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Renewing husbandry -- The time of mechanization in agriculture is fast coming to an end

(Monday, Sept. 19, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Renewing husbandry -- The time of mechanization in agriculture is fast coming to an end. But can we recover what's been lost?
2. Captive supply destroying independent cattle feeder sector
3. China will import corn
4. Wind energy is a potent new income stream for rural America
5. Small-town guy with a dream brings new energy to a school
6. Potato growers unite to gain market power
7. To the American farmer -- Take a stand!

1. Renewing husbandry -- The time of mechanization in agriculture is fast coming to an end. But can we recover what's been lost?

by Wendell Berry
Orion magazine

I REMEMBER WELL a summer morning in about 1950 when my father sent a hired man with a McCormick High Gear No. 9 mowing machine and a team of mules to the field I was mowing with our nearly new Farmall A. That memory is a landmark in my mind and my history. I had been born into the way of farming represented by the mule team, and I loved it. I knew irresistibly that the mules were good ones. They were stepping along beautifully at a rate of speed in fact only a little slower than mine. But now I saw them suddenly from the vantage point of the tractor, and I remember how fiercely I resented their slowness. I saw them as "in my way."

This is not an exceptional or a remarkably dramatic bit of history. I recite it to confirm that the industrialization of agriculture is a part of my familiar experience. I don't have the privilege of looking at it as an outsider. We were mowing that morning, the teamster with his mules and I with the tractor, in the field behind the barn on my father's home place, where he and before him his father had been born, and where his father had died in February of 1946. The old way of farming was intact in my grandfather's mind until the day he died at eighty-two. He had worked mules all his life, understood them thoroughly, and loved the good ones passionately. He knew tractors only from a distance, he had seen only a few of them, and he rejected them out of hand because he thought, correctly, that they compacted the soil.

Even so, four years after his death his grandson's sudden resentment of the "slow" mule team foretold what history would bear out: the tractor would stay and the mules would go. Year after year, agriculture would be adapted more and more to the technology and the processes of industry and to the rule of industrial economics. This transformation occurred with astonishing speed because, by the measures it set for itself, it was wonderfully successful. It "saved labor," it conferred the prestige of modernity, and it was highly productive.

During the fourteen years after 1950 I was much away from home, though I never entirely departed from farming or at least from thoughts of farming, and my affection for my homeland remained strong. In 1964 my family and I returned to Kentucky and settled on a hillside farm in my native community, where we have continued to live. Perhaps because I was a returned traveler intending to stay, I now saw the place more clearly than before. I saw it critically, too, for it was evident at once that the human life of the place, the life of the farms and the farming community, was in decline. The old self-sufficient way of farming was passing away. The economic prosperity that had visited the farmers briefly during World War II and for a few years afterward had ended. The little towns that once had been social and economic centers, thronged with country people on Saturdays and Saturday nights, were losing out to the bigger towns and the cities. The rural neighborhoods, once held together by common memories, common work, and the sharing of help, had begun to dissolve. There were no longer local markets for chickens or eggs or cream. The spring lamb industry, once a staple of the region, was gone. The tractors and other mechanical devices certainly were saving the labor of the farmers and farmhands who had moved away, but those who had stayed were working harder and longer than ever.

THE EFFECTS OF THIS PROCESS of industrialization have become so apparent, so numerous, so favorable to the agribusiness corporations, and so unfavorable to everything else, that by now the questions troubling me and a few others in the '60s and '70s are being asked everywhere. It has become increasingly clear that the way we farm affects the local community, and that the economy of the local community affects the way we farm; that the way we farm affects the health and integrity of the local ecosystem, and that the farm is intricately dependent, even economically, upon the health of the local ecosystem. We can no longer pretend that agriculture is a sort of economic machine with interchangeable parts, the same everywhere, determined by "market forces" and independent of everything else. We are not farming in a specialist capsule or a professionalist department; we are farming in the world, in a webwork of dependences and influences probably more intricate than we will ever understand. It has become clear, in short, that we have been running our fundamental economic enterprise by the wrong rules. We were wrong to assume that agriculture could be adequately defined by reductionist science and determinist economics.

It is no longer possible to deny that context exists and is an issue. If you can keep the context narrow enough (and the accounting period short enough), then the industrial criteria of labor saving and high productivity seem to work well. But the old rules of ecological coherence and of community life have remained in effect. The costs of ignoring them have accumulated, until now the boundaries of our reductive and mechanical explanations have collapsed. Their collapse reveals, plainly enough for all to see, the ecological and social damages they were meant to conceal. It will seem paradoxical to some that the national and global corporate economies have narrowed the context for thinking about agriculture, but it is merely the truth. Those large economies, in their understanding and in their accounting, have excluded any concern for the land and the people. Now, in the midst of so much unnecessary human and ecological destruction, we are facing the necessity of a new start in agriculture.

