Archive for December, 2013

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  • December 21st, 2013

The Bearded Facebook

By Joel M. Vance

The Facebook folks, many of whom seem to have far more time on their hands than is productive for society or their mental health, have been clogging the site with virulent defense of Phil Robertson, the hirsute and suspended A&E Network Duck Dynasty celebrity.

Duck Dynasty, for those of you who have been secluded in a bomb shelter or perhaps a padded cell for a while, is a show on the A&E network about a family whose male members long ago lost their Norelcos and who have made a fortune selling duck calls.  That’s all I know about the show because in order for me to watch it, I would have to be bound and gagged, held at gunpoint and threatened with dismemberment.

Robertson is the patriarch of this hairy clan from ‘way down South who was featured and quoted in an article in Gentleman’s Quarterly lashing out at gay people as the Devil’s spawn.  Predictably that brought out the venom in his supporters, of whom there are many, defending his right to free speech and more often than not his intolerant remarks as an expression of Christian values.  He is in their eyes, a role model of the ideal family patriarch, a sort of White Trash Father Knows Best and also a role model Christian standing up for God, motherhood and the redneck way of life.

The comments on Facebook were unanimously in support of Robertson and most also endorsed his extreme views on gays, while a few more moderate types defended only his right to free speech under the Constitution’s First Amendment.   All condemned the suspension as if it were an indication of the nation’s future—a case of rescuing national virtue to stave off a descent into Godless infamy.

Lost in the brouhaha over his venom toward gays was an equally offensive shot at African Americans who were, according to him, a whole lot happier as slaves than they are today as free citizens.  That alone should have tainted any credibility he might have had as a social critic, but it hasn’t.   The Facebook lynch mob is ready to string up A&E and anyone who criticizes their redneck role model.  It’s all done in the name of God, the Bible and Jesus and they equate Robertson as the modern day emissary of Christian behavior.

For the record, here’s what Robertson said about African Americans: , “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person [in the pre-civil rights era South]. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

Now if that isn’t an echo of 1950s White Citizens Council-speak nothing is.  I spent an uncomfortable couple of years in Montgomery during the civil rights era and I heard similar comments from white people on an almost daily basis.   “We love the nigras,” said the society editor of the newspaper where I worked.  She went on to explain how well-treated black people were in Alabama and elsewhere in the South and how happy they’d be if they’d just accept their lot.  Just down the street, Martin Luther King was preaching at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and it was not about how happy he and his flock were.

And I detasseled seed corn with African Americans in the 1950s and they were poor, segregated in all but the cornfield, and I never heard any of them singing out of the sheer happiness of being in a sweltering corn field, making $.50/hour.  They were miserable just like me.  I would swear on a stack of Robertson’s Bibles that those folks were feeling the blues, not singing them.

In case you missed it, here’s what Robertson said about gays: ““It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”  Somehow that comes across as a pretty demeaning remark about women too, although I haven’t heard any outrage from the female defenders of this quintessential redneck.

As an aside, scientists say that the more a man thinks about sex the faster his beard grows.  This is because of a surge in testosterone caused by the lascivious daydreaming.  Take a look at Robertson’s furry chin and make your own judgment on how much time he spends thinking about what my favorite humorist H. Allen Smith called “ferkytootling.”  Don’t even have to read GQ.

The one point that the Facebook mob has right is that Robertson has a perfect right to say what he pleases, however offensive.  The First Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights protects the right to shoot off one’s mouth in all sorts of unpleasant ways without fear of reprisal.  Of course, A&E suspended Robertson for his GQ diatribe, so I guess that’s reprisal of sorts, but he was well within his rights to say what he did.  As to whether the show will suffer as a result, I can only hope so.  But shows come and go; unfortunately prejudice remains.  It’s just more hidden these days, but scratch the surface of a substantial sub-culture of American society and you’ll uncover the festering prejudices beneath.  Robertson merely exhaled a breath of foul air from the extremists’ musty and polluted burrow.

