It’s Time to Rebuild: Farmland as Critical Infrastructure

August 20, 2019 |

By Michael A. Fatigati, Senior Consultant, Vantaggio Renewables

Special to The Digest

Preface:  The term ‘infrastructure’ recalls images of roads, highways, bridges, dams, power plants, trains, various modes of shipping, navigable waterways, and airports. This infrastructure has, in some cases, been funded via private, profit-making sources or, in other cases, via public budgetary means. Because it can be viewed as fundamental to ensure the efficient and sustained growth of the national economy, long-term maintenance and operation of infrastructure falls to federal and state budgetary activities through a system of regulation and tax policies including taxes, tax credits and incentive payments.

We believe that one of our nation’s important natural resources, while protected in some ways, is being neglected to our peril and should be re-classified as infrastructure. This segment of infrastructure supplies 95% of the food requirements of our nation. This segment is the farmland of our nation.

The approach we recommend will address this problem and will have broad appeal to political, environmental, industrial, and international stakeholders with interests in the following areas:

  • Infrastructure development;
  • Climate change and carbon sequestration;
  • Job growth and creation; and,
  • Sustainable food supply.

Problem Statement:  Farming techniques have advanced with time, increasing its areal production efficiency. However, intensive industrial farming, necessary to meet the food needs of growing populations, stresses the soil, breaking down its rich organic and inorganic mix of nutrients, undermining its structure, reducing its ability to retain valuable rain water, and preventing air from reaching the plant roots below. Use of chemical fertilizers and modified farming techniques represent some successful attempts to ‘patch’ around this deterioration to eek out productivity, without actually addressing the fundamental degradation of the soil itself.

In 2017, the UN reported that all the world’s topsoil could be gone in 60 years. The same report states that it takes 1000 years to naturally produce just 3 centimeters of topsoil.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, about a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded. The abundance of our nation’s farms depends upon the productivity of its farmlands, which some have rightly called the breadbasket of the world.

Our nation’s farmlands represent critical infrastructure which are deserving of similar attention for its maintenance and rebuilding to ensure continuing productivity for future generations. These stressed soils, while still prolific due to addition of synthetic and natural macronutrients, are suffering deterioration from intensive, industrial farming and the episodic rampages of nature. Throughout the Midwest, these soils, once rich with organic carbon, are degrading into “hardpan”, a notoriously unproductive soil found in much of the Southwest. Efforts are under way to uncover alternative crops that would potentially assert less pressure on the soil, thereby allowing it, over time, to recover its past vigor. These efforts tend to be rather high-tech (ie, high-risk) in their approach and, though presumably viable, will be expensive and will likely require a challenging change in both our nation’s culture and its eating habits.

Solution:  Restoration of organic carbon, structure, micronutrients and water-holding capacity to the soil would enable the continuing use of these lands for industrial farming. This national resource should be rebuilt and renovated to ensure future generations of access to its profundity. The formation of a new national infrastructure project, which supports the rebuilding of our critical soil resource, will support continued industrial farming at an intensity necessary to meet the food requirements of this country and much of the world.

Approach: The approach, described here, marries a low-tech method of reinvigorating soils with an expansion of infrastructure policy at the Federal level and with Federal funding support. The intention is to eliminate the profit incentive necessary for private investment in new industry and kick-start the rehabilitation and rebuilding of farmland soils with the widespread cooperation of our nation’s farmers.

The incorporation of charcoal into poor soils has been investigated around the world as a viable method to rebuild soil structure and restore valuable micronutrients and structure necessary for productive farming.  Its use in primitive cultures (e.g. “Terra preta de Indio”) at varying scale to maintain the profundity of arable land has been researched and documented.  Proof for the advantage of this approach can be seen in the unexpected legacy of slash and burn techniques used in the Amazon by pre-historical cultures. The resulting soils are today demonstrably more fertile than those surrounding soils that did not benefit from incorporation of charcoal from burn sites.

