Chris Jones's blog

Environmentaling

We often hear from agvocacy and the various agribigness players (oftentimes one in the same) that farmers are/were the first environmentalists.

Although reasonable people can disagree on what exactly an environmentalist is, I certainly accept the idea that a farmer can be an environmentalist.

But to say the profession and the industry in general is committed to environmental outcomes is about like saying the mafia is committed to customer service.

The new normal obviously is to imagine what you want the truth to be, then just say it, no matter how outrageous the lie or the exaggeration. And this goes double for agriculture.

The right to bear (f)arms

It seems to me that if you’re a crop geneticist or an agronomist, you cannot drive across the Iowa countryside this time of year without being in awe of what you and your comrades in arms have done to the landscape.

A bizarrely uniform 8-foot-thick mat of black-green biomass layers the flats and the rolling hills alike, interrupted only by roads and water, some of the latter of which might generously be called rivers. The ancients could not possibly recognize this as Iowa or even planet earth, for that matter.

Rearranged DNA, steel, pvc tubing and huge amounts of fossil fuel dropped into this already-fertile corner of the earth produced a photosynthesis mine of unimaginable potential that generates the mother lode of organic carbon in the leaves, roots, stalks and most importantly, the seeds of Zea mays.

But there’s no free lunch in nature and I sometimes wonder if these same geneticists and agronomists are ever in an Oppenheimer-like awe of the environmental wreckage wrought by their single-minded selfish and hubristic fetish with the bushel. I know I’m in awe of it. Eradicating three ecosystems, man, it’s not just any scientist that can claim an accomplishment like that.

Odor in the court

You’ve probably heard that once again, establishment power has sided with the folks that own and raise hogs over the other 99.7 percent of the people that reside in Iowa.

I know, I know, knock me over with a feather.

In a 4-3 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court sided with New Fashion Pork and BWT Holdings in a lawsuit (1) filed against them by some guy named Gordon Garrison who had the wild idea that water on his property, which bordered that of the defendants, should be unpolluted by the defendants’ hog waste.

No bushel left behind

Friday, June 17, 2022

The ag propagandists lack of creativity is more than balanced by their relentlessness and the fact that they are unburdened by shame.

Imagine if the Energizer bunny copulates (he is a rabbit, after all) with all the killer rabbits from the '72 horror movie "The Night of the Lepus" (mutant rabbits terrorize Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelly) and their horde of offspring stampede the countryside devouring the truth. Or something like that.

Take phosphorus, for example.

Our secretary of agriculture was recently quoted saying: "We've come a long way on our phosphorus reduction goals in the state of Iowa due to a lot of management practices that have been put in place, cover crops, no-till, conservation tillage in the state of Iowa" (1).

And, not to be outdone, one-time secretary of agriculture hopeful and Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser was quoted saying in an EPA roundtable meeting that “Iowa has reduced phosphorus losses by 27 percent" (2).

Reminds me of an old joke about Minnesota and Iowa and manure and the punch line is: "Mr. RabBIT will soon be here with the shit."

These statements are detached from reality.

Here's an example of the hare-brained "conservation" the ag spokespeople say has reduced Iowa phosphorus levels 27 percent.

There is not a shred of water quality data that shows phosphorus levels in our streams to be declining over the long haul, and in fact, the opposite is probably occurring (graphs at the bottom).

'Jumping the Shark' – Growing corn and soybeans in Des Moines Water Works Park


Landus staff re-enacting Des Moines' 'we surrender' moment in demonstration plot negotiations. Image from DMWW twitter account.

I’m sometimes asked how the ideas keep coming for this blog.

Believe me when I tell you this: writing this stuff is as easy as falling off a log backwards.

As we say in the biz, when we see some really interesting data: this excrement just writes itself.

Last week ag retailer Landus announced (1, 2) that an area of land in Des Moines’ Water Works (DMWW) Park will be used as a demonstration plot that will be planted with corn, soybeans and cover crops.

Look at the price they make you pay

Secchi depth is a water quality measurement of clarity.

An 8”-diameter black and white disk is lowered into the water (flat side parallel to the water’s surface) and the first depth at which it can’t be seen is recorded.

It’s one of the oldest of all quantitative water quality measurements. Catholic priest Pietro Angelo Secchi demonstrated the technique to Pope Pius IX while onboard the pope’s yacht in 1865.


Measurement of Secchi depth. From: Carruthers, T.J., Longstaff, B.J., Dennison, W.C., Abal, E.G. and Aioi, K., 2001. Measurement of light penetration in relation to seagrass. Global seagrass research methods, pp.370-392.

We still use this simple but elegant method today and Iowa Department of Natural Resource's (DNR) ambient water monitoring program assesses lakes for clarity in this manner.

Research shows that the public’s perception of “good” water quality corresponds to a Secchi depth of about 3 feet; in other words, a depth where you can see your toes when standing in waist deep water (1).

Iowa has a little over 100 lakes, and their degraded condition keeps DNR busy restoring them.

You can easily make the case that lake restoration is the best thing Iowa DNR does.

Magic carpet ride

You may have heard that some insanely rich and politically connected guys want to burrow like a badger beneath an Iowa cornfield so they can lay some pipe that will ultimately carry carbon dioxide (CO2) to the hinterlands.