As an aside, a court has ruled that National Security Agency snooping into phone conversations and emails of private citizens is a violation of the First Amendment.  It probably will go to the Supreme Court and given the 5-4 conservative makeup of the present court chances are that court will overturn the lower court ruling, giving the NSA carte blanche to peek into your private conversations.   Now that’s something that the Facebook gang should get upset about, but I haven’t seen any outrage yet.  They’re too busy bashing liberals, progressives, gay folks and other anti-God entities to worry about their personal freedoms.  On the one hand they lash out at government for coddling gays; on the other they endorse government’s heavy hand on their personal freedom in the name of freedom.  Makes no damn sense, but what does these days?

Duck Dynasty is a piece of television crap, the reality show brought to its creative knees.  It has plenty of company as chewing-gum-for-the-mind entertainment among the other contrived “reality” entries which are about as real as fairy tales—including some I like very much.  Haven’t watched DD and won’t, although I love duck hunting and the calling thereof.   I once hunted with a Cajun duck call maker and enjoyed myself immensely.  He was clean-shaven, funny and didn’t rub my nose in bigoted bullflop.   But I can’t get excited about watching the manufactured antics of a bunch of backwoods clowns.  I’d much rather watch reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies which  didn’t pretend to be real life in the boondocks.  And Jed Clampett never posed as a religious philosopher passing judgment on fellow members of society as immoral.

Come and listen to his story, never mind the stupid one blown through a duck caller.

-30-

 

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  • December 19th, 2013

A Warm Love Affair

By Joel M. Vance

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShe was long-legged and as graceful as a ballet dancer.  Her large, expressive eyes met mine and something passed between us.  I wanted to caress her soft neck, perhaps if things progressed, steal a kiss.

Instead she moved away, into the crowd, among her peers, and the moment was lost.  My last glimpse of this beauty was of her chewing a mouthful of hay in a figure eight rotation.  She was an alpaca, a member of the ungulate family that includes llamas and camels.  A kiss would have been a brief touching of noses.  It was not to be, another unrequited love.

She belonged to  Linda and Liz Mitchko, who have the dual distinction of owning the largest alpaca operation in Missouri and who also are the nation’s first mother-daughter SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) racing team.  The racing days are behind, but the alpaca ranch is flourishing.

Whirlwind Ranch (named after a tornado narrowly missed the 160-acre operation) opened in 1996 near Lebanon.  In Ozarkese (which seems appropriate for the thick-coated animals) they are a “fur piece” from their native mountainous Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

Every April some six inches of incredibly dense fiber rolls off each animal under the buzzing shears of a professional animal shearer. The fiber comes in 22 different colors (actually, the animals do) and it has more uses than the ubiquitous Ozark pickup truck.   Liz Mitchko once did the shearing herself, but she is somewhat of a one-woman industry and has turned that chore over to others.  She also knits, dyes and weaves various items of clothing and sells gloves, scarves, sweaters and other soft, warm alpaca fiber products.

As if fiber products weren’t enough, she also sells Paca Poo Gold, a byproduct that is precisely what the name implies.  Alpaca droppings are pelletized and will not burn plant life.  They also don’t smell, making them ideal to fertilize house plants.  If you think that selling animal doo doo is silly, consider that last year Whirlwind Farm sold 55 tons of it—poo gold, indeed!

The alpaca population on Whirlwind ranges from 80-100, depending on births or sales (mostly to folks who want a pet that is not a dog or cat).  The babies are called “crias” and they are so cute as to cause a sugar hangover.

Three Great Pyrenees guard dogs (named Polka, Lotte and Dolce), themselves citizens of the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmountains, make sure that the alpacas are safe.  Ironically, the major predator on alpacas in this country is the feral or stray dog (and no doubt any other members of the canids—coyotes or wolves).  In their native South American mountains, the prime enemy is the puma or mountain lion (Missouri has the occasional lion, young males probably migrating from other states in search of new territory—or maybe alpaca entrees).

But the big, cuddly Pyrenees are all business when the sun goes down.  They consider themselves both members of the alpaca herd and devoted nannies and they literally work all night long to protect their family.  It is a family of royal heritage—for 150 years only the Peruvian royal family was allowed to own baby alpacas.

