Farm effort reaps renewable energy

America’s future is firmly planted in a healthy farming industry, according to Michael Bowman.

The fifth-generation farmer from the tiny eastern plains town of Wray is well aware of the current struggle in farming communities. “Small towns and communities of rural Colorado have seen their kids leave, watched the closure of hospitals and schools, and they don’t have access to a critical infrastructure. But these same communities also hold enormous potential for developing renewable energy systems and that could spark a resurgence in the rural economy.”

Bowman insists there’s a larger impact, as well. “Agriculture has the potential to make the country more secure, create new jobs, clean up the air and slow increases in global warming,” he said. “We want to get to the point that we are not reliant on any one resource, and renewable fuels will get us there.”

Bowman was raised on a ranch, earned a state farmer degree with a farrow-to-finish hog operation, and farmed full-time from 1978 until 2004. While he considers himself, first and foremost, a farmer, his vision for the future of agriculture is so strong that he’s taken a “sabbatical” to become active in supporting sustainability issues on both the state and national levels.

Bowman is working as the Colorado state coordinator for 25x’25, a citizen-driven, agriculturally led initiative to provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the U.S. by the year 2025. It states that agriculture and working lands – farms, ranches, and forests – can play an increased role in energy production, while continuing to produce abundant, safe and affordable food and fiber.

The effort is currently aimed at creating support in Congress and among the general public for transitioning agriculture into a new and important role.

Agriculture key to energy solutions

“American agriculture is positioned to play an expanded role in the development and implementation of new energy solutions,” Bowman said, explaining that farms and ranches can become factories that produce new fuels to meet the nation’s needs. Rural communities would experience a number of benefits including additional markets for commodities, increased farm income, new value for crops, livestock and their byproducts.

“If we acknowledge 25x’25’s goals, we can create 3.6 million new jobs in rural areas nationally and $500 billion in economic activity. This just highlights the economic opportunity we have in the U.S.

“This is about jobs and national security; it’s about enhancing rural economy and preserving the environment,” he continued. “It’s also about diversifying our resources.”

Bowman is well acquainted with diversifying resources and sustainable practices from a farming standpoint. His family’s operation, Bowman Farms, works 4,500 acres of irrigated and dry-land crops near the Nebraska border along U.S. Highway 34. It was one of the initial suppliers of organic alfalfa for Broomfield-based Horizon Organic Dairy, and the first to produce organic beef for Coleman Natural Meats in Golden. And his family was involved in building the first potato processing plant in eastern Colorado.

The operation has continued to change with the times, as it must, according to Bowman.

“Right now, we are withdrawing water from the Ogallala Aquifer in unsustainable amounts,” he explained. “We have to transition back to sustainable withdrawals so we can increase the longevity of both the aquifer and the rural communities that depend on it.”

That includes practices that maintain and increase farm income, Bowman said. “We have to look at how we are going to transition agriculture. One way is looking at energy crops because they require less water. I think we will see a whole new round of crop production and I think the solution for the future is biomass. We also have an infinite resource in wind.”

Community support

It’s a new way of doing business, and, Bowman stressed, it requires partnerships and community support.

“I have been involved in community development issues. How do we keep our small community of Wray viable? That brought the community together for a great project – the Wray Activity Center.”

It was a $2.6 million project for a community of only 2,000 people. “But we raised the money and opened the doors debt-free in 1991,” Bowman recalled. “That was really an exercise about building leadership. It was the cornerstone for building a solid infrastructure for our town.”

Bowman was also on the local steering committee that successfully parlayed Wray’s community successes into an “All-American City” recognition from the National Civic League in 1993.

“About the same time, we built the potato processing facility and Monfort built a larger feedlot for Wray, and that generated a lot of opportunity in the markets that didn’t exist before.”

Bowman then became actively involved in the 2004 wind turbine project for the Wray School District, which will be the first school in Colorado to own and operate a commercial-sized wind turbine.

From all of that activity, a discussion among local farmers began over ethanol and the possibility of building a plant in Yuma. Those local farmers have actually scraped together enough to begin construction of a $60 million facility to turn ears into ethanol, at the rate of 40 million gallons per year, when it opens next spring. It is approximately the same size as the plant that opened a year ago in Sterling.

Political involvement

In June 2004, when state legislators began discussing Amendment 37, which required the state’s large utilities to get 10 percent of the energy they sell from renewable sources like the wind and sun by 2015, Bowman made a decision.

“I felt that was so important a step that I wanted to go work the campaign. Two of my sons were home from college for the summer so they could help with the farm. I said, ‘I’ll be back in November.'”

The amendment was passed by the voters that year. “We now have a renewable fuel standard in place,” Bowman said. “It’s 7.5 billion gallons by 2012 and we will actually meet that obligation in 2009.”

That realization that the standard would be met ahead of time told Bowman that more could be achieved. Hence his sabbatical and his current involvement with 25x’25, which is beginning to reap benefits. Both houses of Congress recently passed resolutions through their respective agricultural committees supporting 25x’25. Both are on the floor, awaiting a vote.

Across the country, four state legislatures – including Colorado’s – and 22 governors have also endorsed the initiative. In addition, 25x’25 has garnered more than 300 state and national endorsements by organizations like the American Farm Bureau, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the National and Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Unions, Delta-Montrose Rural Electric Association and the American Bankers Association.

It shows what can be done when alliances are made, Bowman said. “We have agriculture, environmental people and labor all working together. It’s a galvanized leadership team that has encouraged civilized dialogue between entities that have historically been at odds.”

The bottom line, for Bowman, is about those kinds of dialogues but also about linking resources throughout the state.