Chris Jones's blog

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.

Malice in Wonderland

A trio of events occurred this week that produced a visceral reaction in my viscera, which I now know must be in the middle of my brain because each event made my brain feel like a bulging aneurysm was about to burst forth with such magnitude that the blood would spray out each ear like an astronaut losing his pressurized helmet in some gory sci-fi movie taking place on the planet Ucornus.

Yes, I’ve been told to be less evocative.

Since my reaction after each event was WHAT THE HELL, I thought it best to wait a few days to write something, giving the pressurized aneurysm time to dissipate. Alas, I’m still wondering WHAT THE HELL, so here goes. I’m not putting these in the order of occurrence, I’m just letting that aneurytic pressure drain out through my fingertips organically.

Building the 'Maginot Line' of soil health

The Maginot Line was a continuous series of fortifications built along the French-German border by the war-weary French in the 1930s, with the hope it would deter the fascists from invading.

You know how that worked out.

+++++++++

I traveled the 225 miles from Lansing to Ankeny on Christmas Eve, a drive through an Iowa landscape left snowless by an Arkansas December. Since the harvest is now long over, every square inch of land is left exposed, and lot of it is really, really exposed. My best estimate is that at least 50 percent and maybe as many as 70 percent of the fields were tilled. I don't have any data on this, but anecdotally fall tillage seems to be increasing, in my observation.

Weallwantcleanwater.

I can also say that I saw visible cover crops on only two fields, one near the town of Orchard and the other at mile marker 139 on I-35.

I posted these observations on my Twitter feed, and not surprisingly, that inspired some lively farmer responses that can be summed up mostly as:
• We want more time.
• We want more money.

Now I’d like to reply with the old joke about people in hell wanting ice water, but in this case, Satan is a sympathizer and these fellows are probably going to be provided with unlimited amounts of both.

The Three Drakes: a meme guide to Iowa agriculture

Monday, December 6,2021

Front note: The Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, is an ok movie, but far inferior to the former.

Literally seconds before typing this sentence, I discovered that one of this essay’s subjects is a celebrity, and not just some random millennial in a puffy coat. That person is Drake, who, according to his Wikipedia page, is “Aubrey Drake Graham, a Canadian rapper, singer and actor. Gaining recognition by starring in the teen drama series Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001–08), Drake pursued a career in music releasing his debut mixtape Room for Improvement in 2006; he subsequently released the mixtapes Comeback Season (2007) and So Far Gone (2009) before signing with Young Money Entertainment.”

Try putting that in CV format.

There’s a viral internet meme featuring two photos of Drake in the requisite puffy coat, and the meme is often being used to demonstrate contradictions or hypocrisy, which you may have noticed are a feature, and not a bug, of present-day America. I want to use that meme before it gets worn out, which happens so quickly these days! In fact, I want to wear it out before you’re done reading this essay. So here goes.

Let’s begin our meming (is that a word?) with commercial nitrogen fertilizer. I just checked Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship sales data for the 2021 crop year, and farmers purchased enough of the stuff to cover all our corn acres with 143 pounds of nitrogen, pretty close to the Iowa State recommendation using their N rate calculator and the March 2021 prices for corn (1) and nitrogen (2). In the context of water quality, however, things aren’t so tidy. We have 25 million hogs, 80 million chickens, 4 million turkeys and a couple million cattle that are excreting a shitton (in the science community, a shitton is oh, about a half a billion pounds, give or take) of nitrogen every year. We also have 10 million acres of soybeans that, with the help of bacteria, are fixing (adding nitrogen to the soil from the atmosphere) about 40 pounds of N per acre. Long and short, a whole lot more N meets the field (x) than meets the combine at harvest time (y), and in this instance, x-y=z, where z is pollution. Ag retailers love “x”, farmers love “y”, public drinks “z”.

Of course in Iowa, talking publicly about that equation (x-y=z) can you get in trouble, unless you’re willing to follow various rules of discourse established by the x-ers and y-ers. And that means never touching the third rail of Iowa Agriculture, regulation of nitrogen inputs. Crazy man that I am, I do that sometimes, but today I’m going to let this Drake fellow do it for me. In this and the scenarios that follow, Drake is the Iowa Agriculture Establishment.

Ooo that was fun, let’s do some more.

Remarks to 2021 Drake conference on soil

Thursday, November 18, 2021
Note: I've had several people ask me to post a text of my remarks to "SOIL 2021 – Our Soils: Our Future" conference at Drake University Law School:

Thank you for the invitation to speak here at SOIL 2021. I’m honored to participate in this meeting and I thank Neil Hamilton, who has done so much for Iowa by articulating the challenges we have.

I didn’t bring slides today but have hundreds, maybe thousands of slides on my website and if you want to look at them, by all means, I encourage you to go there and take a look.

