07 August 2008

Agricultural Land Use Tour

My county's Michigan State University Extension office and our local Rural Land Use Committee sponsored an Agriculture and Land Use tour. Cost me all of $15, and was a good show.

First stop was a biodiesel plant. I left as dubious about turning food into fuel as I was when I arrived. There are some subsidies involved, and it was unclear whether it would make a go without government support, and I wonder about the net energy balance in biodiesel (I'll have to look it up). But they run a slick operation, and it was fascinating to learn that when the price of soybean oil skyrocketed they switched to "choice white grease" (pork fat) as their feedstock for making diesel. Now they use corn, which is okay as long as it doesn't affect the price of bourbon.

Next stop was a new subdivision development that is designed as an environmentally friendly one. The city of Tecumseh (population about 10,000) had bought a farm with a sizeable woodlot on the outskirts of town, and then sold it to a developer who would follow their vision for it. The city created a new zoning classification--an environmental residential community--and cut the developer's original plan from 400 homes to just under 200. Instead of bulldozing the land flat they built on the natural contours and left the woods and a wetland pond in their natural condition, creating a conservation easement to be held by a local organization (Raisin Valley Land Trust).

Following lunch, with presentations from the Extension service, we visited a 3rd generation family-owned apple orchard, and finished with a stop at a family owned cabbage and tomato farm. The apple growers were among the few people I knew who were kind of pleased with high gas prices, as that has a much greater negative effect on their competitors in Washington State--the U.S.'s most fruitful apple growing region, but a long way from the big eastern markets. Interestingly, their main concern is labor costs. They rely on migrant workers during the picking season, and the family member who gave us the tour shook his head in wonder when he talked about the claim--often made--that if they would just pay more they could find Americans to do the work. The cabbage growers' big cost challenge was in the response to the recent e-coli outbreaks. The wholesaler to whom they sell demands a rigorous inspection system that is costly and time consuming. Given that e-coli, while deadly, kills very few people in the U.S. each year--the response has probably been something of an overreaction. Obviously we want to prevent deaths, but the growers' profits have been pushed so low they can't absorb much more. If they quit growing cabbage, one of two things will happen: large agribusinesses, which everyone hates but me, will take over; or we'll ship it in from Central and South America, where the inspection schemes aren't quite the quality of ours.

All in all, a very informative day about local agriculture and rural land use. I was one of the few city dwellers on the tour, though, so most of it was probably preaching to the converted about the importance of agriculure in our community.


James K said...

"Now they use corn, which is okay as long as it doesn't affect the price of bourbon."

The World Bank estimates that 75% of the recent increase in food prices is due to government subsides of cereal-based biofuel.

While biofuels may have a place in the future of energy, it will be algae grown in vats, rather than a crop-based sources that will do it. Crop land is too important.

James Hanley said...

Yes, but as long as it doesn't affect the price of bourbon, I'm okay with it. ;)

Actually not. I think the only proper energy use for crops is producing energy inside the human body.

Still, I can pass on corn tortillas if they go up in price, and stop buying corn pops cereal for the kids, but if bourbon goes up in price, then I'll actually have to make a real sacrifice.

James K said...

Ah, but corn is essentially fungible James, if its getting more expensive for food, it will get to bourbon as well ;)

Also given US beef is corn-fed, the price of meat will go up as well. Of course this just makes grass-fed New Zealand beef cheaper by comparison :)

James Hanley said...

Bourbon is made in Kentucky, only by corn grown in Kentucky. It is such a holy item that Kentucky corn growers will forgo higher prices for their crops so that they can continue to participate in making the holy sacramental drink.

Won't they?

Sigh, I suppose they won't.

James K said...

In order to keep bourbon prices low you need to lobby for grass-fed beef. Use corn for boozing, not bovines.