ. For him, the solution is both simple and doable.

The solution Wiviott envisions is to convert typically high-production, conventional, GMO-based farms to certified organic practices. This not only produces healthier food, he says, but also means the soil can capture a significant amount of carbon dioxide, which is the major cause of global warming. That is the focus of Sustainable Farm Partners (SFP), a combination farming operation and private equity group, operating in Iowa, with Wiviott as cofounder and partner.

According to a report from the University of California Berkeley, “Current carbon sequestration in US cropland soils is only 8.4 million metric tons CO2 Eq. per year, compared to an annual potential of 100 million.” Practices like organic farming increase overall soil health, according to the report.

SFP raises funds from individuals, foundations, and endowments to achieve its goals. The huge demand for organic goods such as corn, oats, and alfalfa, and the higher prices they command than traditionally grown crops, creates a dramatic increase in financial returns. The SFP team and its operators, who have decades of experience in both organic and conventional farming, directly manage the farmland they convert. The organization uses a profit-sharing model, giving all participants––partners, operators, and management alike––a stake in the profitability of each crop, and maximizes a collective interest in the health of the soil.

“If you restore soil and agriculture and don’t use chemical fertilizers to grow crops, and you change your tilling practices, if you did this with one in five farms around the world, you would capture enough carbon dioxide to offset the current excess,” says Wiviott, noting that SFP can document up to 30 tons per hectare of carbon dioxide capture at its farms.

In addition to capturing carbon dioxide, organic farming cuts down on demand for artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers. “This is the only thing I’ve ever seen where you actually reverse the process and you capture carbon; and it’s a natural consequence of growing grains, growing row crops,” he observes.

Wiviott and SFP have come up with a win-win, market-based way of getting farmers to go organic. The model affords investors the opportunity to support large farms in the process of shifting to organic practices. SFP provides the land and contributes to paying expenses; operators provide the labor, equipment, and fuel. The program is designed to deliver a stable income to investors in the fastest-growing segment of the food industry––organic foods. According to the Organic Trade Association, total organic product sales in 2015 were $43.3 billion, an increase of 11 percent from the previous year’s record level and far ahead of the overall food market’s growth rate of 3 percent.

“We’re a little bit like the Uber of farming, in that farmers have the knowledge base and the skills as well as all of the equipment necessary to do this, but aren’t able to buy additional land,” says Wiviott. “We’re the first scalable version of this model, meaning that because it’s bigtime American agriculture we can do a series of these $100 million funds. Each fund is the equivalent carbon offset as if we had built an $86 million wind farm.”

Going Green
Wiviott has been focused on helping the environment for a long time. He received his undergraduate degree in environmental studies from Dartmouth and then founded an environmental business. “I think I wrote to Harvard and said, ‘It would be helpful if I actually knew what I was doing; you guys should let me in.’

“Having never had a math or a business course before, the first year was interesting, but I clearly had a lot to learn and HBS delivered,” he adds.

Once he graduated, Wiviott says he “did what HBS graduates do” and promptly dove into the world of finance. He became one of the people brought in after leveraged buyouts to save failing companies. During Wiviott’s time as COO for one of those companies, Quality Trailer Products, he doubled the annual sales to $50 million in less than three years.

Following that experience, he ran his own company building environmentally sustainable live/work projects in New Mexico. “They were high density, they were affordable, and we recycled the water from them,” Wiviott explains. “It just made sense. I mean, my life felt better once I got back to the green side.”

Wiviott then tried to make the leap to public service, running for New Mexico’s Third Congressional District seat in 2008. “We were winning until 9:30 at night,” he says wryly.

Following that defeat, he started working with microbiologists on formulating a way in which to clean up water, specifically wastewater from oil wells. The people with whom he was working had come up with a process to take 90 percent of the oil out of the wastewater from an oil well, which can use millions of gallons of water.

“While I was working on this, the lead scientist turned to me and said, ‘This is going to be great, but I don’t want to work on it. I have an answer for climate change.’ I was stunned and didn’t really believe him. But it turns out, he did know.”

Wiviott was particularly puzzled as to why, if the solution was so simple, no one else was already doing it. He spent two years looking at the carbon markets and how to sell the carbon capture to farmers, but couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. The reason: There wasn’t a profit motive.

“But then I met these organic farmers, and the bottom line is that we sell the crops for twice as much, the margins are better, and the carbon capture just happens as a natural consequence,” he says. “Our yields are comparable to conventional crop yields. We can prove it. These guys have done this for seven to eight years.”

Wiviott and his partners plan on doing a series of partnerships and funds, and are hoping to launch a bond offering that would allow smaller investors to participate. If the funding gets big enough, SFP plans to expand from its current focus of farms in Iowa to others across the Midwest.

“There are people who want us to be an online platform,” he says, noting the popularity of crowdfunding and other web-based finance models, “but right now [we’re relying on] traditional sources of capital. It’s family offices and it’s funding partners that are looking for a stable yield.”

Greener pastures, in every sense of the word.

September 13th, 2016 by sfp

Glyphosate Studies

GMOs accelerate weed resistance.

Widespread adoption of RoundUp® ready GMOs has caused the rapid development of weeds resistance to the herbicide making weed control even more challenging. The USDA has found 14 weed species that have developed resistance to glyphosate (RoundUp®) affecting 11 million acres in the US and reducing crop yields in some places. Industry sources report more than 20 glyphosate resistant weeds on 70 million acres. In some areas glyphosate has become totally ineffective against weeds and the scale of the problem is accelerating. Editorial. 2014, A Growing Problem. Nature, 510: 187

http://www.nature.com/news/a-growing-problem-1.15382

GMOs drive a higher use of herbicides.

Herbicides-tolerant (RoundUp Ready®) GMOs have brought on an upward spiral of herbicide use. The total volume of herbicide sprayed on US crops annually has grown by more than 500 million pounds from 1996 to 2011. The trend is now accelerating. Glyphosate is being sprayed more frequently at higher doses, on an increasing number of acres each year and still failing to keep up with growing weed pressure. Benbrook, C. 2012. Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the US. – the first sixteen years. Environmental Science Europe 24:24

http://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2190-4715-24-24

GMOs cause mold problems in crops.

Research indicates that long-term use of glyphosate use on RoundUp Ready® GMO crops promotes the growth of Fusarium molds in the field that can result in the formation of mold toxins in harvest crops at levels high enough to cause illness in animals who feed on the crops. The problem is growing with increased glyphosate use. G.S. Johal D.M. Huber. 2009.m Glyphosate effects on diseases of plants. European Journal of Agronomy 31: 144-152

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1161030109000628

GMOs will increase the use of stronger chemicals.

The next generation of herbicide-tolerant GMOs are engineered to tolerate other families of chemicals such as dicamba and 2,4-D. If and when they are grown to scale, these GMOs will likely increase the use of these chemicals which are potential endocrine disruptors. Vandenberg, L et al. 2012. Hormones and Endocrine-Disruptive chemicals: Low-Dose Effects and Nonmonotonic Dose Responses. Endocrine Rev 33 (3):378-455.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22419778

Herbicide0tolerant GMOs do not improve yield.

