The next Farm Bill should address energy and industrial uses, in addition to the traditional food and agriculture provisions. In the 21st century we are evolving from an era of using coal and petroleum (energy originally from the sun that's been stored for 60 million years) to using biomass to quickly convert the sun's energy unto useable energy forms. This will be economical, efficient and pollute less than extracting our finite coal and petroleum resources.
The next Farm Bill should have funding for both laboratory and field research to investigate new ways to utilize biomass energy. Also, payments should be available to help develop pilot energy plants and jump-start new biomass energy projects
There are three potential sources of biomass energy: crops such as hybrid poplar and switchgrass; byproducts such as cornstalks, wheat straw and sawdust; and finished products such as ethanol and biodiesel.
The recent alfalfa biomass energy project near Granite Falls, MN, is an excellent example of biomass. However, it didn't get off the ground because it was too big - transportation costs were too high to transport the alfalfa up to 150-200 miles.
We know now that it's easier for such power plants to succeed if they operate on a 10- to 20-mile radius, producing 5 megawatts of power instead of 50-70 megawatts. The biomass crop should also be grown on marginal land, not prime farmland.
The Farm Bill should encourage market development and utilization of byproduct crop residues such as corn stalks, wheat straw and sawdust for energy.
Biodiesel fuel is also an attractive possibility. It contains a small amount (2-5%) of a vegetable oil such as soybean oil mixed with diesel fuels. Biodiesel reduces sulfur emissions and acts as a lubricant to improve engine performance.
The economics of biodiesel are far superior to those of ethanol. And since Minnesota is a state with a surplus of soybeans and soybean oil, adding soy oil to diesel fuel would help soybean prices.
Using biodiesel in Minnesota could jump-start the process across the Midwest and be a model for the rest of the nation. The Midwestern farm states need to take the lead in biodiesel - it's not going to come from the petroleum industry.
Biomass crops for energy - many of them grown on marginal land - will become more important. The world already has ample resources for producing food. Almost every developed country can raise enough calories to feed itself. Much of our world food trade involves trading "flavors" between countries.
In the longer term, biomass for energy will be the transition stage bridging the fossil fuel era with direct energy from the sun. Fuel cells or solar cells already are economical in some situations. For example, it can be more economical to use fuel cells in remote areas than to run two miles of copper wire.
Jerry Fruin is an economist and marketing/transportation specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.