Driving County Roads

An on line journal sharing my views. The content reflects my background as a rural person employed in agriculture and as a retired elected official of local government.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The buzz in the ag community is that we are running out of corn. Some of the fuel for this talk is the price increase this fall. It just does not happen very often to see the price of corn increase – especially during harvest time. If you believe in the law of supply and demand, it is reasonable to think the supply is low and that is leading to the higher prices. Some of this is fueled by emotion because there was a drought in parts of the corn belt and the harvest was delayed in other areas. Again, the buzz is that so much corn is going into ethanol that other uses are being shorted. Information from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association says something different.
They have a very graphic diagram that shows Minnesota’s corn production from 1991 to 1995. In those years we produced 685 million bushels. 50% of that production was exported out of the state; 33% was fed to livestock; 11% was processed in Minnesota for uses other than ethanol (primarily high fructose corn sweetener); AND 2% was processed into ethanol.
A companion graphic shows Minnesota’s corn production from 2001-2005. During that time period Minnesota produced 1.03 billion bushels of corn. Again, 50% of that production was exported out of the state; 22% was fed to livestock; 7% was processed in Minnesota for uses other than ethanol; AND 14% was processed into ethanol. Yes, we are using more corn for ethanol; but our production has increased so much that we are still needing to look for markets outside the state for 50% of our crop. (Note: the percentages do not add up to 100% and the graphic makes no explanation for this.) end

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Amberfield Update

David Anderson, one of Nicollet County's representatives on the Multi County HRA (Housing and Redevelopment Authority)Board appeared before the Nicollet County Board of Commissioners today. He reported on the activities of the HRA and specifically gave information about the Amberfield Housing projects. Anderson said, "the HRA continues to serve its purpose." (i.e. providing housing opportunities in the seven counties represented). He said that the board is looking at the capital improvement projects that will be needed in the next few years. Great Lakes Management provides management for the Amberfield Apartments. They provide information to the board regarding monthly finances and any on going repair issues. Great Lakes will be hiring a consulting firm with expertise in building construction to help plan for future capital improvement projects. Anderson said that as of now occupancy rates are down (in the 89% range) from a previous high last February of between 90-95%. They are doing some aggressive advertising to help fill the vacant units. Nicollet County has three apartment units: two in Courtland and one in Lafayette. end

Friday, November 17, 2006


This was the title of a conference sponsored by the Minnesota Environmental Initiative. The main subject of the conference was the cellulosic process for making ethanol. The Environmental Initiative looks at sustainable processes and making ethanol from corn is probably not the most sustainable process. Right now, we are making ethanol from corn because it is cheaper to make ethanol from corn. When or if the price of corn gets to the point where it is not competitive other raw products will be used.
Minnesota is enjoying being a leader in the ethanol industry. And we must remember that it is still a relatively young industry. For example, Commissioner of Agriculture for the state of Minnesota, Gene Hugoson said, “within two years, all of our plants will have the capability to derive their fuel from within the plant.” (Presently only one plant has this capability.) He also said that each new plant that comes on line would use less water.
The ultimate goal is to move the industry toward lower carbon utilization. And in the words of Bill Lee of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, “a corn ethanol plant powered by bio-fuel can be almost as good and sustainable and use less carbon.” Right now, most of the ethanol plants are located in the Corn Belt; but when we change to cellulose (which is available in many states); the industry will not be so centralized.
Maurice Hladik of Iogen Corporation based in Ottawa, Canada provided the most information on how to produce ethanol out of cellulose. His company is in the process of building an ethanol plant in southeastern Idaho that will use cellulose as the raw product. They are one year from putting the shovel in the ground and then 18months after that is the expected start date. The company chose this location in Idaho because the land is irrigated using water that melts from mountain snows. The farms are large and they have never had a crop failure. Wheat and barley are the crops raised and the farmers have no use for the straw. The company has farmers contracted and will pay them $15 per ton of straw in the windrow. The land purchased for the plant has water rights with it and access to the aquifer, which is replenished by mountain moisture.
This type of plant is at a disadvantage because it costs more to build. The cost of the final product is estimated to be $1.50 per gallon but they are shooting for $1.00. The first plants on line always have higher costs associated with them. But the process is more efficient and the result is more ethanol from the raw product. The inputs for the plant include water, the use of which is comparable to a plant using corn as the raw product. The plant will produce its own power. The final product is no different than ethanol made from corn. Hladik commented that this process can be used any place there is residue and he said, “Minnesota is the Saudi Arabia of residue.” Gene Hugoson mentioned there is the opportunity for residue from our timber industry to be used in making ethanol. This new process could change the marketplace for ethanol. At the present time, the product must be trucked to areas where demand is high. The next generation of plants could possibly be located closer to large centers of population where it would be used. end

