Finding Christmas

Written by Mitch Jayne on .

For Kevin Jones, Christmas was lost in clichés and confusing times—until he made a sincere search. “Of all the goofy things Mr.
Katsourian could have assigned for a composition paper,” Kevin Jones told his dad, “I got the dumbest! ‘My Favorite Christmas.’”

“What’s the matter with Christmas?” asked his dad, mildly. “I sure don’t remember you objecting to it when you were a kid.”

“Well that’s the point,” said Kevin. “I’m not a kid anymore, I’m a high school senior. Christmas is for kids. He’ll expect us to come up with all that schmaltzy stuff about peace on earth and good will to men. You bet, and with half the people in the country afraid to open a strange letter or fly on an airplane, and half the kids I know worried about going to war.”
Ed Jones folded his newspaper and looked at his tall son with curious good humor.

“So what’s your problem?” he said. “I spent a Christmas in Vietnam, your uncle Frank spent two in Korea, and your grandpa spent one with General Patton’s bunch chasing the Werhmacht. There’s always going to be something the matter with the world. What’s that have to do with ‘My Favorite Christmas’ as a concept?”

“Well...” said Kevin, “...but why would Mr. Katsourian care? He’s Armenian and his granddad fought the Turks, or something. He kind of looks like a terrorist himself with that big old mustache and if he wore a turban...” Kevin hastened to get away from that line of thinking, seeing his dad’s face. “He’s just, you know, kind of dark and Arabic looking and what do those people know about Christmas?”

Ed Jones sighed and stood up to take his pickup keys from the board where all the family’s car keys hung. He smiled at his youngest son.

“Maybe that’s why he asked you to tell him,” he said. “Christmas isn’t rocket science, Kev,” he added as he pulled on his denim jacket, “and it’s pretty universal. Just do what the man asked and tell him about your favorite one.”

After his dad had gone, Kevin thought about it. Ed Jones was like that: a pragmatic man who did his best, and left it up to you to do yours. He never doubted people, never looked for someone to blame, never lost faith in farming as a way of life, never got radical. And Ed loved Christmas with a passion—the big feast for family, the lights, the giving, the decorations. “The whole nine yards,” as Kevin’s brother had put it one time, “like it was an inherited gene.”

Kevin sat a while, thinking these thoughts and finally pulled a yellow pad of paper from his mother’s desk and settled down to write in the sunny kitchen where her clock kept him company. He wrote ‘My Favorite Christmas’ at the top of the page and sat back to wait for inspiration. But after a while, as the clock ticked, he slowly crossed that out and put ‘Christmas With My Folks’ in its place and then erased that and put down ‘Christmas with Grandpa.’ He grinned to himself remembering.

Mr. Katsourian would never believe his grandpa, that long dead old storyteller, who always went a little nuts at Christmastime and decorated his farm with lights on “everything but the cows,” as Ed liked to recall, and gave presents of some kind to everyone he knew, like he thought he owed that to people.

Kevin had the start of an idea, and took his notes back to his own room where his computer could record them faster. From time to time he got up to go through the family albums, stored in the living room. The picture albums covered more than 70-odd years, snaring relatives at various times in their lives: wartime, peacetime, good times and bad. There were pictures of great uncles and cousins, taken with long dead dogs and long dead automobiles, but full of the photos of people so pleased to be alive and smiling at the camera at that time, that you didn’t worry about them being dead now.

It was an odd quest Mr. Katsourian had sent him on, but as the morning turned to afternoon, he began to understand it better and appreciate the question the teacher had asked. He began to see that it went beyond English Composition. Kevin found what he thought might be the answer to “What is your favorite Christmas” in a letter from his grandfather to his dad’s older brother, dated November 1945.

“Dear Frankie,” it said, “The war is over and all I can think of is that I’m coming home and maybe in time for Christmas. You are old enough now to understand that the world is full of enough mad people and bad ideas. And that at any given time, the rest of us might have to fight to keep things we love and value. This year will be the best Christmas of all for me because I can get back to doing what I do; taking care of my family and minding my own business, which ought to be to make things grow and the world a good place to live. I love you all more than I can say in a letter, but I’ll get to that soon because I just got my orders. I’ll be home for Christmas, which is peace on my own hunk of earth. God bless you, son.” Signed, Dad.

Kevin Jones finished reading and folded the worn letter back into its faded envelope, which had been mounted next to an old photograph of a young man perched on top of a Sherman tank, dirty faced and haggard, but grinning hugely.
Kevin booted up his computer and carefully typed the first line of his composition. He couldn’t help smiling.

