The Planted Row: No stopping human ingenuity

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Farm Forum

As I write this column, the wind is swirling snow around my house for the first time this winter. It certainly took long enough this year. We’ve had warm weather for harvest, and while that has been rough on rural firefighting crews, it’s been great for farmers getting their crops in the bin.

The National Weather Service in Aberdeen has said that the first 15 days in November has been the warmest early November on record in this area. In Aberdeen, average temperatures for the first 15 days were 15 degrees above normal. Over that same time period, Aberdeen basically received no precipitation.

The World Meteorological Organization says that, globally speaking, 2016 will likely be the warmest year on record, and if that turns out to be the case, 16 out of the 17 warmest years on record will have occurred in the 21st century. I don’t know about you, but that certainly looks like a trend to me.

If it is a trend, farmers in this part of the country might not complain much. After all, there’s a chance they’ll see a warmer, longer growing season. In this very warm year, many farmers I speak to or read about report outstanding yields. That seems to be born out in the latest World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates which boosted the corn yield forecast 1.9 bushels per acre over the previous month. Soybean yield forecast was boosted 1.1 bushels per acre. That’s good news for farmers in the short term. I’m not sure what this year’s large crop will eventually do to prices, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for increased demand.

While farmers in this part of the country had a good crop year, other parts of the country suffered. Much of the South is in a drought right now. A large portion of that region is in the highest level of drought – exceptional drought. It was certainly a problem on my father’s farm in Mississippi this year, and his yields reflect that.

As global warming progresses, severe weather will become intensified. That means drier, more prolonged droughts and more powerful storms. Our region won’t be spared those extremes forever.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that humans are pretty darn resourceful. For one thing, we have some outstanding crop genetics that can produce a good yield despite harsh weather conditions. But that’s just a bandage on the problem. How do we address the climate change itself?

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have just discovered a process that may end up being part of the solution (http://bit.ly/2dN8Tvg). They’ve discovered an electrochemical reaction that turns carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas and a byproduct of combustion, into ethanol. The reaction happens at room temperature with a single catalyst, so it’s an inexpensive process. The ethanol in this early stage of experimentation is 63 percent. The team plans to refine the process and make it more efficient.

That’s pretty amazing to me. We’re figuring out how to take byproduct of energy production and turn it back into fuel for energy production all while preventing a greenhouse gas from escaping into the atmosphere. That is the power of human ingenuity.

The only problem is that it might decrease demand for corn in ethanol plants in the future. If that’s the case, we’ll just have to use our ingenuity to find a more profitable crop to grow. In fact, given current corn prices and rate of corn production, it might not be a bad idea to start working on that problem right now.