THE TRACTOR'S ARRIVAL HAD SIGNALED, among other things, agriculture's shift from an almost exclusive dependence on free solar energy to a total dependence on costly fossil fuel. But in 1950, like most people at that time, I was years away from the first inkling of the limits of the supply of cheap fuel.

We had entered an era of limitlessness, or the illusion thereof, and this in itself is a sort of wonder. My grandfather lived a life of limits, both suffered and strictly observed, in a world of limits. I learned much of that world from him and others, and then I changed; I entered the world of labor-saving machines and of limitless cheap fossil fuel. It would take me years of reading, thought, and experience to learn again that in this world limits are not only inescapable but indispensable.

Mechanical farming makes it easy to think mechanically about the land and its creatures. It makes it easy to think mechanically even about oneself, and the tirelessness of tractors brought a new depth of weariness into human experience, at a cost to health and family life that has not been fully accounted.

Once one's farm and one's thoughts have been sufficiently mechanized, industrial agriculture's focus on production, as opposed to maintenance or stewardship, becomes merely logical. And here the trouble completes itself. The almost exclusive emphasis on production permits the way of working to be determined not by the nature and character of the farm in its ecosystem and in its human community, but rather by the national or the global economy and the available or affordable technology. The farm and all concerns not immediately associated with production have in effect disappeared from sight. The farmer too in effect has vanished. He is no longer working as an independent and loyal agent of his place, his family, and his community, but instead as the agent of an economy that is fundamentally adverse to him and to all that he ought to stand for.

THE WORD "HUSBANDRY" is the name of a connection. In its original sense, it is the name of the work of a domestic man, a man who has accepted a bondage to the household. To husband is to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve. Old usage tells us that there is a husbandry also of the land, of the soil, of the domestic plants and animals -- obviously because of the importance of these things to the household. And there have been times, one of which is now, when some people have tried to practice a proper human husbandry of the nondomestic creatures, in recognition of the dependence of our households and domestic life upon the wild world. Husbandry is the name of all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us. Most and perhaps all of industrial agriculture's manifest failures appear to be the result of an attempt to make the land produce without husbandry. The attempt to remake agriculture as a science and an industry has excluded from it the age-old husbandry which was central and essential to it.

This effort had its initial and probably its most radical success in separating farming from the economy of subsistence. Through World War II, farm life in my region (and, I think, nearly everywhere) rested solidly upon the garden, dairy, poultry flock, and meat animals that fed the farm's family. Especially in hard times farm families, and their farms, survived by means of their subsistence economy. The industrial program, on the contrary, suggested that it was "uneconomic" for a farm family to produce its own food; the effort and the land would be better applied to commercial production. The result is utterly strange in human experience: farm families that buy everything they eat at the store.

An intention to replace husbandry with science was made explicit in the renaming of disciplines in the colleges of agriculture. "Soil husbandry" became "soil science," and "animal husbandry" became "animal science." This change is worth lingering over because of what it tells us about our susceptibility to poppycock. Purporting to increase the sophistication of the humble art of farming, this change in fact brutally oversimplifies it.

"Soil science," as practiced by soil scientists, and even more as it has been handed down to farmers, has tended to treat the soil as a lifeless matrix in which "soil chemistry" takes place and "nutrients" are "made available." And this, in turn, has made farming increasingly shallow -- literally so -- in its understanding of the soil. The modern farm is understood as a surface on which various mechanical operations are performed, and to which various chemicals are applied. The undersurface reality of organisms and roots is mostly ignored.

"Soil husbandry" is a different kind of study, involving a different kind of mind. Soil husbandry leads, in the words of Sir Albert Howard, to understanding "health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject." We apply the word "health" only to living creatures, and to soil husbandry a healthy soil is a wilderness, mostly unstudied and unknown, but teemingly alive. The soil is at once a living community of creatures and their habitat. The farm's husband, its family, its crops and animals, all are members of the soil community; all belong to the character and identity of the place. To rate the farm family merely as "labor" and its domestic plants and animals merely as "production" is thus an oversimplification, both radical and destructive.

"Science" is too simple a word to name the complex of relationships and connections that compose a healthy farm -- a farm that is a full membership of the soil community. The husbandry of mere humans, of course, cannot be complex enough either. But husbandry always has understood that what is husbanded is ultimately a mystery. A farmer, as one of his farmer correspondents once wrote to Liberty Hyde Bailey, is "a dispenser of the 'Mysteries of God.'" The mothering instinct of animals, for example, is a mystery that husbandry must use and trust mostly without understanding. The husband, unlike the "manager" or the would-be objective scientist, belongs inherently to the complexity and the mystery that is to be husbanded, and so the husbanding mind is both careful and humble. Husbandry originates precautionary sayings like "Don't put all your eggs into one basket" and "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." It does not boast of technological feats that will "feed the world."