Bio-char, which is charcoal used as a soil amendment, may be made from biomass via pyrolysis: an anoxic, high-temperature (>400ºC) process. Attempts have been made by technologists and private equity to create a viable industry by the production and sale of bio-char into home garden and specialty markets, but these efforts are small-scale and suffer from poor economies and, thus, are lacking interest from private equity necessary for meaningful expansion. Small-scale production of bio-char production results in a cost of final product greater than $2,000/ton; limiting sale to home and specialty users via retail channels.  It is reasonable to expect that bio-char production at a scale sufficiently large enough to supply this nation’s farmlands would benefit from economies of scale, greatly reducing associated costs of production while benefiting overall farm production.

In this proposal, the federal government, under a new program of infrastructure to improve/enhance the nation’s soil resources, would fund the distributed production of bio-char using the many and varied biomass residue feedstocks available throughout the country. These biomass resources have been well-defined in what has become known as the “Billion-Ton Report” produced by the U.S. Department of Energy. The “Billion-Ton” report quantifies the availability of annual supplies of biomass from urban, rural and forest contexts in accordance with Congressional directives to increase the production of fuel from this country’s renewable resources.

It is an unfortunate reality that decades-long efforts to develop suitable technology necessary to increase the production of renewable fuels from biomass have not yet resulted in significant large-scale success. It is understood that renewable fuels, even when produced at aspirational levels anticipated by the Billion-Ton report will supply a fraction of national fuel needs. One wonders then, at the apparent year-after-year waste of national biomass resources when these same biomass resources can be put to almost immediate use in rebuilding the soil infrastructure.

Production of bio-char is a well-understood technology with >150 purveyors of bio-char and commercial-scale production systems. Development of bio-char production facilities, distributed about the country, could make use of the national biomass resources identified by the Billion-Ton report in a continuing program of bio-char production for distribution to farmlands for incorporation into soil by farmers.  Bio-char produced in urban, rural and forestry contexts would be collected and aggregated in more centralized distribution locations for transport to locations in agriculture where it can best be used to reincorporate carbon, rebuild soil structure and return micronutrients (in addition to the macro-nutrients N, P, K, these would include B, Cu, Fe, Ni, Mn, Zn and Cl) for ongoing use.

The farming community is already aware of soil degradation and is keen to utilize new methods that can preserve their industry and way of life. Their acceptance of a program for bio-char incorporation is key to the success of the program. To achieve the cooperation of the farming community/industry to engage in a purchase bio-char for incorporation, a system of tax credits should be developed. This system would be tied to minimum incorporation requirements to help ensure that averages usage rates are enough to ensure re-construction of soil structure within a given multi-year timeframe. The promotion and practice of reliable and dependable incorporation of bio-char into soil over time as a maintenance and rehabilitation program thus helps to ensure the continuing productivity of our national soil bank.

The national soil bank is represented by about 4 million square kilometers (9.9E8 acres). A focus on stressed land now dedicated to industrial corn farming reduces the scope of the program to about 89 million acres for treatment with bio-char. At a conceptual level, annual incorporation rate of one (“1”) ton biochar/acre, the resulting demand for bio-char (89 million tons per year) is well within the feedstock availability as identified in the Billion-Ton report and can be used without endangering supplies to the still-nascent biofuels industry. Doubling or tripling this rate will not conceivably present an adverse impact to the embryonic biofuels industry for quite some time.