The first alpacas came to Missouri in 1984 but now there are 100 owners of the fleecy animals in the Show-Me State.  And “fleecy” is almost an understatement.  A mature alpaca grows six inches of fleece in a year’s time.  The hollow fiber has the ability both to warm and cool.  It’s fire-retardant and wicks moisture away, meaning that a pair of alpaca socks will keep feet not only warm, but dry.  The versatile fiber even is used to tie dry flies—being hollow it promotes floatability.  The resistance to fire makes the fiber exceptionally valuable for clothing.  It is rated Class One by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the highest possible rating.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhirlwind’s alpacas are “Huacaya” strain, which means as Liz explains, “an alpaca with a Teddy Bear like appearance.”  And the Huacaya is the most prevalent, at 80 percent, of the North American alpacas.  The North American herd now numbers some 90,000.  In the wilds of South America the herd tops 3.5 million, mostly in Peru.

The depressed economy has depressed alpaca prices—what once was a $5,000 animal now is $2,500-3,000, but it depends on the animal’s lineage.  The record price is $670,000 and Liz turned down $50,000 for one of her herd sire animals (mother alpacas are dams).  In the wild an alpaca has an average life span of 7-9 years but in captivity they will live up to 20 years or more.

Each of the birth year crias gets a name and each year has a theme so that any named animal can be age-dated by the category of its name.  There is a contest to select the theme with the winner to receive an alpaca teddy bear.  The contest is open to anyone with a deadline of Feb. 1.  The forecast was for 15 crias to arrive in 2012 so there must be 50-60 potential names.  Some previous themes include game shows, alcoholic drinks, cars, herbs and spices, dances and rices.  One theme that didn’t make the cut was brand names of condoms.  There were at least 20 entries for the 2012 contest.  The address is Liz Mitchko, 24649 Snowberry Drive, Lebanon MO 65536-6471.  Contact  info: Phone (417) 533-5280  –  Fax (417) 588-2636  –  email info@whirlwindranch.com.

In the Andes Mountains alpacas are food animals as well as wool producers, but Linda and Liz wouldn’t dream of making any of their babies Big McPacas.  Elderly alpacas get to enjoy retirement, pampered with hay and health care.

While some invest in alpacas as fiber factories, others merely want an unusual pet or a show animal.  World War One British and American pilots, assaulted by bitter cold in open cockpits, wore alpaca jackets to keep warm.   According to Whirlwind’s fact sheet, both Pope John Paul and Hillary Clinton wore alpaca clothing.  Wearing alpaca won’t make you Pope or potential President….but it will make you warm.

As will the sight of a cuddly cria stretching its long neck forward to touch noses with a small child.

-30-

 

 

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  • December 10th, 2013

The Little Lobster

By Joel M. Vance

                  Another lobster knows the difference; another crayfish knows the difference, but without some scale of reference you wouldn’t.  Look at a photo of a lobster and one of a crayfish and you couldn’t tell one from the other.  Side by side, yes, but not individually.  That’s why you wouldn’t make either a good crayfish or a good lobster.

Basically, a crayfish is just a freshwater lobster, lacking size and gushy press clippings.  Big ol’ lobsters are not a big ol’ deal to a Cajun, one of those displaced Nova Scotia lobster country expatriates who long ago forsook the rocky northeast coast for the sullen swamps of Louisiana where the crayfish is king.

In some places they are crayfish except with the commercial crayfish farmers who call them crawfish.    For many, crayfish are called, somewhat contemptuously, “mudbugs” but many species inhabit clear, cold water, lurking under flat rocks.

There’s a cruel irony in the only song dedicated to the Little Lobster, irony which hit me one sunny afternoon when I was playing the banjo and singing:

            “Whatcha gonna do when the creek runs dry?

              Just sit’n watch them crawdads die!”

            What a terrible fate for such a cool critter!  Crawfish, crayfish, crawdads, you take your pick—they are revered in Cajun Country but often ignored or considered only as prime live bait elsewhere.  Even when they are called “mudbugs,” they are eagerly sought after and consumed by the descendants of Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline.”

