February 23, 2007

Summit teaches farmers about alternative energy


Photo submitted by Larry Abrahamson
Workers from SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry harvest willow trees in LaFayette in November. The harvester cuts the willow into small pieces that are sent to a bio-mass plant in Lyonsdale. 

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Joanne and Philip Brown are concerned about what farmers in Willet, such as themselves, can do to turn a profit. Willet used to have about two dozen commercial farms, but now it just has about a half a dozen of them.
“That’s a lot of idle farmland that’s gone up,” said Joanne Brown, who also is a town councilwoman.
The Browns thought that maybe farmers could start using that land to grow crops for alternative energy use. They weren’t alone — almost 100 farmers and other community residents attended seminars about alternative energy sources at the 5th annual Agri-Economic Development Summit Thursday at the Holiday Inn.
The workshops were preceded by talks by Patrick Brennan, the state director of United States Department of Agriculture/Rural Development, and Ray Cross, president of SUNY Morrisville, about alternative energy sources to a room of 150 people.
Brennan highlighted how mounting oil costs are forcing the federal and state governments to prioritize research on alternative fuel sources, such as corn, willow trees and switch grass.
The proposed 2007 Farm Bill, for example, provides $1.6 billion for renewable energy research development and production and $2.1 billion in guaranteed loans for cellulosic ethanol projects.
Cellulosic ethanol is ethanol that uses grasses and agricultural waste instead of feedstock.
Cross said farmers need to be open to changing technology.
“You grow up with the ability to be resourceful,” he said about being a farmer. “We have to have the courage and the fortitude to grasp it.”
One workshop — emerging technology and fuels of the future — provided an overview of what renewable energy sources exist.
Professors from SUNY Morrisville and Cornell University explained that such organic material as wood, grass and corn can be burned to heat homes or businesses, or it can be converted to other usable forms of energy.
Corn, for example, can be converted to ethanol to power vehicles, while soybeans can be converted to biodiesel to power vehicles.
Corn and soybeans produce less energy than other materials that produce biodiesel, such as algae, but it is practical for New York to focus on corn and soybeans in the coming years, speakers said, as many farmers already grow those products and the land is suited for those products.
Charles Garber, a farmer who grows hay on Hatfield Hill Road in Cortlandville, said he took to heart the professor’s point about practicality. He had considered using Jerusalem artichokes — flowering plants — to make fuel, but now he thinks he will stick to corn, he said.
He said he intends to start buying corn from other farmers in the summer and putting it in a still to produce ethanol fuel. He said he has a friend with a special converter apparatus for his farm equipment to let him put ethanol fuel in the vehicles.
“If it succeeds, I intend to expand,” he said.
Another workshop touched on funding available for farmers to work with local universities on renewable energy research projects. Often farmers can get more financial help when they have a partnership with a university, said Stephen McGrattan, agricultural development specialist with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
One local research project in the works involves willow stalks. Researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse have planted short pieces of willow in farmland at various sites, such as Tully, LaFayette and the Tug Hill Plateau area.
Larry Abrahamson, one of the researchers, said once the willow grows high enough, it is harvested, cut into chips and sent to a processing plant in Lyons Falls for energy conversion.
Some energy is used to heat a nearby paper plant, while the rest is sold as electricity to National Grid.
Carlton Dawson, a farmer in East Homer who breeds 200 heifers for dairy use at a time, said he appreciated learning more about alternative energy sources Thursday.
He said farmers have to start thinking about the new sources as a way to cut costs and get more revenue.
“You’ve got to make an investment,” he said.