Scientific studies do not show that herbicide-tolerant (RoundUp Ready®) GMO crops provide better yields than conventional varieties. USDA concludes that “GE (GMO) seeds have not been shown to increase yield potentials … In fact, (GMO crop yields) may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional (non-GMO) varieties …” The USDA also notes that GMO crops, Particularly Bt crops, “can prevent yield loss to pests, allowing the plant to approach its yield potential”. USDA, ERS Report #162.2014.

http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1282246/err162.pdf

In the peer-reviewed literature, a comparative study of major commodity crops found stronger yield growth in European countries that use no GMOs, relative to the US and Canada where GMO varieties dominate. Heinemann J, Massaro M, Coray D, Agapito-Tenfen S, Wen J. 2014 Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest, International Journal of Agriculture Sustainability, 12:1, 71-88

http://www.canterbury.ac.nz/Spark/Researcher.aspx?researcherid=86245

Meta-studies on the health impacts of regular consumption of GMOs reach mixed conclusions.

A 2011 published review of 28 GMO feeding studies found no consensus on the safety of GMOs, with several studies raising “serious concerns” about GMOs While a larger number of studies found no difference from conventional crops. Domingo J and Bordonaba J. 2011. A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants. Environmental International 37:734-742

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296423

A triple-blind meta-study showed that industry-affiliated GMO feeding and nutritional studies virtually always find favorable results (41 out of 41 studies were favorable to GMO safety), while a statistically significant number of independent studies without industry ties find cause for concern (12 out of 39 studies were unfavorable to GMO safety). Diels J, Cunha M, Manaia C, Sabugosa-Madeira B, Silva M. 2011. Association of financial or conflict of interest to research outcomes on health risks or nutritional assessment studies of genetically modified products. Food Policy 36: 197-203

http://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-014-0013-6

Few independent food safety studies have been done on GMOs

For decades, GMO crops have been commercialized on the basis of industry safety studies that have not been peer-reviewed at the time of FDA approval. Even today, only a few GMO crops have had more than two short-term feeding studies carried out on them; only a handful of long-term feeding studies have been performed on any GMOs, some with concerning results. For some crops few, if any, independent, peer-reviewed food safety studies appear in the scientific literature, including GMO canola, cotton or sugar beets which are in widespread cultivation and use in the food supply.

Glyphosate’s (and RoundUp’s®) safety is in question. Several new studies are showing RoundUp® (and its “active principle” glyphosate) may be more toxic than previously thought; it is the most common pesticide in the world, spraying directly on hundreds of millions of acres of herbicide-tolerant (e.g. RoundUp Ready® GMO corn, soybeans and alfalfa around the world. New areas of concern include:

  1. The World Health Organization’s agency on cancer has determined that glyphosate is “probable carcinogenic”. Guyton, K et al, International Agency for Research on Cancer. 2015Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon and glyphosate.

http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf

  1. Glyphosate and its metabolite, AMPA, can be found widely in harvest crops, in food and feed, in surface waters and air near croplands and in human and animal urine.

http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf

http://ia.water.usgs.gov/projects/nawqa/abstracts/SETAC2_2011.html

http://annhyg.oxfordjournals.org/content/51/1/53.full

  1. Glyphosate kill beneficial bacteria in animals’ digestive tract. Studies show this effect on cattle and poultry gut flora.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23224412

This has not been studied in humans. This has possible implications for a range of animal diseases and potential human diseases. The antibiotic affect of Glyphosate is not in question. Monsanto has patented #7,771,736 on Glyphosate as a broad-spectrum antibiotic. See the U.S. Patent and Trademark office.

  1. Studies link Glyphosate exposure to birth defects and other reproductive problems in rabbits and rats. Some of these studies challenge findings that regulators used to approve Glyphosate in earlier years.

http://earthopensource.org/wp-content/uploads/Antoniou-Teratogenic-Effects-of-Glyphosate-Based-Herbicides.pdf

  1. Peer-reviewed study on dairy cattle fed crops with Glyphosate residues show the animals had very low levels of trace minerals, manganese and cobalt in their tissues, both of which are bound (chelated) by Glyphosate with additional toxic effects on liver, kidney and muscle.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259042336_Field_Investigations_of_Glyphosate_in_Urine_of_Danish_Dairy_Cows

  1. A published study indicates that RoundUp®, a commercial formulation of Glyphosate, is 125 times more toxic than glyphosate alone. This is a cause for concern because regulatory tests on pesticides only require testing on the “active principle” (e.g. Glyphosate) which may be grossly understating the toxicity of RoundUp® to mammals.

http://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2014/179691/

October 26th, 2015 by sfp

HOW SOIL HEALTH IMPACTS ALL WEALTH

by Harn Soper

In today’s complex economy how do we progress financially from where we are today and the life of abundance we seek? This is the first question a financial advisor will ask us. It is seldom an easy question to answer because the quality of our life isn’t measured purely in financial terms. There are multiple factors including our work, our family and, fundamentally, our values. How does our quest for financial wealth balance with the people and planet upon whom we depend? Surprisingly, it all begins with soil.

First let’s step back and look at where wealth comes from. The Wealth Pyramid describes the three different levels at which wealth is created. By investing in each of these levels we can achieve a balance in our portfolio that reflects all our goals and values. We’ll also learn how soil health impacts all wealth.

Primary-Wealth

Primary Wealthis land ownership.
Ask yourself, “Where does everything we need in order to live come from?” You are standing on the answer – the earth. The earth, the soil and all that resides above, within and below its surface are the source of all that we need to survive and thrive. All wealth therefore must derive from this.

Throughout history, from the earliest civilisations to kingdoms to the nation state, wealth has been measured by land owned or controlled. All needs were met from the land. Land ownership was held within the castle walls. The serfs outside the walls paid the king a handsome portion of the bounty that came from the crops they grew and the products they made from the king’s land. If a serf’s crops failed he lost his wealth and labour. The King only lost some income but still owned the land – his true wealth. Land ownership is an expression of Primary Wealth and the foundation of the Wealth Pyramid.

Secondary-Wealth

Secondary Wealth is what we make from Primary Wealth.
When energy, in the form of coal and oil, was discovered beneath the soil, its abundance caused an explosion in Secondary Wealth creating the Industrial Revolution. Primary Wealth beneath the soil gives us ore, which becomes steel to build infrastructure. Soil begets food to feed us, trees turn into lumber to build homes. But it was the discovery of hydrocarbons to create energy that enabled labour to be replaced and goods to be made at a rate like never before. This led to the greatest economic expansion in human history. In societal terms, it is secondary wealth that made the middle class and created new fortunes for the multitudes. But it all came from the abundance of the earth. Secondary Wealth leverages Primary Wealth to create more wealth.

