Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Growing Heat

Growing heat

February 2008 Rural voice column by John Beardsley

Ontario’s greatest energy need isn’t for gasoline for vehicles but for thermal energy to heat our homes and businesses and to power factories. Right now many Ontario greenhouses are heated with American coal . Our dependence on natural gas and fuel oil is massive. Switchgrass production offers the opportunity for Ontario farmers to grow an alternative crop and reduce greenhouse gases at the same time.

If you can grow hay, you can grow switchgrass; it is a tall grass native to Ontario and the prairies. It is a small seeded crop which is established in the same way as alfalfa. Roger Samson from REAP-Canada says switchgrass can be cropped on a field almost indefinitely once established (REAP is the acronym for Resource Efficient Agricultural Production, a nonprofit research organization which has been working on sustainable agriculture projects for over twenty years).

This alternative biofuel crop can be grown on marginal crop land with 2600 corn heat units or less; basically wherever corn is less productive. This would encompass a lot of land in Grey Bruce and Dufferin counties as well as parts of eastern and northern Ontario.

Switchgrass can grow on droughtier soils but also on less well drained soil where alfalfa doesn’t do well, so actually if you can’t grow alfalfa for some soil type and drainage reasons you may have more luck with switchgrass.

The crop is fertilized in the spring with 60 pounds of nitrogen, then allowed to grow all year, cut in November and left out until May when it is baled by a large square baler. The grass is left out to weather naturally so as to reduce the amount of plant by-products which interfere with clean combustion of the switchgrass. The crop yields 4-5 tonnes per acre.

Sampson says right now natural gas heats homes for about $11 a gigajoule. If farmers were paid $90 dollars a tonne for the switchgrass, and processing and transportation costs were added in, he figures pellets could be delivered for $8 a gigajoule. But to kickstart the industry he would like to see the provincial and federal governments providing subsidies equivalent to those provided to the ethanol industry.

One homeowner featured on a video on the REAP-Canada site said he heated his home for $400 per year, which was a huge savings from the $2,000 he paid previously for electric heat

Most corn stoves can burn switchgrass and the furnace marketers claim the stove/furnace pays for itself in a very short time frame, usually less than three years. Initially the stoves required more physical effort of carrying bags of fuel pellets to the furnace and loading them manually into the fuel hopper attached to the furnace. Many people will want the simplicity of traditional fossil fuels and so there are houses set up with feed tanks next to the furnace which automatically feed the furnace. These tanks are then filled by a delivery truck with an air blower system currently used on feed trucks to conveniently deliver the fuel as needed

Quebec is planning on growing almost five thousand acres this year due to a grass buffer strip cost share program and the promotion of switchgrass as an alternative fuel crop.

The big advantage of switchgrass versus cellulose ethanol is the cost to process the crop into useable fuel. A cellulose ethanol factory would cost $300 million to get built whereas a switchgrass pelleting plant could be built for as little as $3 million for a facility that would produce 30,000 tonnes of pellets per year.

Another advantage that switchgrass has over fuel oil is that the plants can be built near the crop production areas to lessen their transportation costs for the bulky raw switchgrass bales. This also provides local employment, and tax revenue for rural municipalities.

With a small shift in agricultural land we can replace the entire fuel oil sector, which is a limited resource, with a renewable sustainable fuel source. Information on the REAP-Canada site estimates a 4% shift in farmland would replace 39% of our energy needs. This is far superior to the amount of land needed for liquid biofuels which would replace far less gasoline and diesel. Plus it can provide farmers with a sustainable income to increase rural prosperity. REAP-Canada would like to see more discussion amongst farm groups and government policy makers to embrace this ecologically and economically sound heating fuel alternative for the province. For more information check out REAP-Canada’s website


Monday, 14 January 2008

18 may 2006 for june 2006 issue of Rural Voice

Making sense of the agricultural census

A column by John Beardsley

The planting season has been one of the best on record and this has been the most positive news in agriculture since the Paul Martin government was defeated. Getting a crop in and off to a good start is the most crucial operation on the farm. It has been said that a farmer’s time at planting is worth hundreds of dollars per hour because of how important it is to get crops planted in a timely manner. Which is why farmers are especially irritated these days by surveys and salesmen. Unfortunately this attitude has also rubbed off on the good men and women who are trying to get the Agricultural Census completed. The grassroots movement has been openly talking about actively boycotting the whole process. One Farmer from Middlesex County has said that information is worth 250 dollars and he doesn’t want to give away the information for free. I’m not holding my breath this would ever happen because of the precedent it would set. The census is not a new phenomenon foisted on us by an increasingly heavy-handed government keen on reducing the number of farmers in Canada. I read in the gospel of Luke back 2000 years ago in Bible times that “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world”. 2000 years ago everyone had to travel back to their own town to register. We can fill out this census on the Internet.

