“The economics of the whole modern situation don’t really allow you to support yourself, strictly from a family farm,” says Gary Ellis, who raises about 50 head of cattle and some 500 bales of hay on about 200 acres of Tennessee farmland, pasture and wooded mountainside. But in an ironic turn that’s become the norm these days, it’s his “day job” as an electrical engineer that supports his work on the farm.
“We have gotten to where it’s really hard to support your family and maintain the farm … in terms of how much you can produce,” says Ellis. “So I’ve had to work full-time in order to maintain everything, including a standard of living.”
Ellis says he could sell the land “and make a little money off it,” or rent it out to custom farmers, but enjoys the work and is passionate about keeping a working farm in the family. “The No. 1 thing I want to do is to maintain the land the way it is and pass it on to my children.”
Then he pauses and says, “It’s getting to be kind of an odd thing to farm your own land, when it comes to these small to midsize farms. It’s getting to be a rarity.”
The latest census data from the U.S. and Canada backs up that assertion. In Canada, the number of farms earning less than $100,000 in gross receipts fell by about 12% from 2006 to 2011—that after a drop of 38% in the previous two decades. In the U.S., the actual number of farms in the 50- to 999-acre range fell by almost 56,000 from 2007 to 2012, a 4.7% decline.
For many smaller and middling operations, selling directly to consumers or joining co-ops has helped. Ellis has yet to work with a co-op or sell direct to consumers. Instead, he sells to a nearby stockyard. He says there’s currently not an applicable co-op in his area, but direct sales is something “I could move into, but I’m currently too busy for the added attention it requires.”
In something of a catch-22, he doesn’t have the time because of his off-farm job, which allows him to keep the farm. The long days are, however, worth the effort for Ellis, but for him it’s more than a hobby. It’s a business that provides a product, and small and midsize farms such as his offer additional capacity to feed the world.
“Parcels like these will never be incorporated into the big tracts,” Ellis continues. “So, unless the small guy farms them, the opportunity is lost and the land will go into forest or residential development. That is where the little guy … can really pick up the slack.”
By: Robert C. Brown, Director, and Robert Mills, Communications Specialist, Bioeconomy Institute, Iowa State University
The use of fermentation to produce ethanol from corn and other biomass is well known in the agricultural world. There are, however, other technologies that can convert biomass into fuels and chemicals. Foremost among these are thermochemical processes, which use heat and catalysis to break down biomass to intermediates that can be upgraded to transportation fuels.
One advantage of thermochemical processing is that the end result can be “drop-in fuels,” those that are fully compatible with the existing fuel infrastructure. While not perfect, these drop-in fuels are good enough to run in today’s engines without modification.
Another advantage to thermochemical processing is that most systems can work with a variety of biomass feedstocks. Often the feedstock is lignocellulosic biomass, such as corn stover, switchgrass, miscanthus, wood, etc. But thermochemical processing can also use lipid-rich biomass such as distillers dried grains and algae as well as mixed wastes from commercial and municipal sources.
There are two basic types of thermochemical processing, indirect and direct liquefaction. Indirect liquefaction includes gasification, where the solid biomass is heated to create synthesis gas, or syngas, that is subsequently upgraded to liquid fuels. Various catalysts are then used to convert the gas into alcohols or hydrocarbons. The advantages of gasification is that the process produces a uniform product and it is commercially proven. Gasification, however, requires technologies to clean the gases, which are still under development, and the capital costs can be high.
Direct liquefaction uses heat and pressure to convert the biomass into liquids which can then be further upgraded into finished products. Direct liquefaction includes pyrolysis and solvent liquefaction. In the case of pyrolysis, biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen. The process yields bio-oil, syngas, and a solid product known as biochar. The bio-oil can be upgraded to drop-in fuels. Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small scales, allowing it to take place close to the source of biomass rather than moving biomass to one large, centralized processing facility. One of the major problems with pyrolysis is that the bio-oil is unstable, complicating its conversion into fuels.
At Iowa State University, we have invented a process to condense the pyrolysis gases in fractions, resulting in better, more stable products. The economics of fast pyrolysis are promising. In addition to producing fuels and chemicals from the bio-oil, the biochar may also have economic value. Consisting mostly of carbon, biochar can be used a soil amendment, helping retain moisture and nutrients. There is also research underway to use biochar as a filter medium for purifying water.