Tertiary-Wealth

Tertiary Wealth is a “claim” on Primary and Secondary Wealth.
About the time Secondary Wealth began to kick in, so did Tertiary Wealth. It rests at the top of the Wealth Pyramid and creates its value through investing in the companies that have business interests in Primary and Secondary Wealth. Compared to Primary and Secondary Wealth, Tertiary Wealth is held in pieces of paper (actual or digital) represented by stock certificates, promissory notes, etc. These wealth instruments all point back to Secondary and Primary Wealth. This third level of wealth is a “claim” on the sources of wealth below it. Tertiary Wealth leverages Primary & Secondary Wealth into investment instruments.

Balance – There is wealth to be created at all three levels of the Wealth Pyramid, which takes us back to “balance”. How do we balance our treasure between these three that carry different risks and opportunities? One answer is to include sustainable organic farmland in our portfolio because, as Primary Wealth, it is the foundation for all wealth and the most sustainable and healthy of all farming practice. Farming isn’t always the highest flyer in the Wealth Pyramid but it is a hard asset that produces something we all need …food. It won’t depreciate to zero and if we take care of this farmland it will continue to take care of us.

Healthy Soil Keeps the Wealth Pyramid Healthy

Our economy stands on the shoulders of our soil and Primary Wealth. Just as there is a need for balance in the Wealth Pyramid, so too is there a need for balance in our soil. Balance is something nature will achieve on its own with minimal human interference. Soil health and balance are the crux of organic agriculture. And there’s a lot to balance. If you think a lot of life is going on above ground, it pales in comparison to the balance of life in the soil. According to Kathy Merrifield, a retired nematologist at Oregon State University, one teaspoon of soil
can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa and scores of nematodes. That is if they’re allowed to live together in balance through healthy soil stewardship.

Conventional GM Farming

Unfortunately modern conventional farming practices tend to create soil imbalance. They are also dependent to a large degree on a farming model that exists around genetically modified (GM) seeds. Conventional GM farming often uses minimal crop rotations, growing the same single crop year after year on the same land. This practice, known as mono cropping causes the depletion of nutrients and minerals, essentially ‘mining’ them out of the soil. In order to continue growing crops in this depleted soil, these nutrients and minerals must be added back in the form of hydrocarbon based fertilizers and mined minerals such as phosphate. Conventional GM farming is dependant on earth-based, non-renewable resources that are decreasing in supply, and increasing in cost.

Monocultures and the resulting poor soil health open the way for infestations of insects, diseases and weeds. Healthy bio-diverse soil keeps these infestations in check. The lack of bio diversity requires synthetic pesticides and herbicides to be used, destroying the natural soil biology still further in an endless destructive downward cycle that turns healthy soil into dirt, hence the farmer becomes ‘dirt poor’.

Organic Farming

Organic farming eschews the use of GM seeds and all synthetic inputs. This allows nature to do what it does best, balancing the billions of life forms that thrive in the soil. The symbiotic relationship between healthy soil and plants is a marvel whereby one supports the other. Healthy soil creates healthy plants and together they provide abundance. It’s that simple. By building healthy soil the farmer becomes “soil rich”. This is the difference between soil and dirt.

If we allow our soil to become dirt then Primary Wealth, the foundation of all wealth, causes suffering for Secondary and Tertiary Wealth. Soil health and wealth in all its forms are co-dependent.

How Organic Farmland Can Balance Your Portfolio

Between October 2007 and October 2008 the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 54% from
13,842 to 6,370. It took the next five years to recover its previous highs. During the same period Iowa farmland grew 36% in value. This represents how farmland (Primary Wealth) can help balance investments in Secondary and Tertiary wealth.

Using data from Iowa State University’s Ag Extension Service we can compare average Iowa farmland values versus the Dow Jones (DJIA) from 1994 to 2014. In 1994 the Dow averaged around 3,827 while Iowa farmland values averaged $1,356 per acre. As of September 30, 2015, the Dow closed at 16,272 while the average price per acre in Iowa is at $7,943. How does this compare?

The Dow is up approximately 425%; Iowa farmland average price per acre is up approximately 585%
Yet this comparison is not the whole story. In addition to appreciation, farms also produce income that adds to the value equation. This is where what you farm, where you farm and how you farm really counts. As of the spring 2015, conventional GM corn was selling for around $3.50 per bushel, close to or below the cost of production. In contrast organic corn was selling for over $12 per bushel. At the same time organic row-crop farming can cost as much as 40% less to produce than conventional GM farming while meeting or exceeding conventional crop yields.

Why is organic corn more expensive? Because the demand is so high and the supply so low. In 2014 this imbalance was shown in the fact that for every dollar of organics exported by the US, it imported $8. When you consider your risk tolerance and values, you may want to consider investing a portion of your portfolio in the world of Primary Wealth, soil and organic farmland. It’s a triple bottom line investment. And like the life in our soil, it’s all about balance.

Bottom line, organic farming creates greater wealth, provides healthier food while repairing our ecosystem. Not a bad return for turning dirt back into soil.

Harn Soper Harn@SustainableFarmPartners.com is on the board of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (www.ofrf.org) and general partner with Sustainable Farm Partners, LLP (www.sustainablefarmpartners.com) focused on investing in Iowa farmland, managing it and converting it to organic.

June 1st, 2015 by sfp

DROUGHT & FLOOD TOLERANCE – IT ALL BEGINS WITH HEALTHY SOIL

sfpguyfield

For decades US farmers have relied on genetically modified (GM) seeds and related inputs to control weeds and pests. While that has made their fieldwork easier it has had the unintended consequence of turning once healthy soil into just a holding agent for more chemicals. Part of this commercial farming model is the heavy use of tilling whereby the soil is left exposed to wind and water erosion. Here is an example of an exposed field ready for planting in the spring.

If a drought descends before cash crop growth begins and the winds pick up, the soil has nowhere else to go but up in the air. Even when planted the space between the rows of corn are bare and more prone to run-off and lower water retention.

SoilEroson
cornandbaresoil

This sends both the water and nutrients down the watershed, into the rivers and out to sea to be lost forever.

LostinRivers

Healthy soil has a deep root structure that allows rainwater to penetrate deep into the soil where it is retained longer and where the plants can use it. This simple lab test illustrates how much better water penetrates healthy soil vs. heavily tilled soil.

 

WaterDemo

But healthy soil doesn’t have to be the victim of our current commercial agricultural farming model. In fact, simple organic practices with the use of cover crops and no-till planting can dramatically lower costs on fuel, time in the field and eliminate herbicides. This is an example of a field that has been first planted with a cover crop and then “crimped/rolled” before being no-till planted. Notice the thick matt of organic matter that covers and protects the topsoil, there by promoting healthy soil biology and moisture retention.

ThickMattCover
Notillcorn

Next, the farmer cuts a thin slice through this matt into the soil and plants the seed using no-till equipment. The goal … do as little as possible to disturb the soil. This requires less mechanical horsepower and saves on fuel expenses. Lighter (smaller) tractors decrease compaction. Notice how no-till planting into a field covered with surface organic matter provides natural weed suppression, mitigates moisture loss and prevents soil erosion.