Husbandry, which is not replaceable by science, nevertheless uses science, and corrects it too. It is the more comprehensive discipline. To reduce husbandry to science, in practice, is to transform agricultural "wastes" into pollutants, and to subtract perennials and grazing animals from the rotation of crops. Without husbandry, the agriculture of science and industry has served too well the purpose of the industrial economy in reducing the number of landowners and the self-employed. It has transformed the United States from a country of many owners to a country of many employees. Without husbandry, "soil science" too easily ignores the community of creatures that live in and from, that make and are made by, the soil. Similarly, "animal science" without husbandry forgets, almost as a requirement, the sympathy by which we recognize ourselves as fellow creatures of the animals. It forgets that animals are so called because we once believed them to be endowed with souls. Animal science has led us away from that belief or any such belief in the sanctity of animals. It has led us instead to the animal factory which, like the concentration camp, is a vision of Hell. Animal husbandry, on the contrary, comes from and again leads to the psalmist's vision of good grass, good water, and the husbandry of God.

Agriculture must mediate between nature and the human community, with ties and obligations in both directions. To farm well requires an elaborate courtesy toward all creatures, animate and inanimate. It is sympathy that most appropriately enlarges the context of human work. Contexts become wrong by being too smallótoo small, that is, to contain the scientist or the farmer or the farm family or the local ecosystem or the local communityóand this is crucial. "Out of context," as Wes Jackson has said, "the best minds do the worst damage."

OUR RECENT FOCUS UPON PRODUCTIVITY, genetic and technological uniformity, and global trade -- all supported by supposedly limitless supplies of fuel, water, and soil -- has obscured the necessity for local adaptation. But our circumstances are changing rapidly now, and this requirement will be forced upon us again by terrorism and other kinds of political violence, by chemical pollution, by increasing energy costs, by depleted soils, aquifers, and streams, and by the spread of exotic weeds, pests, and diseases. We are going to have to return to the old questions about local nature, local carrying capacities, and local needs. And we are going to have to resume the breeding of plants and animals to fit the region and the farm.

The same obsessions and extravagances that have caused us to ignore the issue of local adaptation have caused us to ignore the issue of form. These two issues are so closely related that it is difficult to talk about one without talking about the other. During the half century and more of our neglect of local adaptation, we have subjected our farms to a radical oversimplification of form. The diversified and reasonably self-sufficient farms of my region and of many other regions have been conglomerated into larger farms with larger fields, increasingly specialized, and subjected increasingly to the strict, unnatural linearity of the production line.

But the first requirement of a form is that it must be comprehensive; it must not leave out something that essentially belongs within it. The form of the farm must answer to the farmer's feeling for the place, its creatures, and its work. It is a never-ending effort of fitting together many diverse things. It must incorporate the lifecycle and the fertility cycles of animals. It must bring crops and livestock into balance and mutual support. It must be a pattern on the ground and in the mind. It must be at once ecological, agricultural, economic, familial, and neighborly.

Soon the majority of the world's people will be living in cities. We are now obliged to think of so many people demanding the means of life from the land, to which they will no longer have a practical connection, and of which they will have little knowledge. We are obliged also to think of the consequences of any attempt to meet this demand by large-scale, expensive, petroleum-dependent technological schemes that will ignore local conditions and local needs. The problem of renewing husbandry, and the need to promote a general awareness of everybody's agricultural responsibilities, thus becomes urgent. How can we restore a competent husbandry to the minds of the world's producers and consumers? This effort is already in progress on many farms and in many urban consumer groups scattered across our country and the world. But we must recognize too that this effort needs an authorizing focus and force that would grant it a new legitimacy, intellectual rigor, scientific respectability, and responsible teaching. There are many reasons to hope that this might be supplied by our colleges of agriculture.

The effort of husbandry is partly scientific but it is entirely cultural; and a cultural initiative can exist only by becoming personal. It will become increasingly clear, I believe, that agricultural scientists will need to work as indwelling members of agricultural communities or of consumer communities. It is not irrational to propose that a significant number of these scientists should be farmers, and so subject their scientific work, and that of their colleagues, to the influence of a farmer's practical circumstances. Along with the rest of us, they will need to accept all the imperatives of husbandry as the context of their work. We cannot keep things from falling apart in our society if they do not cohere in our minds and in our lives.


2. Captive supply destroying independent cattle feeder sector

Organization for Competitive Markets
P.O. Box 6486
Lincoln, NE 68506

The following editorial was authored by Chase Carter, Executive Director of the Organization for Competitive Markets. If you would like to arrange an interview with Mr. Carter, would like a photo to accompany the editorial, or need any further information, please contact him at the number below.