State leaders, farmers discuss initiatives to aid agriculture

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The costs associated with farming are rising, but the price of milk is dropping.
This is the problem facing New York dairy farmers, and when addressing the fifth annual Upstate Agri-Economic Development Summit on Thursday afternoon, state Sen. Jim Seward (R-Milford) and acting state Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Patrick Hooker said that both short- and long-term solutions to this issue need to be implemented.
The two officials presented their plans and then had a dialogue _with farmers at the Holiday Inn in Cortland.
As a member of the state Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Seward gave examples of what that committee is working on to help farmers at a time when the economics of agriculture are in a downward spiral. These possible initiatives were developed following meetings with farmers across the state, Seward said.
In the short term, following the low milk prices and high farming costs through 2006 and into 2007, the Agriculture Committee hopes to include in the state budget a $60 million Dairy Investment Act that would be paid directly to the state’s farmers.
“That will help farmers catch up on their growing bills, and also get them ready for the spring planting season,” Seward said after his presentation, adding that this money would help supplement MILC checks given to farmers to make up at least some of the difference between the costs of producing the milk and the prices that are paid.
Another $750,000 would go toward creating a New York Center for Dairy Excellence within the existing NY Farm Viability Institute, to strive to improve the productivity and profitability of dairy farmers.
In the long term, Seward hopes to work with representatives at the federal level to create a pricing methodology that would be specific to the Northeast, rather than relying on complex formulas that make no distinction between farmers in vastly different states.
“We need to ensure that New York state dairy farmers receive a price for milk that truly reflects economic conditions in the Northeast,” Seward said during his speech.
Hooker, nominated by Gov. Eliot Spitzer on Jan. 11 and still awaiting confirmation (which Seward said he would be pressing for in the Senate), said that no one can deny that agriculture in upstate New York “is going through one of it’s toughest times in history.”
Hooker cited $40 million worth of damages due to flooding in June 2006, in which 30,000 acres of crops where destroyed by flooding, forcing farmers to buy food for livestock that they would have otherwise produced themselves. Meanwhile, milk prices are the lowest they’ve been in five years, but the price of corn is 30 percent higher than in 2005 due to the increasing demand for ethanol; this is good for corn farmers, Hooker said, but bad for the dairy farmers who need to feed their livestock.
He then outlined some of Spitzer’s proposed initiatives, which include a middle class property tax cut, expanding aid to upstate cities and towns, and creating an upstate chairperson for the Empire State Business Development Corp.
Especially relevant within the context of Thursday’s summit is the need to innovate in the fields of renewable energy, such as ethanol and other bio-fuels that can be produced by farmers.
The goal is to “tackle the underlying structural problems that have really stifled growth upstate,” Hooker said.
After Seward and Hooker addressed the gathering as a whole, participants broke into two smaller groups. One met with Seward and Hooker to discuss issues facing agricultural businesses, while the other met separately to discuss practical farming techniques and technology.
During the separate conversation with Seward and Hooker, Troy Bishop, a farmer in Oneida County, asked if Seward and Hooker could offer any strategies for drawing young people to farming. Despite all of the emphasis on expanding bio-fuel production, Bishop wondered how those activities could be built up if younger generations were not sticking with farming.
Hooker responded by first stating that there are no definite strategies as of yet, but the first step is pointing out the positives of the profession. Forming partnerships is also crucial, he said.
“There is a lot of equity in the business, but is it in the right places?” Hooker asked, adding that more experienced farmers who might have significant amounts of equity need to be hooked up with the younger farmers who would like to enter the field.
Dairy farmer Pauline Drexel, of Fabio’s, said that it’s difficult to attract young people to the profession when they watch their parents work hard and only see very slight returns.
“What they need to see is a viable industry that sustains itself without some … government bailout every year,” Drexel said. “They see their parents working themselves to death for what, 1 percent (returns) a year?”
Seward agreed with her point, but emphasized the need to first get farmers out of the ditch they’re in, perhaps using his short-term “bail out,” and then work toward the longer term solutions that could provide stability in the industry.
Drexel’s husband, Ed Drexel, had pointed out the need for dairy farmers to work harder at promoting their own product.
Harold White, of Marathon, pointed out the replacement of milk dispensing machines at the New York State Fair by soda machines, which Hooker responded to by emphasizing Spitzer’s goal of returning the Fair to it’s agricultural roots.