Let’s shift our attention to the weather. While we can’t accurately forecast the weather, we can see trends and be pro active in our planning rather than reactive. Below is a current map of the Mid West drought from the US Drought Monitor in November 2012.

DroughtMonitor

2012 was the worst drought for US farmers in the past 50 years. There were adequate spring rains followed by well below normal rainfall that caused massive crop loss. Were this weather pattern to have been reversed with inadequate spring moisture causing the crops to not germinate, the fields would remain barren and exposed to erosion. These were the conditions that precipitated the Great Dust Bowl that was the worst man-made ecological disaster in North American history.  SFP crop planning includes both drought and flood mitigation strategies to help insure the best yields that are environmentally sustainable.

May 27th, 2015 by sfp

IF WATER COVERS THE EARTH, WHY ARE WE DYING OF THIRST?

The Coming Water Wars

By Doug Hornig and Alex Daley, Casey Research

Water is not scarce. It is made up of the first and third most common elements in the universe, and the two readily react to form a highly stable compound that maintains its integrity even at temperature extremes.
Hydrologist Dr. Vincent Kotwicki, in his paper Water in the Universe, writes:

“Water appears to be one of the most abundant molecules in the Universe. It dominates the environment of the Earth and is a main constituent of numerous planets, moons and comets. On a far greater scale, it possibly contributes to the so-called ‘missing mass’ [i.e., dark matter] of the Universe and may initiate the birth of stars inside the giant molecular clouds.”

Oxygen has been found in the newly discovered “cooling flows” – heavy rains of gas that appear to be falling into galaxies from the space once thought empty surrounding them, giving rise to yet more water.

How much is out there? No one can even take a guess, since no one knows the composition of the dark matter that makes up as much as 90% of the mass of the universe. If comets, which are mostly ice, are a large constituent of dark matter, then, as Dr. Kotwicki writes, “the remote uncharted (albeit mostly frozen) oceans are truly unimaginably big.”

Back home, Earth is often referred to as the “water planet,” and it certainly looks that way from space. H2O covers about 70% of the surface of the globe. It makes all life as we know it possible.

The Blue Planet?

However it got here – theories abound from outgassing of volcanic eruptions to deposits by passing comets and ancient crossed orbits – water is what gives our planet its lovely, unique blue tint, and there appears to be quite a lot of it.

That old axiom that the earth is 75% water… not quite. In reality, water constitutes only 0.07% of the earth by mass, or 0.4% by volume.

This is how much we have, depicted graphically:

watersfp

What this shows is the relative size of our water supply if it were all gathered together into a ball and superimposed on the globe.

The large blob, centered over the western US, is all water (oceans, icecaps, glaciers, lakes, rivers, groundwater, and water in the atmosphere). It’s a sphere about 860 miles in diameter, or roughly the distance from Salt Lake City to Topeka. The smaller sphere, over Kentucky, is the fresh water in the ground and in lakes, rivers, and swamps.

Now examine the image closely. See that last, tiny dot over Georgia? It’s the fresh water in lakes and rivers.

Looked at another way, that ball of all the water in the world represents a total volume of about 332.5 million cubic miles. But of this, 321 million mi3, or 96.5%, is saline – great for fish, but undrinkable without the help of nature or some serious hardware. That still leaves a good bit of fresh water, some 11.6 million mi3, to play with. Unfortunately, the bulk of that is locked up in icecaps, glaciers, and permanent snow, or is too far underground to be accessible with today’s technology. (The numbers come from the USGS; obviously, they are estimates and they change a bit every year, but they are accurate enough for our purposes.)

Accessible groundwater amounts to 5.614 million mi3, with 55% of that saline, leaving a little over 2.5 million mi3 of fresh groundwater. That translates to about 2.7 exa-gallons of fresh water, or about 2.7 billion billion gallons (yes billions of billions, or 1018 in scientific notation), which is about a third of a billion gallons of water per person. Enough to take a long shower every day for many lifetimes…
However, not all of that groundwater is easily or cheaply accessible. The truth is that the surface is the source for the vast majority – nearly 80% – of our water. Of surface waters, lakes hold 42,320 mi3, only a bit over half of which is fresh, and the world’s rivers hold only 509 mi3 of fresh water, less than 2/10,000 of 1% of the planetary total.

And that’s where the problem lies. In 2005 in the US alone, we humans used about 328 billion gallons of surface water per day, compared to about 83 billion gallons per day of water from the ground. Most of that surface water, by far, comes from rivers. Among these, one of the most important is the mighty Colorado.

azsfp

Horseshoe Bend, in Page, AZ. (AP Photo)

Tapping Ol’ Man River

Or perhaps we should say “the river formerly known as the mighty Colorado.” That old Colorado – the one celebrated in centuries of American Western song and folklore; the one that exposed two billion years of geologic history in the awesome Grand Canyon – is gone. In its place is… well, Las Vegas – the world’s gaudiest monument to hubristic human overreach, and a big neon sign advertising the predicament now faced by much of the world.

It’s well to remember that most of the US west of the Mississippi ranges from relatively dry to very arid, to desert, to lifeless near-moonscapes. The number of people that could be supported by the land, especially in the Southwest, was always small and concentrated along the riverbanks. Tribal clusters died out with some regularity. And that’s the way it would have remained, except for a bit of ingenuity that suddenly loosed two powerful forces on the area: electrical power, and an abundance of water that seemed as limitless as the sky.

In September of 1935, President Roosevelt dedicated the pinnacle of engineering technology up to that point: Hoover Dam. The dam did two things. It served as a massive hydroelectric generating plant, and it backed up the Colorado River behind it, creating Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country.

Early visitors dubbed Hoover Dam the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and it’s easy to see why. It was built on a scale unlike anything before it. It’s 725 feet high and contains 6 million tons of concrete, which would pave a road from New York to Los Angeles. Its 19 generators produce 2,080 MW of electricity, enough to power 1.75 million average homes.

The artificially created Lake Mead is 112 miles long, with a maximum depth of 590 feet. It has a surface area of 250 square miles and an active capacity of 16 million acre-feet.

Hoover Dam was intended to generate sufficient power and impound an ample amount of water, to meet any conceivable need. But as things turned out, grand as the dam is, it wasn’t conceived grandly enough… because it is 35 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Vegas had a permanent population in 1935 of 8,400, a number that swelled to 25,000 during the dam construction as workers raced in to take jobs that were scarce in the early Depression years. Those workers, primarily single men, needed something to do with their spare time, so the Nevada state legislature legalized gambling in 1931. Modern Vegas was born.

The rise of Vegas is well chronicled, from a middle-of-nowhere town to the largest city founded in the 20th century and the fastest-growing in the nation – up until the 2008 housing bust. Somehow, those 8,400 souls turned into a present population of over 2 million that exists all but entirely to service the 40 million tourists who visit annually. And all this is happening in a desert that sees an average of 10 days of measurable rainfall per year, totaling about 4 inches.