“My Favorite Christmas,” he wrote, “I’m pretty sure, happened several years before my dad was even born.

From Today’s Farmer December/January 2001. Mitch Jayne 1928-2010 was a celebrated Ozark author and longtime contributor to Today’s Farmer. We reprint this in his honor.

Green Energy

Written by Steve Fairchild on .

A goal for energy from grass:  make it local first

A dispatch from Ontario and Missouri

There are times when a light turns on, when something that sounds fine in theory presents itself as solid in fact. I had one of those moments on the sweeping plains just a few miles off the north shore of Lake Erie. There in Essex County, Ontario, surrounded by massive greenhouses, this natural skeptic began to believe in Miscanthus giganteus. Miscanthus, the tall-growing perennial grass, has drawn considerable attention in the past few years as a biomass crop for energy production. Still, “considerable attention” doesn’t quite warm up the furnace, nor does it move editors to lift their skepticism. But a greenhouse did.

{gallery}decjan12/Green:210:270:1:2{/gallery}The story of miscanthus in this farming community in Ontario is the story of greenhouses and energy prices. Ontario has about 2,000 acres in greenhouses with the highest concentration of them in Essex County and nearby Chatham-Kent. Greenhouses originally sprung up here because of the coarse, lake-bed soil that lends itself to growing vegetables. Over the years, as hydroponics took over, the greenhouses spread out, and the infrastructure for greenhouse agriculture grew. Vegetables grown here have easy access to Toronto and major U.S. markets along the Great Lakes. Some go by plane to international markets as far away as Hong Kong.

I was in Essex on tour with members of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists; we’d piled into buses to see the area, and it seemed that each time our tour bus rounded the corner of a massive greenhouse, another sunlight cathedral of tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers was waiting. Greenhouses are also here due to the availability of natural gas; it takes plentiful, and hopefully affordable, natural gas to keep an under-glass growing environment suitable for vegetables.
Standing among 90-foot tomato vines stringing through one of Vic and Mike Tiessen’s greenhouses, Vic explained the brutality of natural gas price spikes in 2001 and 2005. The Tiessens grow vegetables on contract, so, when they lock into a price, their profit margin depends on being able to hold down costs and produce and deliver vegetables efficiently.

An average Canadian greenhouse uses between 8,000 and 10,000 gigajoules of energy per acre per year, at least 40 percent of the operation’s input cost. A gigajoule, in terms of natural gas, is about a million BTUs. The average Canadian home consumes something like 120 gigajoules per year in natural gas. You can see why capping greenhouse energy bills is top of the agenda for the Tiessens.  When gas prices spiked, they hit $14 per gigajoule. Gas is currently around $6 per gigajoule (spurring expansion in area greenhouse acreage). All told, Ontario greenhouses use 25 million gigajoules of energy per year—payable to far-away gas companies rather than local farmers.

“There was a gas price shock in 2001 that hurt growers,” said Vic. “In 2005 prices went up again. That was just after a major expansion for us, and it hurt the bottom line. That’s when they got serious about miscanthus.”

To Vic, “they” more specifically means his nephew, Dean, who also farms in the area and has become something of a biomass evangelist. Our tour had stopped at Dean’s place, Pyramid Farms, prior to coming to Vic’s family greenhouses. And if Dean is an evangelist for miscanthus, Pyramid Farms is his proving ground. On the approach, you can see his work to find the right varieties for the growing conditions in southern Ontario. There is miscanthus growing in various stages of maturity, and with various levels of success in early weed control (a challenge for establishing the crop). Mature miscanthus shades out most other plants.

Dean Tiessen’s goal is to level the fuel costs for his family’s greenhouse operations and ultimately to provide all the energy needed to grow greenhouse crops.
Dean knows the stats by rote. He knows what it will take to get to energy self-sufficiency for some of Essex County’s greenhouses:

“We have about 1,000 acres [of miscanthus] in the community right now and hope to see 10,000. So I’d have a line of sight on 20 to 30 years of fuel. The cost to establish miscanthus was about $2,000 per acre a few years ago, but now we can do it for below $500 per acre. In the first year, the harvest is only one to two tons. The second year it’s five to six tons. In year three you get 10 to 11 tons dry matter per acre, which is full harvest,” he said. “One important thing about miscanthus is it doesn’t break down—you can store the harvested material.”

Because miscanthus does well on marginal ground, Dean Tiessen believes it’s an easy answer to the increasingly asked question: should we be growing food or fuel?

“We can push some of that marginal land back into production,” he said. “It actually boosts organic matter; after 11 years we see organic matter levels at 8 to 11 percent.”