Contact: Chase Carter, Executive Director
(402) 817-4443

By Chase Carter, OCM

In the world of cattle marketing, the independent custom feeders play a key role in the continued profitability of the industry. Whether feeding customer or company-owned cattle, independent feeders provide efficient cattle feeding and care, professional marketing, and establish the weekly prices through negotiating with packers. But the independent feeders are being driven out of business by captive supplies, because packers freeze them out of markets in favor of packer-aligned cattle sources. Captive supply reform must be included in the 2006 Farm Bill to revitalize the industry.

When meat packers own their own cattle, or contract months ahead for delivery of cattle, the industry calls the arrangements "captive supplies." The packer has "captured" the exclusive right to cattle delivery, there is no bidding when cattle are sold, and the prices are not reported. The Organization for Competitive Markets believes about 80% of cattle sold today are captive cattle.

This means prices are set by the 20% or less remaining cattle sold after negotiations with independent feedlots. The USDA reports these few transactions, which set the market price for the week. Packers use their captive supplies to avoid the open market, and to bid low because they have most of their needs met through "captured cattle." Though extremely efficient, independent feedlots face far more uncertainty, worrying every week whether they can sell customer cattle because packer needs are full. Their customers lose money and do not return.

Just as Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with the convergence of rain, wind and floods; captive supplies devastate the independent cattle feeding sector with the convergence of market freeze out, low prices, and a financially demoralized customer base. The packers then claim we need to import Canadian, Australian and Brazilian cattle because of short domestic supplies.

These points were proven in the recent Pickett versus Tyson Fresh Meats case in Montgomery, Alabama. The jury saw Tyson data showing packer had 180% of their plant capacity locked in through captive supplies in some weeks. In other words, Tyson had all its cattle committed for one week plus 80% of the next week's cattle. This access grants the ability to stay out of the cash market for weeks at a time and drive down the cash market.

The Packer & Stockyards Act was passed in 1921 to address these problems, but U.S. Courts have gutted the law. Congress needs to overrule the courts with new statutory language they cannot ignore. The USDA could fix many of the problems, but the revolving door and FEMA-like cronyism prevent this.

Imagine if the buyers of your cattle were actively bidding on them all week rather than a thirty minute window once a week. This true market process would not only raise the price of live cattle and increase the standard of living for the American producer, but would also benefit the whole of rural America. We need to get behind captive supply reform and get language into the upcoming Farm Bill that addresses this problem.

We need to tell our Congressman and Senators they are anti-agriculture unless they support competition over packer-controlled markets.

3. How rural voters helped their abusers further humiliate them

President, Nebraska Farmers Union
Guest on Reclaim Rural America forum

As a recent New York Times article on ag subsidies clearly shows, family farm agriculture is now reaping the public perception and political backlash that the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, National Soybean Growers, National Association of Wheat Growers, and the U.S. based grain traders set us up for and created in 1996.

They transformed traditional farm programs from price supporting programs that forced the grain traders to pay up for grain commodities, which caused the cost of farm programs to be relatively low, and the majority of farm income to be realized through the cash market into income transfer programs that look, feel, and taste like welfare programs to most observers.

The fact that the actual structure is a "make up allowance" of sorts for lost market place value lost is seldom if ever recognized. The common perception becomes the reality, which is the current structure of farm programs is politically indefensible and fiscally vulnerable, just as Farmers Union said it was in the 1996 Farm Bill battle. When we compare the 1996 value of the national production of six crops: Corn, Wheat, Soybeans, Grain Sorghum, Rice, and Cotton for the years 1997 through 2003, farmers were paid an average of $14.6 billion less for their crops. That amounts to $102.45 billion less money the raw material processors paid farmers for their crops during the 1997-2003 period.

So, who are the primary beneficiaries of the "farm subsidies"? Not the family farmers who lost more market place value than they got in income transfers -- and produced most of their crops most years at below the USDA's Economic Research Service estimated cost of production. Not the consumers who did not pay proportionally less for the processed food products they bought. The food processors and food retailers.

They continue to steal raw material food production from farmers and ranchers for below full cost of production, with the help of our national farm and trade policy, which continues to be driven and supported by the food industry conglomerates with the political support of the very organizations that are supposed to be representing America's family farmers and ranchers.

What is worse, the very same set of big agribusiness players and their political supporters are now positioned to use the growing federal deficit and the direction of WTO negotiations to further carry out their self serving economic agenda to reduce and eliminate domestic income supports which are now called "subsidies". The new Congress leadership and the White House both support this agenda.

American farmers and ranchers are being fed to the U.S. based international corporate sharks by their own public officials, commodity organizations, and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Our traditional system of independent, farmer and rancher owned food and fiber production is being destroyed and dismantled in favor of the industrialized, top down corporate owned and controlled version of the failed former Soviet model.

In the last election, rural voters, just as the low self esteem victims of prolonged domestic abuse often do, once again helped their own abusers further beat and humiliate them.

3. China Will Import Corn

DTN, Sept. 9, 2005

Chinese Agribusinessman Predicts Need Within Five Years

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- China will import corn within five years, according to Liu Yonghao, chairman of the New Hope Group, the largest feed producer in China.

