By Liz Moody
Dr. Bradford L. Barham from the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin Madison gave a talk on “Lessons for sustainable agricultural policies from the US bioenergy boom that wasn’t.” Barham offered important insights into the lessons learned on the necessity of supplementing projections done in a lab with actual field research. According to Barham, in the late 2000s there was a major bioenergy push, driven by the high price of oil at that time; certain scientists and policymakers believed that cellulosic fuel, ethanol made from plant fibers, was the future. At that time, researchers projected that cellulosic biomass would become the 4th largest source of revenue in US agriculture. Remote sensing maps identified large swaths of currently uncultivated agricultural land across the country that would be prime territory for bioenergy crops, including corn stover, switchgrass, and hybrid poplar. The Department of Energy fully expected these crops to take off.
The expected boom didn’t happen. Dr. Barham set out to explore why. He suspected that the projections had not sufficiently included behavioral factors. Barham surveyed the landowners themselves to understand their willingness to adopt bioenergy crops, and how their choices had impacted the outcome. Barham notes, “If you don’t understand the full set of factors affecting landowners’ decisions, you’re likely to get policies that are off the point...Remote sensing maps are nice and fun to play with, but if you don’t ground them in the real behavior of people, you’re not going to get a working policy.”
Some of the trends were clearly economically-driven. Between 2008 and 2013, there was a decline in grassland and pasture cultivation and an increase in cultivation of corn, soy, and other grains because returns on crops were growing relative to pasture.
Beyond this, there were several major issues the DoE had overlooked. They had majorly underestimated the many reasons behind landowner decisions that were not based on money, including the aesthetic or recreational value of the land. They also failed to distinguish between operator landowners, who work the land they own, and non-operator landowners, who rent their land to farmers or may use it themselves for hobby or recreational purposes. This distinction is important, as nonoperator landlords own a large share of US agricultural land.
Additionally, the mapping exercises failed to consider that land may have unfavorable terrain; the researchers had confused existence with availability. There was usually a reason marginal lands were marginal, for example, the land may be too sloped to cultivate.
Contrary to projected calculations, breakeven cost of the bioenergy crops was not a prime concern for most landowners, rather, a greater factor was the opportunity cost of what that land could have otherwise been used for (in Wisconsin, for example, dairy farming). The farmers willing to give the crops a try were often only willing to spare a few experimental acres, and most of this on existing cropland, creating an unanticipated trade-off between food and fuel. These willing farmers were often scattered geographically, making it prohibitively expensive to collect harvests.
The surveys also revealed that social and demographic factors matter to technology adoption and diffusion decisions, finding differences in high vs low income households, beliefs about the social value of biofuels, etc. The survey did much to explain the failure of cellulose biomass to take off, and offered some important lessons. Dr. Barham notes that we need to have a broader view of sustainable agriculture, recognizing that agriculture is multifunctional system. Furthermore, we should look at agriculture beyond conventional productive services. In terms of future research, Dr. Barham is interested in exploring further social influence factors for farmers’ decisions, and continuing to help ground policy in real behavior.