I didn’t bring slides because I have come to realize these past few years that the presentation of graphs, and tables of data, and conceptual models about soil health and edge of field treatments and cover crops and so forth, won’t affect change here in Iowa when it comes to water quality.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, and I quote: "Take Weaver's discovery that the composition of the plant community determines the ability of soils to retain their granulation, and hence their stability. This new principle may necessitate the revision of our entire system of thought on flood control and erosion control." Aldo Leopold said that about cover crops in 1938. Before I was born, and even before my mother was born. And we have what, 5 percent, 7 percent of our land in cover crops.

The statewide stream load of nitrogen has approximately doubled since 2003. Phosphorus loading, while not increasing nearly as much as nitrogen, is indeed still increasing when we evaluate actual water quality data — 27 percent when compared to a pre-1996 baseline. If you listen to the artfully-named Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council, housed within the Agribusiness Association of Iowa and funded by the Iowa legislature to track progress for the Iowa nutrient strategy, phosphorus loads are down 22 percent and they tell us, and I quote, “Iowa Agriculture has nearly met the 29 percent non-point source reduction goal”.

Not one shred of water quality data went into this mendacious claim. Not one shred. It’s pretty clear that establishment agriculture is itching to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the Wallace Building, regardless of what our water looks and smells like.

Call me crazy

People tell me I too frequently use the word "insanity," but I reckon that is like telling a farmer he uses the word “money” too much. As the old saying goes, write what you know, and I think I know crazy when I see it. So I'm not inclined to change my schtick.

Speaking of "money," some guy named Kevin Cone posted a video on his Twitter feed last week that caught my eye. I don’t know the fellow, but his twitter bio says he is an “Auctioneer-Iowa Auction Group, NW Iowa Farmer, Coach, Ordained Minister, Former World Champion Horseshoe Pitcher," or in other words, pretty much your average Twitter user. For the record, I like pitching leaners and ringers about as much as I like pitching sarcasm, but none of my relationship partners could warm up to the idea of a horseshoe pit in the backyard. So what are you going do. Choose your spouse wisely, I guess. At any rate, at least part of this guy’s schtick is auctioning Iowa farmland.

The video in question features two long rows of rust-free pickups, most of MFP-era vintage (in other words, brand new) sitting atop 127 pancake-flat acres of earth’s best farmland on Iowa’s Des Moines Lobe. The horseshoe king tweeted that the land sold for $18,500/acre, or $2.35 million in total, coincidentally the approximate value of the 50 or so pickups sitting there. Karma, baby. Remember that, if you’re planning to sell some land.

Cropaganda: ag industry's mendacious TV ads

Ag media is like the sound of thunder at 3 a.m. when I’m suffering from an inspiration drought. I can always count on them, especially the communication shops at the advocacy organizations, to provide a timely soaker just when I’m most parched.

The most recent gully-washer was a You Tube video posted by our favorite insurance company.

Four middle-aged and snappily-dressed Randys, looking as though they saw no need to change clothes after just filming a Cialis commercial, pose as Iowa farmers chugging coffee in a small town café.

Also making an easy transition from the Cialis set is the bragging about their performance, but in this skit the boasting relates to their success in reducing nutrient pollution.

Means, ends and granfalloons

“ ‘Shut up,’ he explained.” — Ring Lardner

I get asked with some regularity about pushback on these essays — do I get any?

The answer is less than what most people would expect.

I did get some about four months ago from what many would consider a person of influence. This was reported in the media about 10 days ago. The episode illustrates that we really don’t have free speech in the U.S.; what we have is no prior restraint on speech, therefore, say what you want but be prepared to absorb the consequences, no matter how just or unjust they may be.

As Howard Zinn pointed out (1), our right (or lack thereof) to expression flows not from the constitution, but from whomever has the power in the situation where we wish to interject our thoughts and comments. In my world, that is Iowa agriculture. You have a right to speech, but you have no right to your job. I still have mine, thankfully.

I’ve written these essays from day one with my eyes wide open. I knew/know what the consequences could be. This is one reason why I try to write them in a colloquial style that will hopefully be funny and entertaining. I want people who won’t agree with me to find some intrinsic value in my expression.

That is not how we write scientific papers. I know how to do that, and sometimes I can do an adequate job of writing them. But something occurred to me one day. While those papers serve as valuable currency in science and academia, agriculture sees most of them as chump change. You can’t use them to buy clean water at Iowamart.

'Growing Climate Solutions Act' should be renamed 'crap and trade' because Senate bill contains no actual cap on greenhouse gas emissions

Some of you may have seen the op-ed that Dr. Jones and I wrote for the Des Moines Register regarding the Gov. Reynolds’ carbon task force.

You may have also seen that the U.S. Senate passed the "Growing Climate Solutions Act," which will use public funds to create certification programs for agriculture and forestry “markets." I am writing to clarify what these programs do, why it is not appropriate to call them markets, and the potential challenges they signal for a real economy-wide climate change mitigation policy.

Markets exist because people want to obtain scarce resources. In the case of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, for a market to function, the government has to impose a maximum emission amount (the cap in cap and trade). This creates an artificial scarcity that serves to jumpstart the market. Without a cap, there is no reason to trade pollution credits, because pollution is not restricted.

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