Turbine Envy

Minnesota Wind Turbines in Winter

Wind blows when and where it wants. That’s annoying when you’re sailing. It really becomes a problem when you’re trying to convert wind energy to useful power. You see, the wind is here on the Buffalo Ridge of Southwest Minnesota.  You people reading this live everywhere else.

Southwest Minnesota has been at the forefront of renewable energy development for some time—corn-based ethanol, soy biodiesel, and wind energy conversion systems.  The BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota wrote this into their long-range plan for the Life Sciences industry in the state and the Worthington BioScience Conference picked up on the theme this year.

Jay Allsup, Pinnacle Engineering, Maple Grove, MN, spoke in a breakout session on wind and solar power.  The existing electrical utility system was built to send power OUT to rural communities.  Now rural communities are trying to send wind power back up the grid, and it works about as well as stuffing toothpaste back in the tube.  The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO) tries to make it work but the system is complicated.  Instead of sitting and waiting for needed reforms, Allsup worked on a project to put new wind turbines (windmills to us old-school technologists) into the spots where the regional electrical grid has room for new capacity.  Plug in where the system can handle the load.

Another way to tackle the distribution problem is to not play the distribution game.  Dan Juhl, a long-time wind developer from Woodstock, MN, champions small wind projects and Community Based Energy Development (CBED).  Instead of moving electricity, move towards distributed generation facilities—build more smaller turbines closer to where we in the region use power.  Juhl cited many sound technical disadvantages of the larger turbines common in Europe, in addition to many sound economic advantages to smaller turbines on family farms across rural Minnesota.  The insatiable urge to build bigger, larger, taller systems will not necessarily provide more efficient, effective or affordable energy.  Sometimes a bigger turbine is just a bigger turbine.

Other advances in technology are also looking promising to firm-up power supplies from renewable sources.  For example, the wind tends to stop blowing when the sun comes out, so some pretty smart folks are working on demonstration-scale solar power and fuel cell backup to smooth out the electrical peaks and valleys.  There are of course other issues that need to be hashed out with the technology, fair regulatory provisions to protect adjacent property owners, and more effective state and federal tax policy, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed if we really wanted.

A balanced approach, of course, is more likely to meet our long term energy needs.  Industrial-scale distribution lines across our rural landscape will be, unfortunately, necessary to meet our nation’s need for electrical power.  Industrial-scale wind energy conversion systems—acres and acres of turbines on farm and field—will be increasingly necessary as an essential compliment to coal-fired and nuclear power generation.  And small-scale, individual distributed generation facilities will be increasingly important sources of redundant (back-up) and peak-hour energy.

(Cross-posted at JCShepard.com).

Bioscience Conference

 bioscience 09 logo

Worthington Regional Economic Development Corporation‘s 5th annual bio-sciences conference will be held 2-3 April, 2009, on the Minnesota West campus. Worthington, Minnesota, is home to a number of firms working in animal health and bio-sciences. This year, Southwest Regional Development Commission, is a co-sponsor of the conference as well.

On Thursday, the conference features 2 tracks on Renewable Energy—wind & solar, bio-fuel, bio-mass feed stocks—and Animal Health (impacts of antibiotics on livestock production). Sessions will feature speakers from the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, universities, energy developers, veterinarians, and others involved and interested in the industry.

The keynote speaker Friday morning is G. Steven Burrill, CEO of San Francisco, CA, based life sciences firm Burill & Company. The conference will close with a speech by Minnesota’s Will Steger, Arctic Explorer and global warming advocate, after presentations by the Worthington Middle School Science Club.


(cross-posted from new blog site for jcshepard.com )

Goose River flooding

I remember putting on my rubber barn boots & grabbing a shovel, heading down by the banks of the Goose River between Mayville and Portland, right there on North Dakota Highway 200 by the park.

Goose River flooding homes in Mayville, ND

Several homes and businesses have taken on water in Mayville as the Goose River spills out of its banks, according to the Traill County Sheriff’s Office.
Capt. Steve Hunt said the flooding began late morning and early afternoon Tuesday along Highway 200 at the bottom of a hill in Mayville.
The flooded buildings included a city shop, three businesses and four homes, he said.
“At least two of them have a foot of water on the main floor,” he said.
The city planned to shore up sandbags around its water plant, he said. 