Initial Steps: The following are recommended, in no specific order, as initial steps toward development and implementation of this new program:

  1. (1) An actual biochar incorporation rate must be determined as a first step to developing national policy. It is important to note that not all bio-chars provide equal benefit. For example, bio-char made from manures or other bio-solids is higher in overall nutrients than bio-char made from wood cuttings. However, the bio-char made from wood cuttings may remain longer in the soil.
  2. (2) Cost/benefit analysis (LCA) of the approach, including an emphasis on its environmental impact.
  3. (3) A determination of regional desired benefits would determine which nearby biomass resources would best be utilized for bio-char production.
  4. (4) This program can be kick-started via Executive Order or through Congressional Directive but must first be given form and substance by the U.S. Department of Energy working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  5. (5) State and Federal sponsors of the program should be immediately be identified to provide critical momentum and develop buy-in toward implementation.
  6. (6) Development of a comprehensive program implementation timetable which includes the requisite support studies for underlying data development.
  7. (7) Development of Federal budgets for support of the program, tax policy, and requisite regulation for the production and large-scale use of bio-char.
  8. (8) In a manner which emulates the French national commitment to nuclear power production via selection of a single technology and technology supplier, a bio-char technology can be selected for implementation
  9. (9) A best-efforts study of potential implementation sites around the country.
  10. (10) Engagement of engineering and project development teams to support the engineering, construction and operation of a system of distributed, large-scale, bio-char production facilities (including transportation and distribution systems development).

This effort would require collaboration between several departments and agencies within the federal government. Consider that past research clearly identifies the benefits of biochar use and discusses proposed high-level cost models supporting its use. The missing piece connecting that body of research and actual working facilities is glaring. Those in project development would immediately see the gap, easily identifying next steps toward a “shovel-ready” project. Many of these steps could fall under the purview of the government. Examples of the roles that federal departments might play in this program are:

  1. (1) Deployment of project development teams to GIS identified strategic locales to secure and development sites. One can imagine an ‘army’ of DOE-coordinated project development teams (each with 3-4 projects under their purview) to “go forth and conquer”;
  2. (2) Oversee the coordination of the RIN program to encourage use of the process condensibles (ie, bio-oil) as a feed to refineries for renewable fuel content;
  3. (3) Involvement by Treasure to develop funding and investment strategies to move project development towards construction and operation;
  4. (4) Management of engineering and execution assets for plant construction; and, of course, Oversight of operation, presumably by private O&M companies for a fee.

DOE, USDA with the Forestry Service, EPA, Treasury, and IRS are necessary and critical collaborators in this scheme, particularly to incentivize and compel usage by farmers. IRS will be involved to help develop tax policy to encourage and support use in the fields. EPA’s involved in site permitting is naturally assumed. It would be interesting to see how EPA would balance the potential for mitigation of criteria pollutants (ie, CO2) against the opportunity to sequester carbon.

Other Benefits:  In addition to rebuilding and maintaining our nation’s soil infrastructure, thus preserving and expanding its ability to feed its citizens, this program provides society direct and indirect benefits, including the creation of new jobs; particularly in rural areas that are in need.

Bio-char can provide a suitable habitat for microorganisms, protecting them from predation and drying while providing them with energy and other nutrients.  The Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center (Lal, et.al, 2016) reports that incorporation of bio-char increases crop yield by stimulating the activity of important soil microorganisms.

The program would also greatly contribute environmental benefits by reducing levels of atmospheric carbon. Bio-char from biomass is a stable form of carbon. Its incorporation into soil can sequester carbon which can then, in turn, greatly promote significantly more and deeper plant root, serving to sequester even more carbon.

Since becoming a part of this industry in 1994, I have witnessed incremental, yet achingly slow, progress towards using our vast biomass resources in the production of bio-derived energy, fuels, and chemicals to stave of the peril of anthropogenic climate change. Billions of public and private dollars have been invested in technology developments that have yielded less-than-expected results. The “goal posts” of renewable fuels production, manifest by the predicted growth curve of expensive bio-derived fuels, have moved forward as market uncertainties and pricing variations in the petroleum supply demoralize potential investors. Re-focusing our efforts on the re-vitalization of our soil resources can greatly and, perhaps more swiftly, advance the widely accepted national and global goals of reducing overall carbon utilization.

Michael A. Fatigati, Senior Consultant, Vantaggio Renewables

cell:  949-201-9252

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