The crayfish even starred in a memorable episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, some 45 years ago—Jed Clampett, had some crawdads shipped from home back in the hills, proving that someone among the scriptwriters had a southeastern rural background.

If you want to trace the name back and amaze friends while you’re chomping through a heaping helping of boiled crawdads, you can tell them that according to one story the name Crawfish began its life as krabba “crab” in one of English’s ancient Germanic ancestors.  It’s also theorized the name comes from Old High German “krebiz” which means edible crustacean and that makes more sense. It was borrowed by Old French and became crevis or crevice “crayfish”. More modern French retuned this word as crevisse which the English promptly converted to a more palatable crayfish. Now, since crayfish crawl, it ultimately became crawfish in some regions. And crawdad is “a fanciful alteration of crawfish” according to one dictionary.

Crayfish are creatures of the wet, from lakes and ponds, to streams and even wet meadows.  If it has water it can support crayfish.  Some even have adapted to the complete darkness of caves and no longer have eyes or coloration.  And, in contrast to sighted crayfish with a two or three year lifespan, blind cave crayfish can live for 20 or 30 years.  Other crayfish burrow deep into a meadow, far from standing water, leaving tall mounds of excavated dirt above the tunnel entrance.

While a crayfish can exist out of water for some time, it is aquatic, with gills for breathing.  The land-based crayfish who build tunnels, dig those tunnels deep enough to reach the water table and thus they can luxuriate in a subterranean bath full time.

As delectable as crayfish are for humans, they’re equally so for a variety of other critters, finned and furred.  Otters and raccoons are especially fond of ecrevisse au naturale, and any angler knows that a soft-shelled crawfish hooked through the tail and drifted down a rocky run in a smallmouth stream is as close to a guaranteed strike as sportfishing gets.  Use as bait has resulted in exotic or non-native species being introduced into habitats where they compete, sometimes successfully, with the native crayfish.

Accidental or deliberate introductions have had serious ecological results—the starling is an exotic as is the gypsy moth.  Any introduced species does just what introduced people would do—it competes for food and shelter with native species.  While crayfish largely are good citizens, their mounded burrows can damage earthen dams, gardens and fields, and some species have internal parasites which can affect humans.

The major commercial crayfish is an imported species, the red swamp crawfish/crayfish/crawdad.  Another non-native species reaches six inches in body length, 10 inches overall—obviously a candidate for commercial crayfish farming.   Nationally crayfish farmers produce up to 85 million metric tons of the little lobsters every year—more than a billion pounds, with Louisiana and Texas the major producers.

Dr. John Cooper, curator of crustaceans at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, says, “Because of their roles as both consumers and prey, crayfishes are vital forces in the flow of energy and nutrients within aquatic ecosystems. Without crayfishes, the health and integrity of North Carolina’s freshwater ecosystems would be severely damaged.”

Thus the crayfish is the “canary in the mine,” an indicator of either good or bad things happening to the water.  A crayfish’s optimum water temperature is 55-60 degrees, relatively cold and coincidentally close to the water temperature favored by trout.  So a healthy crayfish population in a trout stream is a good indicator that the trout are doing well also.

Crayfish are “soft-shelled” when they shed their exoskeleton (human skeletons are inside, while crayfish skeletons are outside).  This molting happens several times in the crustacean’s lifetime, a lifespan that usually maxes out at three years.  While it defies logic, it’s true that the older a crayfish gets the less tail meat it has compared to head mass, so the best eating size is young-of-the-year.  About 15 percent of a crawdad is edible by humans.  Some of the leftover can be converted to catfish food which in turn becomes human food.

It might dim the appetite of the would-be crayfish eater, but it’s fact that the little mudbugs are scavengers, often feeding on dead meat.  They are omnivorous, though, and vary their diet with all sorts of juicy goodies in addition to the occasional defunct and grossly bloated catfish.  Most of the diet (80 percent) is vegetative but worms are the preferred entrée.