In order to run all those lights, fountains, and revolving stages, Las Vegas requires 5,600 MW of electricity on a summer day. Did you notice that that’s more than 2.5 times what the giant Hoover Dam can put out? Not to mention that those 42 million people need a lot of water to drink to stay properly hydrated in the 100+ degree heat. And it all comes from Lake Mead.

So what do you think is happening to the lake?

If your guess was, “it’s shrinking,” you’re right. The combination of recent drought years in the West and rapidly escalating demand has been a dire double-whammy, reducing the lake to 40% full. Normally, the elevation of Lake Mead is 1,219 feet. Today, it’s at 1,086 feet and dropping by ten feet a year (and accelerating). That’s how much more water is being taken out than is being replenished.

This is science at its simplest. If your extraction of a renewable resource exceeds its ability to recharge itself, it will disappear – end of story. In the case of Lake Mead, that means going dry, an eventuality to which hydrologists assign a 50% probability in the next twelve years. That’s by 2025.

Nevadans are not unaware of this. There is at the moment a frantic push to get approval for a massive pipeline project designed to bring in water from the more favored northern part of the state. Yet even if the pipeline were completed in time, and there is stiff opposition to it (and you thought only oil pipelines gave way to politics and protests), that would only resolve one issue. There’s another. A big one.

Way before people run out of drinking water, something else happens: When Lake Mead falls below 1,050 feet, the Hoover Dam’s turbines shut down – less than four years from now, if the current trend holds – and in Vegas the lights start going out.

What Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

Ominously, these water woes are not confined to Las Vegas. Under contracts signed by President Obama in December 2011, Nevada gets only 23.37% of the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. The other top recipients: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (28.53%); state of Arizona (18.95%); city of Los Angeles (15.42%); and Southern California Edison (5.54%).

You can always build more power plants, but you can’t build more rivers, and the mighty Colorado carries the lifeblood of the Southwest. It services the water needs of an area the size of France, in which live 40 million people. In its natural state, the river poured 15.7 million acre-feet of water into the Gulf of California each year. Today, twelve years of drought have reduced the flow to about 12 million acre-feet, and human demand siphons off every bit of it; at its mouth, the riverbed is nothing but dust.
Nor is the decline in the water supply important only to the citizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. It’s critical to the whole country. The Colorado is the sole source of water for southeastern California’s Imperial Valley, which has been made into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the US despite receiving an average of three inches of rain per year.

The Valley is fed by an intricate system consisting of 1,400 miles of canals and 1,100 miles of pipeline. They are the only reason a bone-dry desert can look like this:

fieldsfp

Intense conflicts over water will probably not be confined to the developing world. So far, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado have been able to make and keep agreements defining who gets how much of the Colorado River’s water. But if populations continue to grow while the snowcap recedes, it’s likely that the first shots will be fired before long, in US courtrooms. If legal remedies fail… a war between Phoenix and LA might seem far-fetched, but at the minimum some serious upheaval will eventually ensue unless an alternative is found quickly.

A Litany of Crises

Water scarcity is, of course, not just a domestic issue. It is far more critical in other parts of the world than in the US. It will decide the fate of people and of nations.

Worldwide, we are using potable water way faster than it can be replaced. Just a few examples:
The Aral Sea was once the fourth-largest freshwater lake in the world; today, it has shrunk to 10% of its former size and is on track to disappear entirely by 2020.Watching what has happened just since the turn of the century is stunning.

The legendary Jordan River is flowing at only 2% of its historic rate.

In Africa, desertification is proceeding at an alarming rate. Much of the northern part of the continent is already desert, of course. But beyond that, a US Department of Agriculture study places about 2.5 million km2 of African land at low risk of desertification, 3.6 million km2 at moderate risk, 4.6 million km2 at high risk, and 2.9 million km2 at very high risk. “The region that has the highest propensity,” the report says, “is located along the desert margins and occupies about 5% of the land mass. It is estimated that about 22 million people (2.9% of the total population) live in this area.”

A 2009 study published in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climateanalyzed 925 major rivers from 1948 to 2004 and found an overall decline in total discharge. The reduction in inflow to the Pacific Ocean alone was about equal to shutting off the Mississippi River. The list of rivers that serve large human populations and experienced a significant decline in flow includes the Amazon, Congo, Chang Jiang (Yangtze), Mekong, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Amur, Mackenzie, Xijiang, Columbia, and Niger.
Supply is not the only issue. There’s also potability. Right now, 40% of the global population has little to no access to clean water, and despite somewhat tepid modernization efforts, that figure is actually expected to jump to 50% by 2025. When there’s no clean water, people will drink dirty water – water contaminated with human and animal waste. And that breeds illness. It’s estimated that fully half of the world’s hospital beds today are occupied by people with water-borne diseases.

Food production is also a major contributor to water pollution. To take two examples:

The “green revolution” has proven to have an almost magical ability to provide food for an ever-increasing global population, but at a cost. Industrial cultivation is extremely water intensive, with 80% of most US states’ water usage going to agriculture – and in some, it’s as high as 90%. In addition, factory farming uses copious amounts of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, creating serious problems for the water supply because of toxic runoff.

Modern livestock facilities – known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – create enormous quantities of animal waste that is pumped into holding ponds. From there, some of it inevitably seeps into the groundwater, and the rest eventually has to be dumped somewhere. Safe disposal practices are often not followed, and regulatory oversight is lax. As a result, adjacent communities’ drinking water can come to contain dangerously high levels of E. coli bacteria and other harmful organisms.

Not long ago, scientists discovered a whole new category of pollutants that no one had previously thought to test for: drugs. We are a nation of pill poppers and needle freaks, and the drugs we introduce into our bodies are only partially absorbed. The remainder is excreted and finds its way into the water supply. Samples recently taken from Lake Mead revealed detectable levels of birth control medication, steroids, and narcotics… which people and wildlife are drinking.

Most lethal of all are industrial pollutants that continue to find their way into the water supply. The carcinogenic effects of these compounds have been well documented, as the movie-famed Erin Brockovich did with hexavalent chromium.

But the problem didn’t go away with Brockovich’s court victory. The sad fact is that little has changed for the better. In the US, our feeble attempt to deal with these threats was the passage in 1980 of the so-called Superfund Act. That law gave the federal government – and specifically the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the authority to respond to chemical emergencies and to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites on both private and public lands. And it supposedly provided money to do so.

How’s that worked out? According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “After decades of spearheading restoration efforts in areas such as the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, improvements in these water bodies remain elusive … EPA continues to face the challenges posed by an aging wastewater infrastructure that results in billions of gallons of untreated sewage entering our nation’s water bodies … Lack of rapid water-testing methods and development of current water quality standards continue to be issues that EPA needs to address.”

Translation: the EPA hasn’t produced. How much of this is due to the typical drag of a government bureaucracy and how much to lack of funding is debatable. Whether there might be a better way to attack the problem is debatable. But what is not debatable is the magnitude of the problem stacking up, mostly unaddressed.