Most importantly for the greenhouse business, though, is the cost of energy for growing vegetables. The Tiessens hope to knock it down to $3 per gigajoule.

That’s when the light went on. You can talk about gigajoules or millions of BTUs, Canadian dollars, U.S. dollars, energy independence, sustainable farming and all the rest of it, but if you can cut your most expensive input cost in half, you can make money growing vegetables under glass. Or, to put a more local frame around it, you can more efficiently grow broilers or turkeys or hogs, and, yes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.

Of course, I came to that conclusion after spending some time with the Tiessen family, whose foray into renewable energy has grown from on-farm trials and using the crop for energy to running a growing business around miscanthus itself. They are perfecting propagation and harvest equipment as well as root-stock supplies. The family believes in the product. But it also sells it. Salesmanship re-ignites an editor’s skepticism. Plus, there are subsidies for biomass production from Ontario’s provincial government, a government that insists it will have turned off coal power by 2014. Sometimes excitement for a particular product or program is directly related to the quiet check received for participating.

So when I got back, I called on Tom May, director of marketing for MFA Oil. Earlier this year, MFA Oil kicked off a biomass project in conjunction with Aloterra Energy. The venture, dubbed MFA Oil Biomass, secured federal funding for a pilot program to fund establishing miscanthus fields in Missouri and Arkansas.

May said that as of fall 2011, all the MFA Oil Biomass growers who signed up to establish miscanthus through USDA’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program had been accepted into the program. May said depending on weather, there should be some 13,000 acres of miscanthus planted in central and southwest Missouri and Arkansas by spring.

The pellet mill MFA Oil Biomass set up in Aurora, Mo., is operational and currently processing wood pellets until miscanthus is grown and harvested in sufficient tonnage.

I put a lingering question born from listening to Ontario provincial politics to MFA Oil’s Tom May: are we going to be in the same place with biomass as we are with ethanol? Will the market buildout for promised federal subsidies plateau and be toppled if those subsidy levels fall subject to the whim of federal rule makers?

He said, “The good thing about BCAP is that it helps get the project off the ground. Growers are compensated for establishing the grass, then it’s done.”

“When I look at miscanthus in the Midwest,” said May, “I’m looking at MFA Oil customers who don’t have access to natural gas for their farms—they’re using propane. The important thing that an acreage of miscanthus does for those customers is makes a stable energy price, removing some of the volatility seen in the propane market.”

And once the miscanthus is established, May pointed out, the cost of production is annualized to some fertility and harvest costs for the life of the stand (10 to 20 years). “With what I’ve seen, that means that a producer using the energy from miscanthus would be paying the same cost that propane was at 10 or 12 years ago,” he said.

Miscanthus is on the rise in Ontario and should begin proving itself on the Tiessens farms by next year as they build out a pellet facility and begin converting greenhouse furnaces to miscanthus fuel. Here in the Show-Me state, we have a few years to wait, but we might be around the corner from a few acres of local energy independence. If it all works out, I bet that light comes on a little brighter.

Small Town favorites

Written by Mitch Jayne on .

Some characters just fit a small town

I’ve met a lot of small-town people in Missouri and have noticed that the ones from really small towns give the size away in a conversation: They say “the grocery store,” “the barber shop” or “the gas station” in such a way that you know there is only one of each. These little towns are wonderful places for humor, with such small populations that people really observe each other, the way families do, and have an eye out for characters.

A woman from Bunker, Mo., population 525, put this in perspective for me years ago. She said, “We only have one stop sign, but that’s because we all know where to stop anyway.” There is an advantage to knowing everybody’s families, history and, sometimes, driving habits.

I got a letter awhile back, sent by Earl, an old friend from one of these tiny Ozark places, with a story about his Aunt Hattie. He said that the old lady, now in a rest home in a bigger town, had called to say that she had finally decided after some 40 years to visit the grave of her long dead husband, Oney. Everybody knew Oney hadn’t been much of a husband, and Earl was surprised that the old lady wanted to make the trip. But he picked her up and off they went to find the graveyard, which turned out to be pretty much scattered out, neglected and overgrown.

Earl said Aunt Hattie had brought along a bunch of flowers, but had to use both hands, parting the brush to peer at the almost illegible stones. He said his aunt got hot and exasperated, and after an hour, stood up, put her hands on her hips and said, “To hell with it! He was always out-of-pocket alive, in a one-horse town. What made me think I’d find him just because he’s dead?” Ed said she retrieved the flowers, for herself, got back in the car and “chattered like a squirrel all the way home.”