For humans, eating a crayfish is similar to eating unpeeled shrimp.  In common with other shellfish, the exoskeleton surrounds all the edible stuff.   Break off and peel the first three shell segments of the tail.  The “vein” (the creature’s gut) should pull free as you tug at the tail fin.  Dip the tail in hot sauce and enjoy.  Cajuns also suck the “fat” or mustard-yellow liver out of the head portion—a practice it’s better for non-Cajuns not to think about.  One of North Carolina’s two commercial species, the White River, has green fat which turns most folks off, but might be appreciated on St. Patrick’s Day.

As food crayfish are as good as it gets.  They are high in protein, low in saturated fat and they are tasty.  They are high in cholesterol, but also contain various vitamins, iron, calcium and phosphorus.  It would take more than six ounces of crayfish meat to exceed the American Heart Association’s accepted daily cholesterol limit (300 milligrams).  For the mathematically inclined, a three-ounce serving of crayfish tails contains 178 milligrams of cholesterol and would be slightly less than an average serving.  And a 3.5 ounce serving contains only 75 calories for those who count such things.

Of more concern would be anaphylactic shock for those allergic to shellfish.  Anyone with a shellfish allergy should stay far away from cooking or eating crayfish or even using any utensils or anything else used in the preparation of a shellfish meal—it’s the most common food allergy and a reaction can range from mild to fatal.  While it’s not common, such allergy can occur anytime, even if the victim never before has reacted.

But allergy and cholesterol whim-whams aside, many thousands of Cajuns and apprentice Cajuns gleefully dive into a heaping mound of crayfish, a crayfish etouffe, jambalaya or any of the many recipes where the mudbug flourishes with no more serious repercussions than a need for bicarbonate of soda.

The simplest recipe is boiled crayfish.  Drop live crayfish in a rolling boil of seasoned water (crab boil or any of the many seafood seasonings will do) and rescue them when they float to the top, now a bright orange color.

It takes about seven pounds of crayfish to produce one pound of tail meat and the average serving is between three and four pounds of whole crayfish or five or six ounces of tail meat per person per meal.  Obviously the serving depends on the appetite of the person. In 1991 a fellow named Steve Luman ate 30 pounds of crawfish in 30 minutes.  The contest was co-sponsored by Weed Eater.                     The easiest way to collect a meal is to buy the meat (you can buy live crayfish on the internet for between $5-$6 per pound) but if you want to get them yourself, a bait seine with two energetic youngsters, one on either end, is the weapon-of-choice.  Someone upstream kicks over rocks and the disturbed crayfish drift into the net.

A slower and less ecologically-intrusive method is to carefully lift rocks in the shallows of clear streams and either hand grab the crayfish hiding below or position a dip net just behind the little fellow and feint at his upraised dukes.  He’ll flip backward, right into the net.  Put the rock back where it was, haven for the next resident.

And if you do collect your dinner from the stream or pond, refrigerate it immediately, but not below 38 degrees or the crayfish can die.  Make sure they have oxygen and either eat them within 24 hours or freeze them cooked.  Discard any dead crayfish before cooking.  Given that it takes a bunch of crayfish to feed a hungry horde of shellfish lovers, it is necessary for the little lobsters to practice crustacean love often and productively.  A female crayfish will lay from 400 to 800 eggs.

Crayfish love occurs in fall and winter.  The mating is both conventional and peculiar in that the male, after depositing sperm in the female, plugs her receptacle which serves both to keep sperm in and other males out.  After the female lays her huge clutch of eggs, she fastens the egg masses to her swimming legs, called swimmerets, and hides until they hatch in a few weeks.

As is true of all prolific creatures, mortality is high—just about every fish that swims relishes a juicy crawdad, not to mention four and two-legged predators and even the occasional winged one.

Crayfish are largely a creature of the eastern half of the country—almost all of the estimated 350-400 species (no one knows for sure how many species there are) exist east of the Rocky Mountains and more than 90 percent of those are in the southeastern United States—oddly there are no crayfish in Africa.

But you’ll find them in every corner of many states, dukes raised, ready for a fight, ready to help you catch the smallmouth bass of a lifetime, ready to indicate the health of your favorite river, ready to grace your dinner plate with a heap of their peers—all-around good fellows.

 

“You get a line and I’ll get a pole

  And we’ll go down to the crawdad hole….”