Just consider that the EPA has a backlog of 1,305 highly toxic Superfund cleanup sites on its to-do list, in every state in the union (except apparently North Dakota, in case you want to try to escape – though the proliferation of hydraulic fracking in that area may quickly change the map, according to some of its detractors – it’s a hotly debated assertion).

About 11 million people in the US, including 3-4 million children, live within one mile of a federal Superfund site. The health of all of them is at immediate risk, as is that of those living directly downstream.

We could go on about this for page after page. The situation is depressing, no question. And even more so is the fact that there’s little we can do about it. There is no technological quick fix.

Peak oil we can handle. We find new sources, we develop alternatives, and/or prices rise. It’s all but certain that by the time we actually run out of oil, we’ll already have shifted to something else.

But “peak water” is a different story. There are no new sources; what we have is what we have. Absent a profound climate change that turns the evaporation/rainfall hydrologic cycle much more to our advantage, there likely isn’t going to be enough to around.

As the biosphere continually adds more billions of humans (the UN projects there will be another 3.5 billion people on the planet, a greater than 50% increase, by 2050 before a natural plateau really starts to dampen growth), the demand for clean water has the potential to far outstrip dwindling supplies. If that comes to pass, the result will be catastrophic. People around the world are already suffering and dying en masse from lack of access to something drinkable… and the problems look poised to get worse long before they get better.

Searching for a Way Out

With a problem of this magnitude, there is no such thing as a comprehensive solution. Instead, it will have to be addressed by chipping away at the problem in a number of ways, which the world is starting to do.

With much water not located near population centers, transportation will have to be a major part of the solution. With oil, a complex system of pipelines, tankers, and trucking fleets has been erected, because it’s been profitable to do so. The commodity has a high intrinsic value. Water doesn’t – or at least hasn’t in most of the modern era’s developed economies – and thus delivery has been left almost entirely to gravity. Further, the construction of pipelines for water that doesn’t flow naturally means taking a vital resource from someone and giving it to someone else, a highly charged political and social issue that’s been known to lead to protest and even violence. But until we’ve piped all the snow down from Alaska to California, transportation will be high on the list of potential near term solutions, especially to individual supply crunches, just as it has been with energy.

Conservation measures may help too, at least in the developed world, though the typical lawn-watering restrictions will hardly make a dent. Real conservation will have to come from curtailing industrial uses like farming and fracking.

But these bandage solutions can only forestall the inevitable without other advances to address the problems. Thankfully, where there is a challenge, there are always technology innovators to help address it. It was wells and aqueducts that let civilization move from the riverbank inland, irrigation that made communal farming scale, and sewers and pipes that turned villages into cities, after all. And just as with the dawn of industrial water, entrepreneurs are developing some promising tech developments, too.
Given how much water we use today, there’s little doubt that conservation’s sibling, recycling, is going to be big. Microfiltration systems are very sophisticated and can produce recycled water that is near-distilled in quality. Large-scale production remains a challenge, as is the reluctance of people to drink something that was reclaimed from human waste or industrial runoff. But that might just require the right spokesperson. California believes so, in any case, as it forges ahead with its Porcelain Springs initiative. A company called APTwater has taken on the important task of purifying contaminated leachate water from landfills that would otherwise pollute the groundwater. This is simply using technology to accelerate the natural process of replenishment by using energy, but if it can be done at scale, we will eventually reach the point where trading oil or coal for clean drinking water makes economic sense. It’s already starting to in many places.

Inventor Dean Kamen of Segway fame has created the Slingshot, a water-purification machine that could be a lifesaver for small villages in more remote areas. The size of a dorm-room refrigerator, it can produce 250 gallons of water a day, using the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer, provided by an engine that can burn just about anything (it’s been run on cow dung). The Slingshot is designed to be maintenance-free for at least five years.

Kamen says you can “stick the intake hose into anything wet – arsenic-laden water, salt water, the latrine, the holding tanks of a chemical waste treatment plant; really, anything wet – and the outflow is one hundred percent pure pharmaceutical-grade injectable water.”

That naturally presupposes there is something wet to tap into. But Coca-Cola, for one, is a believer. This September, Coke entered into a partnership with Kamen’s company, Deka Research, to distribute Slingshots in Africa and Latin America.

Ceramic filters are another, low-tech option for rural areas. Though clean water output is very modest, they’re better than nothing. The ability to decontaminate stormwater runoff would be a boon for cities, and AbTech Industries is producing a product to do just that.

In really arid areas, the only water present may be what’s held in the air. Is it possible to tap that source? “Yes,” say a couple of cutting-edge tech startups. Eole Water proposes to extract atmospheric moisture using a wind turbine. Another company, NBD Nano, has come up with a self-filling water bottle that mimics the Namib Desert beetle. Whether the technology is scalable to any significant degree remains to be seen.

And finally, what about seawater? There’s an abundance of that. If you ask a random sampling of folks in the street what we’re going to do about water shortages on a larger scale, most of them will answer, “desalination.” No problem. Well, yes problem.

Desalination (sometimes shortened to “desal”) plants are already widespread, and their output is ramping up rapidly. According to the International Desalination Association, in 2009 there were 14,451 desalination plants operating worldwide, producing about 60 million cubic meters of water per day. That figure rose to 68 million m3/day in 2010 and is expected to double to 120 million m3/day by 2020. That sounds impressive, but the stark reality is that it amounts to only around a quarter of one percent of global water consumption.

Boiling seawater and collecting the condensate has been practiced by sailors for nearly two millennia. The same basic principle is employed today, although it has been refined into a procedure called “multistage flash distillation,” in which the boiling is done at less than atmospheric pressure, thereby saving energy. This process accounts for 85% of all desalination worldwide. The remainder comes from “reverse osmosis,” which uses semipermeable membranes and pressure to separate salts from water.

The primary drawbacks to desal are that a plant obviously has to be located near the sea, and that it is an expensive, highly energy-intensive process. That’s why you find so many desal facilities where energy is cheap, in the oil-rich, water-poor nations of the Middle East. Making it work in California will be much more difficult without drastically raising the price of water. And Nevada? Out of luck. Improvements in the technology are bringing costs of production down, but the need for energy, and lots of it, isn’t going away. By way of illustration, suppose the US would like to satisfy half of its water needs through desalination. All other factors aside, meeting that goal would require the construction of more than 100 new electric power plants, each dedicated solely to that purpose, and each with a gigawatt of capacity.

Moving desalinated water from the ocean inland adds to the expense. The farther you have to transport it and the greater the elevation change, the less feasible it becomes. That makes desalination impractical for much of the world. Nevertheless, the biggest population centers tend to be clustered along coastlines, and demand is likely to drive water prices higher over time, making desal more cost-competitive. So it’s a cinch that the procedure will play a steadily increasing role in supplying the world’s coastal cities with water.
In other related developments, a small tech startup called NanOasis is working on a desalination process that employs carbon nanotubes. An innovative new project in Australia is demonstrating that food can be grown in the most arid of areas, with low energy input, using solar-desalinated seawater. It holds the promise of being very scalable at moderate cost.

