Some farmers are afraid of me.
I know this because a farmer named Jerry wrote a letter to the Des Moines Register recently saying that they are scared. It would be a “scary scenario for mainstream agriculture” if I got elected as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, he said. Francis Thicke is a “true believer in everything organic,” he shuddered.
Running for office is an adventure. But I never expected to learn that Iowa farmers, who are among the most resilient, shrewd and creative people on the planet, are afraid of a mild-mannered organic dairy farmer with a PhD in Agronomy and some ideas for helping them meet challenges such as peak oil. So I thought I would write him a letter to reassure him that I’m not scary, because if we don’t get our act together to deal with the real challenges of peak oil, the disruptions caused by climate change, and the growing monopoly power of corporate agribusiness, then we really will have cause for concern.
Don’t be afraid. This is America, and no one is going to make you “go organic.” It’s the Big Ag interests that want to limit your choices, not me. You might save money and protect water quality and the health of your family if you understood how to apply sustainable farming methods that do not require farm chemicals, but you don’t have to.
No one is going to force you to make your own biofuels on the farm from perennial crops that make your farm resilient and energy efficient. Nor will you be forced to drive a hydrogen or ammonia-powered tractor with fuel derived from wind power. If diesel prices soar in the next few years, as the Defense Department[pdf] is warning us, it’s your right to pay $6 a gallon or more and keep right on using it. There may be shortages in our future by 2015, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find fuel at some price, somewhere.
You have the right to keep doing things the way you always have, and not take advantage of science-based ways to bring your costs down and prepare for a future without abundant petrochemicals. All I am offering is a vision for a thriving agriculture in the absence of cheap oil, and leadership to meet the challenges that we know are coming. Energy will be a huge game-changer over the coming decade–for agriculture, and for everything else.
Farmers aren’t afraid of organic farming or renewable energy. Farmers are afraid that crop prices won’t cover their costs, particularly in the face of volatile energy costs and unstable commodity prices. If someone can offer them a common-sense way to cut their costs, most will want to hear about it. So just put your fingers in your ears while I’m talking, and you’ll be fine.
While you’re doing that, I’ll be talking to Iowans about the Hydrogen Engine Center in Algona, Iowa, which makes internal combustion engines that run on either hydrogen or ammonia. I’ll also be talking about parallel technology that is under development right now, to create wind turbines that can make hydrogen or ammonia using wind power. When we can couple these two technologies, we will be able to run farm machinery or automobiles on wind power, with only water and nitrogen gas coming out of the exhaust pipe–a carbon-free energy system.
According to Ted Hollinger, the mastermind behind the hydrogen/ammonia engine, the technology for making hydrogen and/or ammonia using wind turbines is just a year or two away, and Ted thinks that the cost of making hydrogen or ammonia with wind turbines, and using it as fuel in an internal combustion engine, will be less than the current cost of gasoline.
Imagine: A farm with a wind turbine that makes more than enough electricity to power the farm’s electrical needs. The excess wind power is used to make ammonia. The ammonia powers a backup electrical generator, farm tractors and other machinery. This scenario is very likely in the near future as peak oil forces all fossil fuel costs up.
Is this scary? I don’t think so. I think farmers will want this technology, and welcome any government efforts to make it affordable and widely available.