Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Starting in late July, a sea of dedicated Ohio youth clad in plaid shirts, jeans and shiny belt buckles congregated in Columbus for the Ohio State Fair, the pinnacle of livestock shows in the state. They arrived toting meticulously groomed and cared for market livestock of every kind — from goats to beef cattle.

Many of these young people have been perfecting their showmanship skills since they could carry a show stick and have spent months painstakingly working with their animals. They go to great lengths to make sure every hair is in place and every comfort is provided to maximize the animal’s performance.

Once they get to the fair, the animals are cleaned to a show ring sheen and clipped to eye-appealing perfection. When the show arrives, the young exhibitors toil in the sweltering heat to present their animals to the discerning eye of the judge.

After the champion has been chosen and the ribbons awarded, tears are shed as the animal and exhibitor part after spending countless hours together in preparation for this event. Then the exhibitors dry their tears and begin planning to do it all over again for the next Ohio State Fair. Why? They love working with animals and providing a source of high quality food for consumers.

As they grow up, the most dedicated and gifted of this elite group may attend college to further develop their passion for working with livestock. Of this group, the best of the best may have the chance to return to family farms or set off on their own to raise livestock as a profession. Professional athletes make up around 1.3 percent of the U.S. population, 2 percent of the U.S. population farms.

To play the game of production livestock, even for these gifted few, is a daunting challenge. There is a tremendous initial investment for an extremely risky business venture that, if all goes well, promises only modest returns. Yet these dedicated few farmers continue to toil every day with their animals. Why? They love working with animals and providing a source of high quality food for consumers.

This small, gifted group of people have worked with, shed tears over, groomed, cared for and loved animals since the time they could walk. That is why they chose animal agriculture as a profession.

Now, put yourself in their shoes when an activist group from out of state, run by people who cannot tell the difference between a show stick and a feed trough, comes to Ohio to tell livestock producers how to run their businesses. That is exactly what happened this summer when the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced their plan to put an issue on the November ballot to implement restrictive measures on animal agriculture. This ended in late June when HSUS announced that they would not pursue a ballot measure after an agreement was struck with Ohio agricultural leaders and Governor Ted Strickland.

This agreement is a list of recommendations that the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board (put into place last fall with the passage of Issue 2) will consider as they formulate the animal care rules for the state. Both sides of this contentious issue say they can live with the agreement, but it still does not necessarily sit well with some in the livestock industry.

“The reality is that those of us in the livestock business have been very independent for a lot of years. That makes it tough when other people start telling us we have to do things differently,” said Jeff Harding, vice president of livestock marketing for United Producers, Inc. “The whole issue of livestock handling and care does not have a simple solution for everyone involved. This agreement hopefully allows for viable solutions and adjustments to be found based on science. It is not perfect, but I think it is something we can live with.”

This year, despite the ongoing debate about the agreement, things will go on as usual at the Ohio State Fair. Hard work, sweat, ribbons, and tears will all be present and the future of animal agriculture will put on another great show. They will keep meticulously caring for their animals each year. And maybe, one day, the best of the best will put their years of love and expertise to work to provide your food for a living, if we let them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The images from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are fueling the fires of outrage around the world. One look at the floundering wildlife mired in a black sheen, empty boats symbolizing a docked fishing industry and the grim faces of those in the coastal tourism business paints a bleak picture of our current and future domestic energy supply that is so heavily dependant on oil.

But no matter how upset you are by these terrible images and the extensive long term ecological damage that will result from this massive disaster, one fact remains: as we move forward, we are going to need more energy. The day when America wakes up to find that it no longer needs any oil is not coming any time soon, and in the meantime we need to seek out new and less disaster-ridden energy alternatives.

Congress is gearing up vigorous discussion of a new energy bill and at the same time, the Ohio Corn Growers Association (OCGA) is asking, “Why not more ethanol?”

“Corn growers believe a strong commitment to domestic energy production can supply the nation’s thirst for dependable, safe and abundant energy. The country already has one dependable and safe energy product that will help us reach the nation’s domestic energy goals. Ethanol is here, ethanol is now and ethanol is part of our future,” said Dwayne Siekman, CEO of OCGA. “We want everybody to realize the economic benefits of ethanol. There is nothing else in the agricultural industry that rivals the economic potential. There is an economic benefit to consumers. I have been buying E85 for 60 cents below unleaded for about 3 months now.”

The cost of ethanol makes it very attractive for fuel blenders to use increased amounts with unleaded gasoline, but they are limited to a 10% ethanol blend under current regulations. The ethanol industry is pushing for the U.S. EPA to raise the limit to 15%.

“Increasing the limit to 15% is reasonable. This will create jobs, it will expand the industry and it will help agriculture. It will do a lot of good things – less dependence on foreign sources for our energy needs, it’s better for our environment -- there’s no down side to this. I have no idea why we wouldn’t move in this direction and agriculture is up to the challenge,” said Governor Ted Strickland, who sent a letter to the EPA encouraging a decision to raise the limit for ethanol blending. “It’s a value added product. In the past, before we had these ethanol facilities, Ohio corn was sent out of the state to some other community that benefited from taking it and adding value to it by making ethanol. Now we’re doing that right here in Ohio and that is good news. I would like to see it expand.”

In addition, legislation is before Congress to continue a much-needed incentive, called VEETC, a 45-cents-per-gallon tax credit for fueling stations to blend ethanol with gasoline. There is also a new energy bill on the horizon, making it an important and critical time to highlight ethanol’s many environmental and economic benefits to our country and the state of Ohio.

Ethanol production has grown dramatically more efficient in the past few years, and is considered “energy positive.” Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that for every unit of energy required to make ethanol, 2.3 units of energy are produced.

In addition, according to a University of Nebraska report last year, ethanol directly emits an average of 51 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline, as much as three times the reduction reported in earlier research, thanks to recent improvements in efficiency throughout the production process.

As the upsetting images of suffering from the Gulf continue to flash across our television screens, the extensive baggage of our dependence on oil will be at the forefront of public debate on the street corner to the highest levels of our government. And, hopefully, so will ethanol -- an alternative fuel that looks pretty good compared to the alternative.