The Future

This article barely scratches the surface of a very broad topic that has profound implications for the whole of humanity going forward. The World Bank’s Ismail Serageldin puts it succinctly: “The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.”

There’s no doubt that this is a looming crisis we cannot avoid. Everyone has an interest in water. How quickly we respond to the challenges ahead is going to be a matter, literally, of life and death. Where we have choices at all, we had better make some good ones.

April 10th, 2015 by sfp

IT IS TIME TO RETHINK AMERICA’S CORN SYSTEM

Nothing dominates the American landscape like corn. Sprawling across the Midwest and Great Plains, the American Corn Belt is a massive thing. You can drive from central Pennsylvania all the way to western Nebraska, a trip of nearly 1,500 miles, and witness it in all its glory.  No other American crop can match the sheer size of corn.

So why do we, as a nation, grow so much corn? The main reason is that corn is such a productive and versatile crop, responding to investments in research, breeding and promotion. It has incredibly high yields compared with most other U.S. crops, and it grows nearly anywhere in the country, especially thriving in the Midwest and Great Plains. Plus, it can be turned into a staggering array of products. Corn can be used for food as corn flour, cornmeal, hominy, grits or sweet corn. It can be used as animal feed to help fatten our hogs, chickens and cattle. And it can be turned into ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup or even bio-based plastics.

No wonder we grow so much of the stuff. But it is important to distinguish corn the crop from corn the system. As a crop, corn is highly productive, flexible and successful. It has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades, and there is no doubt that it will be a crucial part of American agriculture in the future. However, many are beginning to question corn as a system: how it dominates American agriculture compared with other farming systems; how in America it is used primarily for ethanol, animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup; how it consumes natural resources; and how it receives preferential treatment from our government.

The current corn system is not a good thing for America for four major reasons.

The American corn system is inefficient at feeding people.

Most people would agree that the primary goal of agriculture should be feeding people. While other goals—especially producing income, creating jobs and fostering rural development—are critically important too, the ultimate success of any agricultural system should be measured in part by how well it delivers food to a growing population. After all, feeding people is why agriculture exists in the first place.

Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported.  Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

Yes, the corn fed to animals does produce valuable food to people, mainly in the form of dairy and meat products, but only after suffering major losses of calories and protein along the way. For corn-fed animals, the efficiency of converting grain to meat and dairy calories ranges from roughly 3 percent to 40 percent, depending on the animal production system in question. What this all means is that little of the corn crop actually ends up feeding American people. It’s just math. The average Iowa cornfield has the potential to deliver more than 15 million calories per acre each year (enough to sustain 14 people per acre, with a 3,000 calorie-per-day diet, if we ate all of the corn ourselves), but with the current allocation of corn to ethanol and animal production, we end up with an estimated 3 million calories of food per acre per year, mainly as dairy and meat products, enough to sustain only three people per acre. That is lower than the average delivery of food calories from farms in Bangladesh, Egypt and Vietnam.

In short, the corn crop is highly productive, but the corn system is aligned to feed cars and animals instead of feeding people.

There are a number of ways to improve the delivery of food from the nation’s corn system. First and foremost, shifting corn away from biofuels would generate more food for the world, lower demand for grain, lessen commodity price pressures, and reduce the burden on consumers around the world. Furthermore, eating less corn-fed meat, or shifting corn toward more efficient dairy, poultry, pork and grass-fed beef systems, would allow us to get more food from each bushel of corn. And diversifying the Corn Belt into a wider mix of agricultural systems, including other crops and grass-fed animal operations, could produce substantially more food—and a more diverse and nutritious diet— than the current system.

The corn system uses a large amount of natural resources.

Even though it does not deliver as much food as comparable systems around the globe, the American corn system continues to use a large proportion of our country’s natural resources.

In the U.S., corn uses more land than any other crop, spanning some 97 million acres— an area roughly the size of California. U.S. corn also consumes a large amount of our freshwater resources, including an estimated 5.6 cubic miles per year of irrigation water withdrawn from America’s rivers and aquifers. And fertilizer use for corn is massive: over 5.6 million tons of nitrogen is applied to corn each year through chemical fertilizers, along with nearly a million tons of nitrogen from manure. Much of this fertilizer, along with large amounts of soil, washes into the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal oceans, polluting waters and damaging ecosystems along the way. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest, and most iconic, example of this.

And the resources devoted to growing corn are increasing dramatically. Between 2006 and 2011, the amount of cropland devoted to growing corn in America increased by more than 13 million acres, mainly in response to rising corn prices and the increasing demand for ethanol. Most of these new corn acres came from farms, including those that were growing wheat (which lost 2.9 million acres), oats (1.7 million acres lost), sorghum (1 million acres lost), barley, alfalfa, sunflower and other crops. That leaves us with a less diverse American agricultural landscape, with even more land devoted to corn monocultures. And according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, roughly 1.3 million acres of grassland and prairie were converted to corn and other uses in the western Corn Belt between 2006 and 2011, presenting a threat to the waterways, wetlands and species that reside there.

Looking at these land, water, fertilizer and soil costs together, you could argue that the corn system uses more natural resources than any other agricultural system in America, while providing only modest benefits in food. It’s a dubious trade-off—depleting natural resources to deliver relatively little food and nutrition to the world. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Innovative farmers are exploring other methods for growing corn, including better conventional, organic, biotech and conservation farming methods that can dramatically reduce chemical inputs, water use, soil losses and impacts on wildlife. We should encourage American farmers to continue these improvements.

The corn system is highly vulnerable to shocks.

Although a large monoculture dominating much of the country with a single cropping system might be an efficient and profitable way to grow corn at an industrial scale, there is a price to being so big, with so little diversity. Given enough time, most massive monocultures fail, often spectacularly. And with today’s high demand and low grain stocks, corn prices are very volatile, driving spikes in the price of commodities around the world. Under these conditions, a single disaster, disease, pest or economic downturn could cause a major disturbance in the corn system.

The monolithic nature of corn production presents a systemic risk to America’s agriculture, with impacts ranging from food prices to feed prices and energy prices. It also presents a potential threat to our economy and to the taxpayers who end up footing the bill when things go sour. This isn’t rocket science: You wouldn’t invest in a mutual fund that was dominated by only one company, because it would be intolerably risky. But that’s what we’re doing with American agriculture. Simply put, too many of our agricultural eggs are in one basket.

A more resilient agricultural system would start by diversifying our crops, shifting some of the corn monoculture to a landscape rich with a variety of crops, pastures and prairies. It would more closely mimic natural ecosystems and include a mixture of perennial and different seasonal plants—not just summertime annuals with shallow roots that are especially sensitive to dry spells. Furthermore, it would include conservation tillage and organic farming practices that improve soil conditions by restoring soil structure, organic content and water holding capacity, making farming landscapes much more resilient to floods and droughts. The overall result would be a landscape better prepared to weather the next drought, flood, disease or pest.

