AMES, Iowa--Top Iowa State University and ISU Extension officials, along with Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and some 150 Iowans came together April 10 as part of a greater effort to keep Iowa leading in biorenewable energy and to ensure the sustainability of Iowa’s land and economy.
The group converged at a one-day conference, Community Futures 2007: The Small Town in the Bioeconomy, on Iowa State’s Ames campus. The conference explored the impact and implications of the emerging bioeconomy, including economic stability, land use changes and safeguards for the visual landscape. Sponsor for the event was Town/Craft, which is a joint effort of Hometown Perry, Iowa; ISU Extension and the ISU College of Design.
Gov. Culver, keynoting the conference, thanked Iowa State as “an invaluable partner in the bioeconomy, promoting our rural communities, which are the backbone of our state.” He applauded the university for following in the tradition of George Washington Carver and Henry A. Wallace, innovative leaders who created new agricultural methods and products in an effort to improve the lives of all people.
Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy said that the university has made the bioeconomy a top priority through research, outreach and academic programs. He also pointed out that the university has been strengthening rural Iowa throughout its first 150 years and for the past century through programs offered by ISU Extension, “which is continually evolving to stay relevant to our needs today.”
Vice President for ISU Extension and Outreach Jack Payne moderated a panel of experts on The Opportunities and Issues of Small-town Life in the Bioeconomy. Joining Payne were John Allen, director of the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University; Robert Gramling, director of the Center for Socioeconomic Research at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette; and Tom Johnson, Frank Miller professor of agricultural economics and director of the Community Policy Analysis Center at the University of Missouri.
Payne told conference attendees that ISU Extension “is as relevant and reliable today as it has ever been,” pointing out that each county office had recently completed focus group discussions for citizens to relate their bioeconomy concerns. He also spoke of Extension’s role in bringing reliable, unbiased, research-based sources of information to Iowans, and its 55,000 pages of information offered on the Web.
“The bioeconomy is not a silver bullet,” Allen said, pointing out that “energy development often brings social disruption. This is a real opportunity for rural community residents because it will bring in new capital and job creation, but we must know how to manage it.” He warned against changes that concentrate wealth in fewer hands, which reduces economic stability.
Allen urged Iowans “not to leave behind all the good work that citizens have done in diversifying local economies and encouraging entrepreneurial activity.”
Gramling spoke about boom/bust lessons learned in Louisiana from oil in the Gulf of Mexico. He warned against building communities dependent on one commodity and related the saga of a boomtown that had one energy producer for its primary economic activity. During the growth period, many specialty companies sprang up that relied on the energy producer for their livelihood. When the energy producer failed, the specialty companies failed.
“There is no such thing as a stable commodities market,” Grambling said. “There will be competition in the energy production game, even within Iowa.”
Gramling also spoke about “the very real danger of misuse of land for energy production. Louisiana is losing approximately 30 square miles of coastal wetlands a year due to the misuse of wetlands. We saw one consequence of that loss with Hurricane Katrina.”
Johnson called the bioeconomy a transformation of the entire global economy, not “just a flash in the pan. The world economy is developing and energy is a very big part of that economy. This isn’t just about corn and soybeans; it’s about land use everywhere. When the world runs out of nonrenewable fuels, all fuel will come from renewables. Areas that will be winners will be those that produce more energy than they use.”
Bruce Babcock, director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State, said that the bioeconomy will likely increase the assets of landowners, but not the wealth of farm operators. He also said that early investors in ethanol plants made high profits but that high commodity prices will likely reduce returns for later investors.
Christopher Seeger, assistant professor and ISU Extension specialist in landscape architecture, suggested that counties and towns consider aesthetics and open space improvements when crafting countrysides and landscapes. Iowa offers strong visual images, he said, that may change if producers remove farm buildings to increase cropland or if sites for bioenergy plants proliferate without guidelines. He also said that use of highly erodable land and buffer strips for crops could not only destroy the land’s sustainability, but also destroy habitats for wildlife.
Conference workshop participants were encouraged by Seeger and Paul Anderson, ISU professor of landscape architecture and agronomy, to develop land-use points for decision-makers. The group proposed system-wide zoning, harvesting of only biomass from CRP ground, an incentive system for land preservation and landscaping of public lands.
Video streams of the conference general session are available online. Session proceedings will be posted at the same Web site in the near future.