I understand the frustration causing people to lash out at the census because of the lack of serious response from the government to a very real farm income crisis. But the data collected from this census will show some of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the last five years. I think this information will be more useful to us to confront the government than the short hit we might get on television or in the press by boycotting it. If you have already decided not to comply I would ask you to reconsider. Although census day was May 16th Stats Canada will still accept forms filled out now. In fact if you haven’t sent yours in you can expect a visit from an enumerator. Some people are concerned that the information will be used to check the accuracy of your tax form and you may unwittingly get in trouble or cause an audit. It has always been the case that all information on census forms, including financial information, is protected under confidentiality provisions in the Statistics Act. All census representatives are sworn to secrecy and could be prosecuted if they were ever to reveal a respondent's personal information.

Here is some interesting information gleaned from stats canada’s press release. In 1931 the census — the first to specifically record the farm population — noted that 3.3 million of Canada’s 10.4 million people lived on farms, a whopping 31.7% of the population. Still more lived in rural areas closely tied to the agricultural sector. While the Canadian population had grown to over 30 million by the 2001 Census, the farm population had dwindled to only 2.4%. This fact is a big reason why we get ignored. Farmers, a minority even in many rural areas, still produce over 8 percent of the gross domestic product. Canada’s 247,000 farms have been producing more than ever before. In 2001, only 346,200 Canadians identified themselves as farm operators, a drop of nearly 40,000 since 1996. In Bruce, Grey and Huron Counties, the last census identified 11,170 people running 8059 farms. (Sorry Perth and Rainy River I forgot to ask for your numbers). While the numbers of farms and farmers in Canada has been shrinking, the area of land in crops has been growing. Between 1981 and 2001, a 17.5% increase of land in crops brought the national total to nearly 90 million acres. Farms in Ontario were part of this trend, working nearly 60 thousand acres more land in crops in 2001 than 20 years before. This is an impressive 9 million acres of cropland in Ontario. While no one likes filling in forms, failure to help collect accurate information may actually shoot farmers in the foot.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

columns from the past - Is it time to get rid of the ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs?

Is it time to get rid of the ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs?

Rural voice column October 2006 by John Beardsley originally written September 19, 2006

Agriculture is the only industry in Ontario which has a ministry set up in opposition to the primary producers. The Petrochemical industry represents far less than 2.5 percent of the population yet you don’t have ministry officials telling them how to run their industry. The Auto industry is the largest job creating and economic driver in the country yet they don’t have to worry that the government will throw a monkey wrench in their day to day business. We only have a Ministry of Agriculture because historically it represented the majority of the voters at the turn of the century. It is the same to day in that you have the Women’s directorate and the minister of multiculturism to grab votes. But Agriculture is no longer viewed as a segment of society to be respected and rewarded for the social stability it provides . Farm leaders have long fought tooth and nail to preserve the ministry for agriculture because at least we have a voice at the cabinet table. But do we really. If it is run by someone who doesn’t believe in agriculture if we constantly have to train and educate new ministers who aren’t farm raised or even have any experience in the industry we are losing ground. The Outdoor farm show is a great way to get a bird’s eye view of modern agriculture. There are hundred s of exhibitors showing off the latest and greatest. You can go to the seed companies and actually see the latest hybrids growing in the field plots right behind their tents. It reminded me once again that agriculture is doing really well , its just farming that isn’t fun anymore. There is an apocryphal saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Maybe the drastic change needed in Agriculture isn’t that we allow the government to do nothing and watch 2 thirds of the farmers go out of business. I’m sick and tired of the paternalistic attitude of the Ministry experts that helped get agriculture into this mess by getting rid of the market revenue program and replaced it with the CAIS program. I‘m tired of explaining to the public that the risk management program isn’t a handout but rather an insurance program to counteract the U-S farm bill and dumped corn and soybeans.

Probably one of the disconnects for the ministry bean counters is that conceivably the rmp could have cost the provincial government 60 percent of the existing OMAFRA budget. Well if we get rid of the ministry we can fund RMP Farming. This may seem an extreme position but not one I take lightly. Why not abolish the ministry and use money to fund rmp to be administered by Grain & Oilseed groups (in Quebec the mighty UPA administers the ASRA program thus getting funds to primary producers with less waste and hastle and no money being stolen oops I meant redirected to fund other parts of the Government . Any tribunals such as Farm Products marketing commission could be transferred to ministry of industry. Extension specialist could be transferred to U of Guelph as in the United States co-operative extension. Manure police can be transferred back to min of environment.

No other industry has a ministry which seems to have the sole purpose of opposing and hampering the industry at every turn

we certainly don't need a useless minister stopping a commodity organization of raising fees to make up the shortfall caused by the ministry’s own incompetence( if rmp had been instituted then more corn grown then more checkoff then no need for increase) also the total lack of help by OMAFRA when the corn producers were trying to get countervail imposed that would have had same effect as rmp raising revenues

Ministers salary could also go towards helping rmp

ag canada can administer cais program etc. the provinces that were thus administer never had bse aid clawed back and the inventory changes where figured out much quicker.

besides it will bring the cabinet back to a nice even number of thirty

I’m not sure what this would save but I’m sure out of an operating budget of 564 million we can find the three hundred million needed for the Risk Management program.

Never knew how to spell Blogger an now I are one

I am sure that the first Blog is rarely ever anything worth writing home about and I know I will probably use this to archive my columns from the Rural Voice. They aren't currently online so that will be a good thing.