Friday, November 10, 2006


An analogy could be made that a county ditch is just like a county road that carries a different form of traffic. Recently I spent a couple of hours with Brown/Nicollet/ Cottonwood Clean Water Partnership (BNCPWC) staff walking along County Ditch 13A in Oshawa township. Yes, ditches are similar to roads except in the area of ownership. County roads are owned by the county; county ditches are owned by the landowners along the ditch that benefit from the ditch being there. The roads in the county carry cars and trucks; the ditches carry mostly water. Ditches were built for the purpose of draining land so it would become more productive. They were built well and they do a good job of removing water from the landscape - but the water that moves through the ditches sometimes carries “unwanted passengers” in the form of sediment, phosphorus, and bacteria. These unwanted passengers have received a lot of attention since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
County Ditch 13a is located in the confines of the 7 Mile Creek Watershed. This watershed has received a lot of attention because the creek is located in the Nicollet County Park and it is a designated trout stream. The clean water partnership has received grant money to monitor water quality and put practices in place that will reduce the sediment entering the Minnesota River at the mouth of the creek. Tests have shown that 5,000 tons of sediment enters the Minnesota River each year from this watershed. One of the unique efforts happening in the watershed is an on the ground inspection of the ditches. Kevin Kuehner, Water Quality Specialist with BNCPWC explained the work they are doing.
Walking along the sides, a survey is taken of the ditch and the side tile outlets entering. Observations are entered into a hand held computer that records information about the ditch. As we walked along the ditch, each tile out letting into the ditch bank was given a number and was “pointed” or located using global positioning system (GPS). A photo is taken and a rating is given to the tile outlet. For example it could be clay or concrete or corrugated metal pipe. The outlet is measured for size and rated as to condition i.e. poor, medium, excellent (3-2-1). Other notes are taken to indicate if there has been undercutting near the outlet. Undercutting is when the soil has moved away from the outlet because of the connection becoming disconnected from the field tile or it could happen because there is just too much water surging through the outlet. The undercutting – if left unrepaired, could result in the ditch bank falling away and the possibility of a blow out occurring.Undercutting could lead to a large gulley being formed in the bank of the ditch. This leads to deposits of soil in the bottom of the ditch and means slowing down the flow of the water and eventually a need to clean the ditch.
The outlet is also given a rating for the potential to deliver sediment to the waterway. Kuehner looks for sediment in the bottom of the pipe and checks to see if sediment is built up in the ditch channel at the end of the pipe. At one site, a pile of dirt about four feet high was resting in the main channel and grass was growing there. (This is a strong indication that there is significant soil loss from the field being drained.) Other structures recorded are drop structures. These are devices put into low areas where the water collects and they slow down the water as it enters the tile or the ditch. Most of these have little or no buffer around them and are points where soil can enter the system. These are also given a sediment delivery rating. The data collected is then plotted onto maps and landowners as well as soil technicians have a tool to use to find the most likely spots to put some erosion control practices on the ground.
The drainage authority is charged under Mn. Statute 103E to incorporate a comprehensive assessment of the environmental aspects of any proposed project. Does this directive also cover repairs to drainage systems?The ditch assessment described above is a wonderful tool to help landowners make some changes that could mean decreased costs for repairs. All of these measures come into play because our society has placed a high value on clean water. But this value comes with a cost. Where does the responsibility lie? With the landowner? With the local, state, or federal government? Or with all of us? The assessments and the conservation practices needed are upfront costs. They could save money in the long run. Who should pay these costs? End.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


A typical reaction of ag related people like myself to Judi Dutcher’s lack of knowledge about E-85 would be, "Boy, I’m sure not voting for her!" In reality, perhaps we should be giving her our vote as a reward for creating all of the buzz. Because of the gaffe on her part, every news report is headlined with the explanation of what ethanol is and a definition of E-85 fuel. Her naiveté has resulted in more publicity on E-85 and ethanol than any of the renewable fuels groups could possibly afford to buy. A public relations person could not have planned it any better. Dutcher’s lack of knowledge is typical of many citizens of Minnesota and before we can go down the road to energy sustainability, we all have to learn about the various alternatives and what they can do for us. From one Judy to another, "Thanks Judi." end

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


We all have had enough of the rhetoric, negative ads, and constant supply of trash in our mailboxes. My finger is getting a callus from hitting the mute button during all those commericals. This is one time I wish I lived in town so I could tune into the local cable channel and enjoy commercial free viewing. (I do watch public television quite a bit and have a respite from the junk.)
As much as we like to complain, we should be glad that we have the freedom of speech and the freedom to have open elections. Let’s be sure to show everyone how we are blessed with freedoms by going to the polls and casting our ballots on Tuesday. I hope I see you there and remember to wear the red "I voted" sticker all day. end