Mike Nowatzki, Forum report  3/25/09 Forum newsroom
Posted by: floodblogger on 3/25/2009 at 8:59 AM |

The situation in the Red River Valley this year is a flash-back to 1997, when a late ice-storm slowed down the snowmelt saving Fargo from the Flood of the Century and dooming Grand Forks.  The Forum is reporting today:

About 3 inches of snow had fallen by 7 a.m. in the metro area, and the National Weather Service predicts 5 to 8 inches total from Fargo north to Grand Forks before the storm diminishes this evening.

I’m following flood info & river levels on Twitter, too.  Not much I can do from 200 miles away, but maybe it will put those old memories in perspective.  Be prepared out there.

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Edit: Steve Gunderson has posted a great photo album from the Goose River flooding at Mayville-Portland on his home page.  The photo below is a greenhouse we helped get going when I worked for Traill County.  The owner is a great guy, but maybe I should have worked harder with him to find a safer location.  Shoulda, coulda, woulda….

Kost Hydroponics, Mayville, ND, Flood 2009

Kost Hydroponics, Mayville, ND, Flood 2009

When is a Farm a Farm?

Exploring Alternative Farm Definitions

We all know what a farm is.  A small white cottage with a big red barn out back, one or two silos and grain bins, cows & horses grazing contentedly in a fenced pasture.  Maybe a chicken coop, hog wallow and a machine shed.

That was my grandpa’s farm 50 years ago and it looks alot different today.  In the 21st Center, when exactly is a Farm a FARM?  How many chickens have to be in that coop?  How many cows in the barn?  How about the over-sized vegetable garden supplying the Farmer’s Market in town?  Or the place gone dormant with the fields resting in CRP?  Does a 4-H or Scout project count if it sells well at the County Fair? 

It’s a complicated question, as discussed (here, here, here and here) when we looked at the US Dept of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture returns.  Currently, USDA considers a farm as any place with $1,000 in sales, or the potential for $1,000 in sales.  This is more than an academic question, as our understanding of many issues in the rural economy depend on how we define our units.

The Economic Research Service at USDA released a report today, Exploring Alternative Farm Definitions, that looks at how we classify agricultural operations for ag statistics and programs.

Meeting agricultural policy and statistical goals requires a definition of U.S. agriculture’s basic unit, the farm. However, these goals can be at odds with one another. USDA defines “farm” very broadly to comprehensively measure agricultural activity. Consequently, most establishments classifi ed as farms in the United States produce very little, while most production occurs on a small number of much larger operations. While desirable for obtaining comprehensive national coverage, measurement and analysis based on the current definition can provide misleading characterizations of farms and farm structure in the United States. Additionally, more stringent requirements have been proposed for farms to qualify for Federal agricultural program benefits. This analysis outlines the structure of U.S. farms, discusses the current farm definition, evaluates several potential criteria that have been proposed to defi ne target farms more precisely, and examines how these criteria affect both statistical coverage and program eligibility.

: Agricultural statistics, Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), farm businesses, farm definition, program eligibility

Politicians, ag economists and other interested parties are unlikely to agree on a single “best” defnition of farm, rural, or economy.  I try to take all of their numbers with a degree of skepticism.  Sometimes it’s just as important to understand the data behind the data—to know the metadata—as it is to understand the meaning of the data itself.

Census of Agriculture in Southwest Minnesota

Census Ag SRDC Presentation

Census of Ag SRDC Presentation

  • The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducts the Census of Agriculture every five years.
    • “The Census looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures, and many other areas.”  USDA defines a “farm” as any operation with $1,000 or more of agricultural production.”