According to a news release from the U.S. Grains Council, several of its members and U.S. agribusiness representatives have met with NHG to discuss the company's plans and how U.S. agriculture could play a role in China's future.

"Farming is changing in China and as a result, we're seeing increased demand for meat products and therefore an increased need for animal feed. This trend is gradual, but it will continue over the next 5-10 years," said Liu. "We procure corn on the local market but 3-5 years down the road, we'll need corn from the international market to meet our feed needs."

Liu added that about 100 million Chinese farmers leave the countryside for jobs in the city annually in China. While some go back to the land, many more remain in the city where they earn a larger income. Those remaining farmers are slowly becoming more industrialized to meet China's rising meat demand.

"China used to be the largest soybean producer and now we're the largest soybean importer," said Liu. "With the technological advances in farming and the increased demand, I believe we'll be looking to the international market for corn in the years to come."

NHG started in 1982 with a $120 investment by four brothers. Today, the privately-owned company has annual sales of $2.6 billion and produces 6 million tons of feed annually. NHG operates 60-plus feed mills under their name and owns interest in the Liuhe Group, which operates almost 50 feed mills. Growing the company is definitely in the business plan as Liu hopes their 700 million bird broiler operation will grow to 2 billion birds in three years and that their hog production will double in the same amount of time.

"We've been involved with NHG for many years now and they are an impressive agricultural force in China," said Mike Callahan, USGC senior director of international operations - Asia. "After meeting with Liu and his representatives, it's clear the company is exploring their business options in the pork industry beyond their current roles of supplying feed and limited hog processing."

The Council has particular interest in NHG due to the company corn import quotas. In 2005, the company applied for and received 180,000 metric tons of import quotas but did not use them.

"This is one of the larger allocations for any single company in China and represents about 6 percent of the total private quota allocation," Callahan added. "If China were to become an importer, NHG would be one of the first and largest of these important new private sector feed grain customers for U.S. producers."

4. Wind energy is a potent new income stream for rural America

Letter to the Editor, Sept. 8, 2005
The Grand Island Independent

As a supporter and patron of rural coops I was amazed to see Gary Hedman's (CEO of Southern Power District) 9/7/05 letter complaining about "subsidies" for renewable energy. Rural Electric Cooperatives receive tremendous federal subsidies, with $10.6 billion in subsidized loans according to USDA's 2002 Statistical Report. Rural Electric Cooperatives would not have been built without subsidies. I defend those Coop subsidies. Coops should help promote rural economic development with wind energy as a renewable farm income stream.

Non-renewable coal and fossil energy are some of the most subsidized sectors of our economy. The new energy bill gives massive subsidies to coal and oil and minor subsidies to wind energy. Rural coops can't be supporting "their" federal energy subsidies and public power while complaining about "subsidies" for renewable energy. Mr. Hedman speaks of "causes" and confuses the public by linking net metering with utility scale wind farming. His "cause" must be for Nebraskans to keep sending $100 million/year to Wyoming for coal. Net metering is good self-sufficiency policy for small wind or solar systems on the customer side of the meter. Federal experts say it will never be big enough to negatively affect the utility system. Utility scale wind farms are an entirely different opportunity. They compete effectively with fossil fuel. The NPPD Ainsworth wind farm is an example.

That Southern Power's avoided cost is only about 1.5 cents per kWh is unrealistic. The Edison Electric Institute defines avoided cost as, "The costs an electric utility would otherwise incur to generate power if it did not purchase electricity from another source." Nebraska rural electrics pay 3 cents/kWh or more (their avoided cost) on average to buy power from NPPD. The 9/1/05 Wall Street Journal quotes electricity values as: non-firm, on-peak-7.6 cents/kWh for 16-hour, heavy demand period of the day; off-peak demand-5.6 cent/kWh. Utility-scale wind farms produce electricity for 3-4 cents kWh. The National Renewable Energy Lab says Class 4 Nebraska winds alone could produce 20 times Nebraska's current conventional electric generation capacity.

Southern and other area public power districts are facing irrigation restrictions, a negative for the area's economic future. Wind turbines do not require any water for cooling. Fossil fuel power plants require many deep wells and tremendous quantities of water for cooling, competing directly with farmers, municipalities and consumers for water and the economic future of Nebraska?s rural-based economy. Water use is a big issue.

Rural electric cooperatives use "serving farmers and rural America" to justify their non-profit status. All rural electric cooperatives might like to be aware that a 2004 random nationwide poll of corn farmers confirms that 85% (90% among Nebraska corn farmers) want rural electric cooperatives to follow the law, the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), and the 2003 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruling ordering a rural electric cooperative to connect a farmer-owned wind turbine to their electricity grid. Recent 2005 FERC rulings reconfirm it. It (PURPA) is the law of the land! Mr. Hedman might also note that NPPD's own recent deliberative poll and a new 2005 UNL-IANR rural poll, shows 90% support (in Nebraska) for wind energy.