The corn system operates at a big cost to taxpayers.

Finally, the corn system receives more subsides from the U.S. government than any other crop, including direct payments, crop insurance payments and mandates to produce ethanol. In all, U.S. crop subsidies to corn totaled roughly $90 billion between 1995 and 2010—not including ethanol subsidies and mandates, which helped drive up the price of corn.

Today, one of the biggest corn subsidies come in the form of federally supported crop insurance. In fact, for the 2012 season U.S. crop insurance programs will likely pay out an estimated $20 billion or more—shattering all previous records. Amazingly, these record subsidies are being paid as corn just had one of the most lucrative years in history. Even with the 2012 drought, high prices meant that U.S. corn broke record sales figures. Do record subsidies make sense during a year of record sales?

Naturally, some farmers were hit harder by the drought than others, and crop insurance programs are intended to help them make up these losses. That’s a noble goal. But should taxpayers be paying higher prices for a crop that was never harvested?

It might be time to rethink our crop subsidy programs, to focus tax dollars where they will achieve the greatest public good. We should help farmers recover their losses during a natural disaster, making them whole again, but not gain from failed harvests at public expense. We should also consider helping all farmers who suffered losses, not just those growing only certain commodity crops.  And we should look to support farmers for important things that markets don’t address, such as reducing runoff and erosion, improving soil and biodiversity, and providing jobs for rural America. Farmers are the stewards of our nation’s most fertile lands and should be rewarded for their work to carefully manage these resources.

Bottom line: We need a new approach to corn

As a crop, corn is an amazing thing and a crucial part of the American agricultural toolbox. But the corn system, as we currently know it, is an agricultural juggernaut, consuming more land, more natural resources and more taxpayer dollars than any other farming system in modern U.S. history. As a large monoculture, it is a vulnerable house of cards, precariously perched on publicly funded subsidies. And the resulting benefits to our food system are sparse, with the majority of the harvested calories lost to ethanol or animal feedlot production. In short, our investment of natural and financial resources is not paying the best dividends to our national diet, our rural communities, our federal budget or our environment. It’s time to reimagine a system that will.

What would such a system look like?

This reimagined agricultural system would be a more diverse landscape, weaving corn together with many kinds of grains, oil crops, fruits, vegetables, grazing lands and prairies. Production practices would blend the best of conventional, conservation, biotech and organic farming. Subsidies would be aimed at rewarding farmers for producing more healthy, nutritious food while preserving rich soil, clean water and thriving landscapes for future generations. This system would feed more people, employ more farmers and be more sustainable and more resilient than anything we have today.

It is important to note that these criticisms of the larger corn system—a behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government—are not aimed at farmers. Farmers are the hardest working people in America, and are pillars of their communities. It would be simply wrong to blame them for any of these issues. In this economic and political landscape, they would be crazy not to grow corn; farmers are simply delivering what markets and policies are demanding. What needs to change here is the system, not the farmers.

And no matter what happens, this won’t mean the end of corn. Far from it. Corn crops will always be a major player in American agriculture. But with the current corn system dominating our use of natural resources and public dollars, while delivering less food and nutrition than other agricultural systems, it’s time ask tough questions and demand better solutions.

Jonathan Foley, @GlobalEcoGuy, is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect those of the University of Minnesota or any other organization.

 

March 21st, 2015 by sfp

WEATHER, GEOGRAPHY, AND SUSTAINABLE FARMING

There is a lot of uncertainty in predicting the weather … so we won’t. We know however that climate change is disrupting historic weather patterns more and more.

sfp2010rain SoilEroson
2010 Rains 2012 Drought

2012 experienced the worst drought in North America in 50 years and caused havoc with farmers. 2010 delivered 10” down pours causing erosion and flooding. SFP anticipates more extreme weather in the future.

As erratic as the weather can get, there are strategies that SFP management deploy to mitigate these weather challenges. In our experience the opportunities to better manage the impact of bad weather are found in organic farming where more diverse crop rotations create better ground cover that holds in moisture during dry periods and mitigates soil erosion during wet periods. Combining organic farming practices with good irrigation and drainage planning is our strategy.

Dealing With Local Weather Conditions

Different strategies are designed to fit the different field contours and soil structures on farmland. For flooding, one strategy includes pattern tiling.

Pattern Tiling for Drainage: Trenches are dug in a pattern across a field that has standing water problems.  Buried in these trenches are plastic pipes with holes in them that take in excess water and direct it away and into a drainage ditch. The depth and location of the pipes vary depending on the soil type and topography of the ground.

Tilepattern

Center-Pivot for Irrigation: When more water is needed irrigation can mitigate the problem. There are different ways to irrigate a field. In some areas like Colorado and the Central Valley of California, flood irrigation is used to flood the surface of the field. When flying across states like Nebraska and Iowa you’ll see big green circles. These are center pivot irrigators where the irrigation pipes are suspended from towers that travel in a circle.

CenterPivot

Geographic Location and Farming

Geography also plays a part in anticipating weather conditions that are more favorable to farming. Where a farm is located geographically is important as regards precipitation. As a general rule from historical records, precipitation to the east of the 100th meridian has adequate rainfall for growing crops. To the west of the 100th meridian it is much dryer requiring elaborate water management strategies that depend on snow pack and massive water storage (dams) and canal systems. To quote Mark Twain, in these parts “Whisky is for sippin’ and water is for fighting over”.

 

100thMeridianMap

SFP chooses its farmland carefully keeping weather and geography in mind to optimize farmland investments.

February 21st, 2015 by sfp

THREE ELEMENTS OF SUSTAINABLE FARMING

sfpenvironment2
Environment: Organic farming practices are key to restoring the biodiversity in the soil. Healthy soil mitigates the adverse impact commercial farming has on not only the soil but also on air and water quality. Organic farming also frees the farmer from dependence on oil-based inputs that are unsustainable, can be environmentally harmful and costly. This allows nature to lead … sustaining Earth’s bounty for future generations.

SeaofGreen
society2

Society: Growing wholesome food untainted by pesticides creates a healthier local food system. Local food systems in turn help bring jobs back to local communities. By eliminating agricultural runoff we respect our down stream neighbors and restore the health of all communities.

sfpkids

sfpeconomy2Economy: Organic crops bring higher margins and often at lower costs. Typically, organic field corn sells for twice the price of conventional field corn. The drought of 2012 sent all corn prices soaring with organic corn reaching $16.25/bu while conventional corn brought $6.98/bu. Sustainable organic farming delivers stable incomes for farmers and investment partners alike. Economic benefits also extend beyond to surrounding communities by eliminating costly pollution clean up that often accompanies runoff from industrial farming creating costly clean up at public community expense.

orgcorn3years2

Sustainable Farm Partners, LLP are dedicated to deliver this triple-net value proposition to every farm investment, every farm operator we work with and to every community where we make our investments.

Fundamental: A healthy environment, healthy society and healthy economy improve the bottom line for everyone.