  •  There were 8,333 farms in SW MN in 2007, up 2.8% from 2002.
  • 61% of farms in SW MN (5,124) harvested corn in 2007;
    58% harvested soybeans.
  • 26% of farms in SW MN (2,203) had Cattle in inventory in 2007
    11% had hogs, 4% sheep.
  • An average farm in Minnesota was 332 acres in 2007.
  • Median Farm in Minnesota was 148 acres in 2007.
  • 10% of farms in SW MN were >1,000 acres in 2007.
  • Almost half of farms in SW MN reported sales over $100k in 2007.
  • 15% of farms in SW MN had >$500k sales in 2007.
  • Average farm in SW MN realized ~$280,000 for Production, ~$211,000 Expenses in 2007.
  • ¾ of all Americans use the Internet; 2/3 of farms in SW MN.


(Trying out loading a PowerPoint presentation into WordPress.)

Market Value of Ag Production

SW MN Market Value of Production Per Farm 2007

Agriculture is naturally a risky business.  Americans have chosen to hedge some of that risk through federal farm programs to ensure a reliable supply of food and ag products.  If you can’t eat, the rest doesn’t much matter.

The President’s first budget released last week has received a bit of press for changes to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs previously agreed to as part of last year’s farm bill.  Specifically, BHO proposed to cut off direct payments to commodity growers with sales over $500,000, as well as other reductions in subsidies and promotions.  This could affect over 6,400 farms in Minnesota alone.

Now, I’m generally all in favor of cutting federal spending.  In this case, I’m not sure the proposal is any better than the system in place.

You might think, “Well, anybody pulling in half-a-million a year doesn’t need a handout” and I would be inclined to agree.  However, this is bad math.  That $500k is a gross figure, as I understand it.  Looking at the US Census of Agriculture for 2007, an average farm in Southwest Minnesota would have realized about $282,000 for the market value of the production of crops and livestock, and about $211,000 in production expenses.  That leaves about $70,000 net to support a family, plus typically cash income for off-farm work in many families if only for health insurance.  Not bad in a rural community if I’m doing my math right, and (with economies of scale) double that figure shouldn’t have any need for subsidies.

Unfortunately, life is more complicated than that.  Many farm operations are partnerships supporting multiple generations.  Many farms have hired help—young guys and gals in school or just starting out, or immigrants working the fields and herds.  So start divying that number into smaller and smaller chunks and see how far that goes?  Even so, that number is also a calculated average (that given my grades in statistics class I hesitate to even publish).  This sort of muddled mandate seems likely to push family operations apart to meet some bureaucrat’s unilateral limit rather than create the type of partnerships to be most competitive in a changing economy.

Lincoln County, Minnesota, is a small county by population and acreage, with more what and less higher-margin corn.  In 2007, the 784 farms in Lincoln County calculated out with the lowest margin between sales and market value of production, below a state-wide average ~$35,000.  Yet there were still 77 operations with over $500,000 in sales in the County that year.

Like much of life, some enterprises do well and others not so well.  Agricultural assistance is intended to insulate the profession of farming on the “not so well” years so we have food at the grocery.  Is the system perfect?  Oh heck, no.  Nickel-and-dime hacks won’t necessarily make it any better and the law of unintended consequenses virtually assures ill-thought changes will make things worse.

SW MN Farm Size Pt II

Source: US Census of Agriculture

There are over 8,000 farms in the nine counties of Region 8 in Southwest Minnesota.  Measured by acreage, the largest cohort of farms in the state is 50-179 acres, while the largest group in our region is 180-499 acres.

Measured by the market value of production, Southwest Minnesota has generally fewer of the very small farms—what the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) terms Limited Resource or Lifestyle farms with low gross sales and an operater engaged in another primary occupation.  The ERS typology then splits farms where the operator is primarily engaged in farming into those with sales over or under $100,000 a year.  Almost half of farms in Southwest Minnesota reported sales over $100k in 2007.

This profile varies some across the region.  For example, Lincoln County farmers report lower gross sales; in fact, there were more farms with sales below $1,000 than above $100,000.  This is the norm statewide but unique in the region.  Lincoln County grows the most wheat and least corn and soybeans in the region.  Another factor may be that Lincoln County has a large percentage of population of retirement age which may affect returns.  By contrast, almost 25% of farms in Rock County had sales over $500,000 compared to 8% statewide.  Rock County relies most heavily on livestock production in the region. 

I’m sure other aspects come into play with our agricultural economy.  It will be interesting to see what the numbers have yet to say.

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