Back in 1988, then-Farm and Dairy Editor Rick Swart showed me this little vial of white powder.
When I asked what it was, he told me it was the “guts” of a diaper, the absorbent stuff that every parent hopes does its job.
And, he added with a flourish, it’s made out of corn.
Swart left the paper shortly after that, but the little jar remained — and so did my fascination for new uses of agricultural products.
Ohio has been a national leader in the development of these new uses, and the state’s corn and soybean associations (and their farmer board members) were early to recognize the potential markets outside of using corn and beans as livestock feed. They continue to pour checkoff and other dollars into research that has led to such developments as soy ink (now a staple), soy toner cartridges, and corn-based biodegradable utensils.
There’s farm material in carpets, plywood, concrete sealer, the foam in automobiles, industrial coatings, adhesives, lubricants, and, of course, fuel. Last year, PepsiCo unveiled a new bottle that was made entirely of plant material (switchgrass, pine bark and corn husks, among other things).
In Missouri, they’re even breaking down hog manure into a tarry product that can either be burned to generate electricity, or used as an asphalt binder. That’s right, the road to agriculture’s future is paved with hog manure.
And the good thing is that a lot of that research and commercialization is being fueled right here in Ohio. We’ve written before about the marriage of Ohio’s agricultural and polymer industries, creating natural polymers that can replace synthetic polymers in plastics. Chalk another one up for agriculture’s role in building the state’s economy.
Now, I know livestock farmers don’t want to hear about a strong market for grains other than feed (witness the frustration with the current Renewable Fuel Standard and calls for a waiver to the standard during this drought year). But the opportunity for using farm commodities in new, biobased products is huge, not only from a demand standpoint, but also from an environmental and domestic security standpoint. The less we have to rely on petroleum-based products and foreign oil, the better. And some of these new products use agricultural waste, too, like the hog manure example, or food waste.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack pointed to the biobased economy’s potential in his remarks last Friday at the Ohio Agricultural Council’s hall of fame ceremonies at the Ohio State Fair.
“This is an enormous future,” Vilsack said, with “virtually unlimited opportunity.”
And it’s that opportunity, Vilsack said, that will draw young people to agriculture and keep them there.
For him, there’s another reason to keep ag opportunities alive — it keeps the value system of rural America alive and well, too.
“Every farm family here today is exposed to a value system,” Vilsack said, and it’s one we need more of nationwide, he added. “It’s so vital to the country.”
“The greatness of this country, the soul of this country” lives in rural America, he said.
The connection of new uses with the next generation is real. Not only do we need these new products and new opportunities, but we need that new blood and passion to continue to build our rural communities. We DO need that value system.
This year may be a difficult year for many farmers, but these are exciting times in agriculture.
I wish I was 21 again.
By Susan Crowell