Solvent liquefaction, or solvolysis, is similar to pyrolysis except that it is performed in a solvent at elevated pressure. Though the fundamental chemistry of solvolysis is not well understood, the technology has promising economics. The process can upgrade bio-oil in a way similar to oil refining, and it can create sugars which can be further upgraded without expensive enzymes.
In addition to extensive research into thermochemical technologies, there are also many efforts underway to commercialize these technologies. Like all start-ups, these efforts have met with various degrees of success. There are, however, several pilot-scale systems being tested and commercial plants being built.
Bioenergy is a complex topic. There are many pathways from raw material to finished product. What’s more, bioenergy technology must be viewed in context of larger energy issues and policies. You can learn more in a book written for the general public, “Why are We Producing Biofuels,” by Robert C. Brown and Tristan R. Brown. The book is available on Amazon. You can read the first chapter for free online at: http://www.brownia.com/content/whyareweproducingbiofuels_excerpt.pdf.
China’s Annual Ag Machinery Top50 Awards were recently announced in Tianjin, China. The collaborative judging process and standards are handled by three different organizations: China Association of Agricultural Machinery Manufacturers (CAAMM), Chinese Society for Ag Machinery (CSAM) and Farm Machinery Magazine. Nearly 900 products were entered into the competition represented by 227 companies. There are four categories of awards for which products could compete: “Technology Innovation Award”, “Market Leading Award”, “Application Contribution Award” and the newest award titled “China Ag Machinery Top 50 Comprehensive Golden Award” the top prize to honor those that are achieving outstanding performance in all three of the previously mentioned award categories.
“As China’s agricultural mechanization increasingly deepens, innovation of technology has been significant for ag machinery enterprises to transform growth mode” commented Fred Yang, AGCO Vice President & Managing Director, China. “Since AGCO entered China in 2009, we have been devoting ourselves into China’s agricultural mechanization construction, and have been committed to offering the most reliable, efficient and sustainable products to Chinese customers. The awards for MF7624 and MF1844N this time are not only recognition from the industry, market and customers, but also a reflection of AGCO’s achievements on tech innovations. In future, we shall continue exerting our innovation spirit on research & development of products and technology, further complete our full range of high tech agricultural solutions so as to better serve China market.”
Congratulations, AGCO China! Well done.
By Louisa Parker, Manager External Affairs, Africa & Middle East
In June Bags2Bulk held its first demonstration day showcasing the bulk storage technology to grain traders. GSI Africa and the installation team worked tirelessly to have the demo unit ready for the event held In Mkushi which was well attended. It was great to see the response of the traders now that they have been able to see and touch the technology as the project team was pleased to receive the local Agricultural Commissioner Mr. Luka Mwamba as guest of honour at the event.
This is the first of several demonstration events that will take place at five locations throughout Central and Eastern province in Zambia during the course of the pilot. The team is now following up on a number of sales leads and GSI is now looking at several candidates to take forward the role of sales assistant to support the project.
Speaking at the event, the Commissioner noted that he had seen the GSI technology and was impressed by what he’d seen. He said “previously, this technology has only been available to large commercial farmers. I am pleased that now this is available to farmers and traders both large and small.” While he praised the technology, he was quick to state that the government supports the Bags2Bulk initiative and encourages other players in the agriculture industry to come on board. Still, he cautioned “Of course nothing comes for free. Financing will be key to accessing this technology. It is good to see the banks here today. My message to you is work hard to develop a finance solution so that the farmers can take advantage of this new technology.” To the traders, he reminded them that farming is a business not a charity. In closing, the Commissioner said “we look forward to seeing many shiny new silos on the small scale farms across Mkushi district in the months to come”.
The I Love My Farmers Market Celebration kicked off its summer-long event on June 13. Now in its sixth year, the program, sponsored by the American Farmland Trust (AFT), promotes USDA-listed farmers’ markets across the nation. Customers are encouraged to pledge dollars online and to follow through with a commitment to shop at their favorite farmers markets.
According to the AFT, for every $10 spent on local food, as much as $7.80 is re-spent in the local community, supporting local jobs and businesses. During the 2013 I Love My Farmers Market Celebration, a total of $259,690 was pledged to be spent at farmers’ markets, the majority of which the AFT calculates went directly to farmers.
The celebration, which is part of AFT’s No Farms No Food® campaign, helps emphasize “how important it is to put money directly into [farmers’] pockets, to help keep them on the land and to keep their operations viable.”
For more, including how to vote, visit: http://www.myfarmlife.com/first-gear/i-love-my-farmers-market-good-food-good-cause/