Nebraska public power is a shining star, most of the time. But Nebraska is still part of the United States and subject to federal law (PURPA). We are a conservative, sometimes progressive state, especially on renewable energy policy. We are independent, self-sufficient entrepreneurs. Farmer-owned, community-based, utility-scale wind farms will make us even more self-sufficient. Deere and Company promotes this model of wind farm ownership. Deere knows it will increase farm and rural income, translating to new farm equipment sales. Deere is an equity partner on wind farms in Minnesota and other states. Rural electric cooperatives would be wise to help Nebraska become more energy independent through farmer-owned wind farms. This is the 21st century.

Dan McGuire, CEO
Steering Committee Member, Wind Energy Works! Coalition

5. Small-town guy with a dream brings new energy to a school

By Sanhita Sen
Chicago Tribune
Published August 16, 2005

MANLIUS, Ill. -- Hours away from the city, cornfields here stretch undisturbed as far as the eye can see -- almost.

Near Bureau Valley High School, a wind turbine stands 30 stories high, its three 76-foot blades tracing lazy circles on the blue Midwestern sky.

Running since January, the $1.1 million turbine is the first in the state to power a high school and is projected to save the school $100,000 in annual electricity costs.

"That's two teachers' [salaries] a year," said Keith Bolin, the hog farmer and school board member who first proposed the turbine five years ago.

Built almost 200 yards from the school on land the school owns for agricultural production, the turbine harnesses one of western Illinois' greatest natural resources: wind.

Since Jan. 22, the turbine's computerized records show that it has produced 646,397 kilowatt-hours of energy for the school and consumed only 2,715 for itself. Besides providing Bureau Valley with a clean, renewable source of energy, school officials hope the turbine will also help the district -- and other poor districts like it -- ease financial pressures.

But for the humble hog farmer with a dream, the road from vision to reality was long.

"I'm just a dirt hog farmer. I'm not the smartest guy on the block," Bolin said. But "somebody has to take the bull by the horns."

The primary force behind the turbine's creation, Bolin first learned of the possibilities of wind energy at an American Corn Growers Association meeting in fall 2000. Successful turbines in Iowa, the first in the nation to power high schools, inspired him to propose a similar investment in Bureau Valley.

"Keith [Bolin] flopped a stack of papers on my desk and said here's something we'd like you to pursue," said Rick Stoeker, Bureau Valley's superintendent for 36 years. "He rode me pretty hard."

The first crucial break occurred in 2003 when the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation granted Bureau Valley $20,000 to conduct a feasibility study. With the grant, the district hired a mechanical engineer from North Dakota to determine if Bureau Valley had enough wind to justify building a $1 million turbine. Business people, school officials, electrical companies and even some state representatives gathered in the superintendent's office June 17 to hear the results.

"That meeting was really kind of the fork in the road," Bolin said. Once the engineer approved the turbine, "that really set the ball moving." Without that grant, the school could never have risked its own money just to find out if the project was possible, he added.

The public also raised concerns -- about noise, construction and danger to birds -- in open-forum town meetings, where the turbine's architect, lawyers and supporters were present to answer questions. Bolin said such consistent, informative communication minimized anxiety and skepticism about the project.

"People need to be informed," he said. "They want to know, `How's it doing?'" He added, "They're pretty proud of what they've done."

Once the turbine was officially approved, Vestas -- the largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world -- built it in less than two months, completing the project by fall 2004.

Searching for a breeze

Today, the turbine's computerized generator makes up to four revolutions to find the 6-7 m.p.h. breeze it needs from any direction to produce more energy than it consumes. Once found, it runs at a steady 28.5 revolutions per minute. On the rare occasion the wind is too light, the turbine shuts itself down to save energy and prevent unnecessary wear on its parts, thereby extending its estimated life expectancy of 20 to 30 years.

Bureau Valley's results have encouraged another district 30 miles west to consider a similar endeavor. Though the options have not been confirmed, the Erie School district has begun its engineering and financial planning.

"When I saw that Bureau Valley had been successful," said Erie Supt. Michael Ryan, "I wanted to look into the possibilities for our own district." He added, "If we're successful, we hope to be generating power by next spring or early summer."

The new turbine's location is tentatively set at Erie Middle School.

Bureau Valley paid about $130,000 of its own money for the million-dollar investment, and grants from Illinois Clean Energy Committee, the Department of Economic Opportunity and other sponsors funded another chunk. Savings from the turbine are expected to pay off the rest of the costs by 2015.

Stoeker said grants are still available for other schools interested in wind energy and plans to discuss the matter with thousands of school board members and administrators at a convention in Chicago this fall.