This was my favorite small-town story until today, when I heard from Brian Barnett, who told me about Gates, Tenn.—a town with one store, a cotton gin and 150 people. Brian said that one of the town boys fell in love with a much older town girl who had already earned herself a bad reputation. Much to the consternation of his dad, the boy had asked the girl to marry him. As Brian told it, he and some friends had stopped by the boy’s house to pick him up for a teenage ramble, when the boy’s dad followed him out on the porch to continue an argument that had begun inside.

“Son,” his father shouted, “that girl has been with every man in Gates.” To which the son shouted back, “Well maybe so! But Dad, Gates ain’t a very big town.”

From November 2003. Mitch Jayne 1928-2010 was a celebrated Ozark author and long-time contributor to Today’s Farmer. We reprint this in his honor.

Mr. Greene Goes to Congress

Written by James Fashing on .

MFA precision agronomy manager speaks out on LightSquared and GPS controversy

Controversy around LightSquared’s bid for wireless spectrum continues to grow with plenty of politics and high-jinx in the mix. But MFA’s Precision Agronomy Manager, Rick Greene, went to Washington D.C. last month in hopes to provide some clear thoughts to Congress about what the deal could mean for agriculture and other industries that have an established use of GPS as a means for increased efficiency. Greene and many others in agriculture worry that the terrestrial-based system LightSquared hopes to employ has potential to disrupt GPS signal, rendering existing GPS equipment ineffective.
Testifying on behalf of the Agricultural Retailers Association, Greene told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small Business that GPS has become integral a wide swath of industries:

Fleet vehicles use GPS for logistical tracking to minimizing fuel consumption. Tractors drive themselves with 1-inch accuracy to minimize overlap. Planters and sprayers turn off individual sections automatically to reduce over-application of inputs. On-the-go sensors detect how much nitrogen a plant requires. River levees are surveyed and corrected in two-thirds the time it takes traditional surveyors. Aerial applicators vary nitrogen rates on the fly to reduce run-off and increase nutrient uptake. Irrigation systems vary water rates by soil characteristics to reduce water waste…and the list goes on. We would not be able to perform any of these efficient management practices without high-accuracy GPS.

Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer with Purdue University did a study back in 2004 on a 1,800-acre model farm and found that a farmer will decrease his hours of operation by 17 percent if he uses high accuracy GPS. This decrease includes fuel, maintenance, labor hours, and inputs like seed, pesticides and fertilizer. Times are changing and the producer needs to be more efficient in order to combat global competition. Bruce Erickson’s, director of cropping systems management with Purdue University, study on Economics and Adoption of Precision Farming Technology. From 2002 commodity prices are up 350 percent, seed prices are up 266 percent and fuel and fertilizer prices are up 270 percent. Efficiency and increased productivity is the key to their survival in this global market.

The GPS industry has close to 1 million high accuracy GPS receivers used in agriculture, construction, survey, oil & gas, utilities and government operations. It will take 10 to 15 years to complete a normal replacement cycle and affects up to $10 billion in equipment. Even if the JAVAD filter (which costs $300 to $800) works, implanting it to the one million receivers will cost $300 to $800 million which doesn’t include additional personnel, installation and down-time. It’s like saying that because Chevy has an all-electric car on the market we can shut down every gas station in the US next year or all analog TVs need to be replaced the day the digital switch was turned on.

Greene concluded by saying, “LightSquared must not be allowed to broadcast their signal in the upper or lower bands of GPS until a feasible and economical solution is found. It is the accuracy of GPS that makes the technology important to agriculture, and farmers should not be expected to live with a disruption in their service as a result of LightSquared’s actions.”
Other points made by Greene during his testimony included:
•    Satellite wireless broadband will not interfere with GPS. LightSquared terrestrial high powered signal in the MSS band will interfere with GPS.
•    The GPS industry needs to have the upper MSS band off the table.
•    High accuracy GPS will be needed if we are going to feed a global economy and preserve the environment.
•    If JAVAD filters work on all GPS, LightSquared should pay for the filters and installation costs.

See related stories here.

Generators on the farm

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Are you ready for the next power outage?

As manager of member services for Boone Electric Cooperative in Columbia, Mo., Chris Rohlfing knows a lot about electricity. Yet recently, when he tried using a portable generator to power an air compressor to fill a flat tire on his combine, he found he had more to learn.

“I took my 1,500-watt generator out in the field to start up a 400-watt air compressor, thinking I had plenty of power,” said Rohlfing, who grows corn and soybeans in his spare time. “But the generator didn’t supply enough power to start up the compressor.”

The experience left him a bit, well, deflated. He learned the hard way that you often need much more power to start up an electric motor than to run it. A refrigerator, for example, may take 600


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