-30-

 

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  • December 1st, 2013

Fill ‘Er Up!

By Joel M. Vance

It was a cloudless, moonless night over southern Oklahoma and the sky glittered with an immensity of stars.  It was easy to believe in eternity and we all were quiet, sprawled on our shelter halves and thin Army blankets because it was both too hot to sleep in a tent, but also because we couldn’t have seen what the Comanches had seen when it had been their turn to sleep under the stars.

This was the native prairie, unplowed and unmolested except for wet-eared ROTC cadets on a campout at Fort Sill sponsored by the federal government.  We had spent the day shooting big guns at things we couldn’t see (and never hit) and were spending  the night listening to prairie wind sough in grasses that reached deep into the ground and far to the horizon.

That was then but now the Great American Desert, as the pioneers called the third of the country that was native grassland, is under constant attack.  The noise of oil and gas exploration equipment competes with the noise of massive tractors ripping up yet more thousands of acres of land to plant row crops.  Most of the intrusions on the native prairie involve energy production in one way or another.  Lost in the uproar is the eerie sound of booming prairie chickens and other grassland grouse.

Blame it on misguided environmental concern.  We bemoan the country’s dependence on oil, but aren’t willing to slow down or buy miserly automobiles so we look for alternatives (ignoring the fact that the United States produces more oil than it imports).  Comes the ethanol industry touting the environmentally-friendly nature of alcohol, brewed from corn.  No noxious emissions that contribute to global warming and threaten polar bears.  How can it be bad?

Since the advent of ethanol, more than one million acres of native grassland has felt the bite of the plow for the first time in history.  Once plowed it would take generations, if ever, for that land to regenerate to the tall, mid and short grasses that once lived there.  Meanwhile, the farmers who convert the land to corn for ethanol, in the eight states watered by the vast underground Ogallala aquifer, are draining that huge lake to irrigate corn and estimates are it would take a century to regenerate it, even if the thirsty suckfest stopped.  Concurrently the proposed Keystone pipeline would cut directly across the nation’s midsection, destroying native prairie, disrupting prairie grouse habitat, be unsightly—all so a Canadian-owned Big Oil corporation can ship environmentally awful tar sands oil to New Orleans for export to other countries.   We’re now producing two thirds of our oil demand but the much of the increase comes from “fracking,” a process of giving the subsurface a chemical enema—causing what amounts to a mini-earthquake—to loosen the oil trapped there.  Predictably that has a myriad of potential and actual environmental dangers, ranging from well contamination to outright health concerns.  So focused on oil independence is the nation that the prospect of environmental Armageddon from fracking is pretty much ignored, as is the environmental loss from converting native prairie to cornfields.

Tom Vilsack, the Department of Agriculture director, an Iowan, defends the conversion of prairie land and claims no land has been lost to conversion; that the increase in corn production is because of better farming that increases yields on existing cropland.   As anyone who has traveled Iowa highways in summer heat knows, the air there is redolent with the aroma of hog manure and so is Vilsack’s claim.  Between 2007-2010 some 28 million Conservation Reserve Program acres expired—2007 alone saw 16 million acres expire and only 13 million acres renew.  CRP offered payment for 10 or 15 years to retire vulnerable land from crops and it was a godsend for conservation and for indigenous wildlife.  But the contracts began to expire at the same time corn prices skyrocketed (with ethanol demand fueling the jump).   Here’s the total acreage of expirations in several of the top upland bird hunting states for 2013 alone: Vilsack’s Iowa 183,399; Illinois 186,569; Missouri 183,688; Nebraska 96,026; North Dakota 255,079; South Dakota 105,805; Texas 362,226; Washington 253,842 and for the United  States 3,306,213.  While some is recouped through re-signs, much isn’t and that lost CRP acreage will revert to row crops.  And the contracts continue to run out.In one month alone, September and October of 2012, CRP lost 2.5 million acres.