Made a difference

"This is probably the most significant thing I've ever done that's made a difference," Stoeker said of the turbine. "I'm real proud of it." Referring to Bolin, he added, "Give Keith credit. He was really the driving force behind this thing."

Upon leaving the superintendent's office, Bolin responded to Stoeker's comment with a shake of his head. "Don't pay too much attention to him about giving me any . . . ." he waved his hand in a dismissing gesture. "I enjoyed being involved."

Bolin views his greatest contribution as a trust builder between the local people of Bureau Valley and the "outsiders, the corporate people" who came to build the turbine.

"Somebody local has to spearhead this. That's where I did come in." He added quickly, "Not that I did anything smart or anything. There just needs to be a sense of trust."

And Bolin's ties with his community are strong. Rather than give directions to his house, he tells visitors to ask anyone in town where he lives; indeed, just mentioning his name in a convenience store was enough. His closest neighbor, a quarter mile down the road, is his daughter, and his parents' home is within a few miles of his own. The school is also only a short drive away, and the turbine is visible from his porch.

Later that evening, as he sipped iced tea in his dining room, he joked about being the "dummy" that never got off the family farm. He counseled the value of education in order to avoid a lifetime of manual labor. And he spoke proudly of his 19-year-old daughter, the first in the family to attend college.

But he knew that path was never for him.

"I grew up here," he said of his 300-acre farm. "This is my home." Pointing to a fence outside his house, he fondly added, "I remember putting that fence in when I was 12. A lot of people would be getting up to go to school, but we'd be getting up to do chores. And we thought school was a cakewalk." He laughed. "Not that we were any good at it."

But Bolin is no dummy either. Dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, the mild-mannered hog farmer appeared accustomed to underestimation, but his vision stretches far beyond his small town. Now president of the American Corn Growers Association, he is well-versed in agricultural economics. He closely follows politics, and most importantly, he has developed a sense of civic responsibility.

"I used to think the only thing that mattered was my home, my hogs," Bolin said. "I believed that no one lied, that the only people that lied are evil and you would know them because they'd have an E on their foreheads."

Changes his thinking

But things changed after a dispute with school administrators over bus schedules in winter 1993.

"I learned that even good people lie and makes mistakes," he said. "That there are more than hogs in the world. Come fall, I ran for the school board."

Bolin's next project is to incorporate the turbine into the school's curriculum, possibly as a business model, an agricultural project and a study in engineering. Principal Terry Gutshall likes the idea and plans to start with the physics class this fall.

"With the national energy crisis, [wind] is a valuable source of energy that Americans are going to have to look at," Gutshall said. Though start-up costs are high, he said the eventual payoff is worth it. "It's the way of the future."

In the meantime, Bureau Valley remains Illinois' pioneer in harnessing wind energy for non-commercial purposes.

"We have a very progressive district," Bolin said. "They listen to a good idea and run with it."

6. Potato growers unite to gain market power

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

If you asked farmers for a solution to the crisis in farming, most of them could give you a reasonable answer. However, they would immediately dismiss their own solution as impossible to implement. The solution, quite simply, is to control the supply of farm products and thereby force buyers to bid up the price.

Controlling supply deals with the first link in the chain. It is, in fact, the only useful thing farmers can do, beyond managing their own farms efficiently. Controlling supply involves the exercise of power, an exercise farmers have largely been content to leave to the other links in the chain. Controlling supply also requires farmers to work together, either by consent or coercion. Farmers mostly dislike coercion, even when they know it is good for them. As for consent and consensus among farmers, they are as rare as hen's teeth.

Other parts of the food chain don't mind the exercise of power. The retail food industry, that handful of large grocery chains that controls the nation's supermarkets, doesn't mind showing its economic might. In fact, the retail food giants made it clear to the Competition Bureau that they were not worried about the absorption of Better Beef by Cargill, as they felt they had enough market power to counteract the lack of competition in the beef processing sector. The Canadian Cattlemen's Association, on the other hand, seems to have no view on power, or powerlessness, at all since it failed to tell the Bureau anything.

Once in a while, farmers exhibit a surprising ability to work together. Maintaining the Canadian Wheat Board is one example. Farmers have persevered in holding on to this organization, despite domestic and international challenges. However, it is usually easier to hang on to something you have than to create new structures. This is why the co-operation among potato growers in the U.S. to control supply and implement orderly marketing is such a unique event.

Organized under the banner United Potato Growers of America, spud farmers began a year ago to form a non-profit co-operative with an eye to driving up prices for fresh table potatoes by eliminating over-production and controlling the price at which farmers will sell. The group's Vision Statement explains it like this: "We will reinstate order and rationally manage supply of raw product, and facilitate equitable and stable marketing of our member potato grower's crop production."

The group has been remarkably successful. Claiming to represent about three-fourths of the potato acreage in the U.S., United has managed to reduce potato acres by seven percent, to the lowest level since 1866. A study by the University of Idaho predicted that a one percent decrease in production would yield a seven percent increase in price.

