Column: Change of mindset necessary for biofuels to reach potential

There was a time when the main topic of conversation at the farmers’ favorite breakfast or lunch place was the weather, and, if everyone was agreeable with the topic, the current state of government affairs. Now, it’s all about fuel costs.

And it’s certainly not as if there is little else of importance occurring in agriculture. In the past few months alone, the United States’ chief negotiator in World Trade Organization talks has suggested eliminating all U.S. farm subsidies.

And, closer to home, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns has been crisscrossing the country, conducting a number of farm bill “listening” sessions. How much listening is actually going on at these sessions is debatable, as the Secretary always reveals in his closing statement that the die pretty much is already cast as far as how world trade will dictate the direction of the next farm bill.

But these are things that will affect farmers in the future, although the not-too-distant future. Fuel bills are in the here and now — they’re in the hands of growers, they have to be paid, and they’re shockingly high. What’s more, we’re being told that fuel costs will only get higher, and that there’s no relief in sight.

So it’s time we began taking a serious look at long-term solutions to the current fuel crisis, and that was part of the purpose of the recent Alabama Agriculture Energy Conference, held at Auburn University.

The message brought by Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks was that the solutions to our fuel problems are readily available — it’s just a matter of taking advantage of them. Alabama, he said, is a potential treasure trove of biofuels, and it’s past time for the state’s economy — particularly the farm sector — started profiting from them.

“The technology is there,” says Sparks. “But there has got to be a commitment by farmers, the government and consumers for all of this to work.”

Education, he adds, is key to the success of biofuels. Farmers need to know what’s available, where the opportunities lie, and what’s still needed. One thing that is not lacking, however, are the raw materials, with many of the products commonly used to produce biofuels already being grown in abundance throughout Alabama.

For example, in the course of producing 1 billion chickens each year, the state’s poultry farmers also generate an enormous supply of poultry waste, which many biofuel experts believe could ultimately serve as a cheap, widely available biofuel source.

Alabama also is well known for its prolific production of timber — a product that provides roughly 48 percent of all renewable biomass used throughout the world. The state is comprised of more than 22 million acres of forestland, and it ranks second nationally in forestry production.

Row crops are another potentially lucrative resource in terms of biofuel production. Commissioner Sparks cited the more than 590,000 acres of cotton, 170,000 acres of soybeans and 200,000 acres of corn being grown in Alabama, all of which produce by-products that can be converted into biofuels.

“What does this say? It says to me that we have the products in Alabama to produce alternative fuels in abundance,” says Sparks.

It represents an opportunity, he says, that Alabama farmers simply cannot afford to pass up. In an era of increasing competition from other rising agricultural powers, such as Brazil and China, Sparks says Alabama farmers must begin exploring other sources of income in addition to other sources of fuel.

“I don’t want other countries feeding us in the same way that they’re putting gas in our vehicles,” he says. “But I see us headed down that path if we don’t have a change of mindset.”

Much of this change of mindset, he adds, will require Alabama farmers to become comfortable using and producing biofuel resources.

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