Some of that land lost was in idled acres that once had been cropland, but some was native prairie which had been retired to CRP years earlier to protect it from the plow and all was wildlife and environmentally friendly .  Native prairie ranges from the tallgrass of the eastern Midwest states to shortgrass in the Western states.  Illinois calls itself the Prairie State which is a joke since virtually every acre of tallgrass has vanished.  Missouri has lost at least 98 percent of its tallgrass which once comprised a third of the state’s 42 million acres.  Iowa likewise is prairie-bereft.  A history of Missouri’s Audrain County told how a man on a horse could ride through its historic tallgrass and the horse would be totally swallowed by the looming big bluestem.  Today there is no tallgrass remaining in Audrain County; it’s all corn and soybeans.  That’s what ethanol does—it steals the nation’s prairie heritage to make us feel good (and theoretically make our pocketbooks feel good too).

Ethanol would not be the problem it has become if corn prices tumbled the way they did in 2008 when the economy tanked.  It would cost more to produce than it would realize in the market.  But corn now is gold and the lure of the market has farmers abandoning CRP and polishing their plows on formerly idled CRP land or on native prairie that never has been plowed.  Concurrently oil prices have dropped so that ethanol production now is economically profitable.  You can’t argue with a landowner wanting to make a profit from his land and it’s a rare landowner who will sacrifice some of that profit to preserve the historic value of the land—after all exploitation of natural resources is as old as the country.

Ethanol can be produced from anything with cellulose content, not just corn—you can make fuel for your car from the waste paper you could recycle.   We throw away an estimated 323 million tons of cellulose raw materials annually which go into landfills instead of your gas tank.  There’s at least some effort to distill alcohol from sawmill waste, prairie hay and other cellulosic sources.  Ethanol can even be made from cornstalks, the residue left from the grain harvest—but that would pretty much defeat the goal of preserving prairie instead of conversion to corn.  The Energy Independence and Security Act originally set goals of 100 million, 250 million and 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.  But, as of 2012 the production of cellulosic ethanol was estimated at 10.5 million far below its target.  Corn still rules the ethanol roost .

Oil companies predictably resent efforts to dilute their gasoline with ethanol.  They sell oil from established refineries and resist developing new production facilities.  The American Petroleum Institute, the main mouthpiece of Big Oil, is especially opposed to E85, the 85 percent ethanol fuel that some modern cars run on and that is considerably cheaper than unleaded gasoline.  While much of the opposition to ethanol is funded by Big Oil and contains dubious data, one study by the University of California at Davis under a $25 million grant from Chevron says the energy used to produce ethanol is about even with what it generates but that cleaner emissions would be offset by the loss of pasture and rainforest to corn-growing—which is exactly the point I’m trying to make.

No one source of energy will replace oil/gasoline and they all have drawbacks—as one commentator said, “There is no silver bullet—it’s buckshot.”  But in concert they have merit.  While wind, water and sun have environmental benefits and are essentially free energy sources, they all have huge startup costs and they are unsightly and often environmentally damaging (Missouri’s largest fish kills have been below dams; wind farms disrupt mating and habitat of already threatened prairie grouse, solar “farms” sprawl across many acres).  Nuclear energy has the dual problems of what to do with spent fuel and the threat of catastrophe (think Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or the more recent Japanese disaster).

The cost to produce ethanol from corn is far greater than it is to make it from other cellulosic sources.  So why not shift the emphasis to those lower cost sources rather than plowing up yet more ground for corn?  At present the target for ethanol produced from corn and from cellulosic sources is about even and in total about 10 percent of the nation’s total fuel use.  Some 11 million vehicles can use E85 but many gas stations don’t have a way to store or pump it.

Ethanol is rife with problems, but problems exist to be solved.  When World War Two began the nation was woefully unprepared, yet it leaped into a massive production mode almost overnight and turned out the implements of war with astonishing speed.   The enemy nations simply underestimated how fast and how much the United States could overcome its lethargy.

Now we lack that sense of urgency because we’re complacent—willing to drive big vehicles and buy expensive petroleum products because no one is threatening to take them away from us.  Maybe everyone should be forced to spend a summer night lying on a shelter half in the middle of the grasslands where there is no sound of pumping oil derricks to muffle the sound of the prairie wind.

Might change a few attitudes.

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