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Fewer producers, requires more technology for Iowa

By Staff | Feb 9, 2010

Wendy Wintersteen, dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, spoke of the importance of science and technology to the future of farming. Biomass will create a lucrative niche in the industry according to Wintersteen. She was the keynote speaker for the annual meeting of the Pocahontas County Economic Development Commission Wednesday.

POCAHONTAS – Doing more with less seems to the be the current American motto as science and technology take off.

It was a subject discussed at the annual meeting of the Pocahontas County Economic Development Commission.

The county has some of the most productive farm land in the state, but with technological advances the number of farms and farm families have declined.

“Our quality of life continues to reflect the tradition of our strong work ethic,” said Tom Grau, the commission’s director. “We are working hard to provide more excellent jobs to bring in more families.”

But those jobs may not necessarily be on the family farm.

Keynote speaker Wendy Wintersteen, dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said new jobs in the sector will have high-tech characteristics.

“We may not be increasing the number of producers, but what we can do is discover new opportunities that involve the biomass we create across the state of Iowa,” Wintersteen said.

The value-added industry is nothing to ignore. According to Wintersteen, the industry contributes $72 billion to the state’s economy.

“That’s 27 percent,” she said. “Farming is the base for so many industries.”

It’s these industries, like ethanol, that are the answer for further developing agricultural businesses, and science and technology will be huge contributors, Wintersteen said.

“Making the bioeconomy a successful revolution is all about science,” Wintersteen said.

Bioeconomy is quite diverse including cropping systems, construction, enzymes and chemicals, information technology, energy utilities, transportation and livestock.

“The business is very complex, and the economic impacts can lead directly to job creation,” Wintersteen said.

According to her projections, the emerging bioeconomy will generate 190,000 jobs by 2022, and the direct economic output will bring in $37 billion.

Wind turbines is one area. Pocahontas County has more than 170, and technicians will be in high demand, Grau said.

“You are all right where the wind blows the most,” Wintersteen said. “I’m from Kansas, so I know wind, and I think you’re outdoing Kansas.”

The city of Ames and Iowa State University are currently buying wind energy for 15 percent and 10 percent of the electricity needs.

“At my college alone the utility bills – which are mostly electricity – cost $5 million a year,” Wintersteen said. “Anything I can do to save in a sustainable way is very exciting to me.”

Studies on different plants for fuels, like algae and perennial grasses, are also under way at the new Biobased Industry Center at Iowa State University.

“Emily Heaton (an assistant professor of agronomy at ISU) is researching Miscanthus, a perennial grass, that could be grown in Iowa for cellulosic fuel. She’s studying it to see if it’s a more efficient conversion from biomass to ethanol,” Wintersteen said.

The new energy sources can also be helpful for the environment as well as the economy, she said.

“Biofuel crops do give a new opportunity for water quality and carbon,” Wintersteen said. “They will also make a tremendous difference in having businesses engaged in rural economies throughout the state.”

Although the renewable fuel industry has scaled back, Wintersteen sees the industry rebuilding.

“We’ve had some tough years with the price of corn which did create waves and ripples in the economy that we didn’t want to see,” she said. “With increases in science and technology those (ethanol) plants will be more efficient and around for a long, long time.”

Contact Lindsey Mutchler at (515) 573-2141 or lindsey@messengernews.net.

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