United's method of controlling supply is to monitor planting intentions and then offer to buy out acres from willing growers, and, if necessary, to destroy a portion of the crop grown. Recently, farmers from seven Canadian provinces met to determine how they could co-operate with the American effort and perhaps join the United Potato Growers.

The effort by potato growers shows that farmers can co-operate if they are desperate enough. Prices for table potatoes are hovering around $2 per hundred pounds. Growers feel they must have $4.50 per hundredweight to be profitable.

P.E.I. is the only Canadian province to attempt to collectively limit production in the face of dismal prices. The P.E.I. Potato Board controls production by establishing acreage limits and using a buy-out similar to that proposed by United.

Despite its current success, United is sure to eventually come up against the free rider problem if it is successful in raising prices. P.E.I.'s Agriculture Minister is well aware of this. Acreage reduction programs in that province have failed in the past because an acreage reduction by one grower was usually counterbalanced by increased planting by a neighbour. This year's program has substantial penalties for farmers who exceed their quotas.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of United's efforts when the free rider problem inevitably hits. Will the organization seek coercive powers, like those agreed to by P.E.I. growers? Or will it fall apart because farmers simply cannot abide for long the idea that they should co-operate with each other, rather than compete?

© Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net

7. To the American Farmer -- Take a Stand!

For Immediate Release
Contact: Larry Mitchell (202) 835-0330

An Editorial Comment by Keith Bolin, President
American Corn Growers Association - September 9, 2005

This is an open letter to the American farmer and farmers around the world. Over half of the people on the Earth are farmers. They create real wealth with Godís blessing and help. You are a respected and sacred group of people, just as our teachers, healers and preachers are also. This letter is about Godís blessings on farmers. Many cultures in history have turned their backs on their agrarian roots. Many declining cultures mistakenly devalued farmersí importance as providers of food and nourishment. That mistake was always fatal.

Thomas Jefferson also warned us of this very thing. Agriculture is a way of life, not just a bottom line figure. Many do not understand that there is more than money at stake. We, the American farmers do not desire subsidies from our government or from the taxpayer. However, ending subsidies alone, without major reform of farm and trade policy, will simply destroy farmers.

What we need and demand is a fair, free, open, transparent, competitive marketplace to sell our products above the cost of production. A fair and competitive market is where the consumer (processor and retailer) pays a fair price, not the taxpayer subsidizing processor and retailer purchases. The role of our government and the farm program is market place referee, providing the marketing tools to establish fair commodity prices for farmers. That scenario would be a real working marketplace. We do not have a fair and competitive marketplace. What we presently have is a colluding and predatory marketplace that uses the taxpayer and the farmer to line retailersí and processorsí pockets. The American farmer, consumer and taxpayer deserve reverence not irreverence. This we demand and expect.

One day we will sit on our porches with our small grandchildren. They will ask innocently, "What did you do Grandpa when the family farm was under attack? Where did all the farmers go Grandpa? Why are all our streams polluted now? What was it like to have farmed, Grandpa? Were farmers proud, tough people?" At that moment, maybe thirty years from now, would you then long for today so you could fight for the future of America?

Today we seem to have forgotten respect and reverence. Before Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was even buried, there was a struggle about his replacement. It appears he is merely a position to be replaced. Where is the reverence in that? I wish to connect this issue with farmers this way; examples of the irreverence towards the people on the land and the lack of respect for our fellow man. Our actions shape the future and define who we are as a people. Do you like what you see? To the powerful, the farmer has become a cost to be squeezed, and the position of Chief Justice is simply their tool.

To the American farmer, "Listen to your heart and take a stand. Do not sit on the sidelines. Take stock in the history, truth, and life of this country, and carry it into the future. Do not take action just for yourself, but act for justice and the generations after you.

The American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) NEEDS you in this fight, NOW! We need you and you need ACGA. ACGA will fight alongside you, and with many other allies, but this is your fight to win or lose. We have the power, truth, and the public on our side, the side of the family farmer.

If we are to end subsidies, we must first have a fair, competitive, transparent and working market for our products. We proudly demand to be paid in the market place by the user of our goods, not by the taxpayer. This helps the government (which is all of us) by being paid by the user in trade. The clamor to replace a fair and working marketplace with "risk management" or insurance is a foolís dream. They are both still disguised subsidies to the user and the insurance industry. We must demand to be paid a fair price in the market place.

Keith Bolin of Manlius, Ill., has farmed at his present location since 1978. He and his wife, Barbara, have been married for 27 years and have 4 children; David-26, Darcy-22, and Dyan-18, and Dana-10, and 1 grandson Nevin Keith Bolin. They own and operate the family farm where Keith and his three older brothers grew up. They have an outside farrow to finish hog operation, a cow/calf herd, and raise corn, oats, and alfalfa.