I wrote about this before with my essay "C is for Carbonalism," but, and this probably comes as no surprise, that first essay didn’t discourage those badgers one darn bit.

So, I brought in a big gun, Professor Emeritus Matt Liebman, recently retired from Iowa State University where he was Henry A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture, to beef up my storytelling with some juicy T-bone cred.

Actually, he wrote about all of this; I just sexed it up a little bit.

Iowa's 'Singularity,' AKA ethanol senselessness

A "singularity" is a mathematical term for a situation where all known laws break down, and nothing makes sense. Physicists often use this term to describe the first fractions of the first second of the universe’s Big Bang origin, when even time didn’t really exist.

It occurred to me recently that here in Iowa, we have our own singularity. It’s called Ethanol. A state of senselessness, where all laws break down and math and science and even logic cease to exist.

I’ve written about (some would say railed about) ethanol many times. Why? Because corn ethanol for fuel is stupid. The industry exists by virtue of one reason and one reason only: government policy. The environmental benefits of using corn to produce a liquid biofuel HAVE ALWAYS been more desperation-half-court-heave than slam dunk, it’s lower potential energy when compared to gasoline makes the 10% blend number an obvious head fake, and its dominance of American politics has kept higher energy players sitting at the end of the bench. So why does ethanol get its ticket punched to the Big Dance year after year after year?

Politics. Liberal politicians from Joe Biden to Amy Klobuchar to Dick Durbin to Sherrod Brown to Cindy Axne to the Iowa City dogcatcher provide all the cover Republicans in general and Iowa Democratic state legislators in particular need to continue force feeding us this rancid cod liver oil until kingdom come.


Liquid biofuel volumes required by the Renewable Fuel Standard. The cellulosic requirements have never been met and EPA has waived them every year. Source: Department of Energy

How did this two-bit, two-carbon alcohol get enshrined as Iowa’s golden calf? A generation ago, GMO seeds and a favorable climate continued to increase corn yields, and by god, nature truly does abhor a vacuum and something had to step in to gobble up all that junk organic carbon laying around, otherwise known as #2 Dent. Enter the Energy Policy Act of 2005, also known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) or if you're an Iowan, the 11th Commandment, that required blending of biofuels with gasoline. Grain-derived ethanol was to be a bridge fuel until cellulosic (ethanol made from leaves, stalks etc.) took over, but cellulosic flopped and is now riding the bench for the ANF’s Sandhill Cranes D league team in Middleofnowhere, Nebraska.

CRP, ethanol, water quality and ag dishonesty

Published Saturday, April 2, 2022

I wrote Stop Saying We All Want Clean Water (SSWAWCW) on a snowy April weekend three years ago, and here I am again looking down at my keyboard and up at falling snow. Why does spring snow seem so aberrant to us when its appearance is a near certainty? I guess you could say that about other things too.

SSWACW was written as a manifesto of sorts, a stream-of-consciousness-volcano-of-frustration erupting because I’d had it with the brazen dishonesty that characterizes establishment agriculture and Iowa’s water quality.

Having been around a while, I had no expectation that the essay would change things, and the last time I checked, truth in agriculture is still about as common as an acre of Iowa farmland carpeted with a cover crop.

Just like our bad water, this dishonesty isn’t unique to Iowa; the entire cornbelt is awash in both.

Iowa is addicted to cornography

The Oxford dictionary defines a ‘renewable’ source of energy as one not depleted when used. Wikipedia says that it is energy that is collected from resources that are naturally replenished on a human timescale.

If you’ve been listening or watching Iowa news the past month or so, you’ve probably heard that ethanol made from corn grain is the renewablist source of energy available thanks to the Iowa farmer who returns like clockwork from Florida each spring to his or her photosynthesis mine where he or she helps untold billions of corn plants convert sunshine into starch and thence the two-carbon-, six-hydrogen-, one-oxygen clear, flammable liquid that has 3/5ths of the energy of the 1/10th of the gasoline that it displaces in our fuel tanks.

Growing corn requires a lot of fossil fuel energy. The vast majority (probably 80 percent or more) of this energy links to nitrogen fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. I heard someone say once that at its essence, corn production is converting natural gas to starch, and I think that is a clean way of stating it.

I get a lot of comments that the fossil fuel energy required to produce corn and corn ethanol exceeds the energy content of the ethanol itself. Based on everything I know about the subject, I do not believe that to be true. There are about 75,000 BTU in a gallon of ethanol; it takes about 35,000 BTU to grow the corn and produce the ethanol; you can get about 500 gallons of ethanol from an acre of corn; and thus the net energy gain is about 20 million BTU per acre.

But it’s just beyond argument that this 20 million BTU comes at a high environmental cost: soil erosion, nutrient pollution, degraded streams, lakes and drinking water, habitat loss, and to top it off, we indemnify corn production with publicly supported crop insurance and a whole host of other economic trusses that keep the herniated system from blowing out. The patient keeps limping along, in obvious pain but nonetheless determined to maintain its stranglehold on the public and on 11,000 square miles of Iowa land, 20 percent of our state’s area.

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