For decades, Michigan was seen as a small farming state, one which later turned out to have incredibly rich copper and timber resources in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. Those were cut down and ripped out and shipped off with all the sensitivity of a smash-and-grab burglary, which in a sense it was. Then it was back to farming, stove-making and processing animal bones for fertilizer. And then the automobiles came, and we forgot all about the rest of that stuff. But agriculture has always been with us; most of us just haven’t been paying much attention.
Though our media has concentrated on cars over the last century, the changes in agriculture may have been just as revolutionary. Today, not only are huge corporate farms continuing to replace small family ones, it is possible to live your whole life in Michigan without thinking much about farming.
That’s because a secure food supply is sort of like air. You only notice when you aren’t getting any. Hunger and famine are something out of history books for nearly all of us. We may worry about prices, but we are awash in a supply of cheap and abundant food. That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever face a food crisis again. Nobody saw the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine coming.
True, we now know so much more than we did then about diseases and viruses, and biology itself. But we haven’t been able to do much for the millions who have died of AIDS. I sometimes wonder if we are setting ourselves up for a greater disaster with our bland assumptions that science will somehow eventually solve everything with a spray or a powder or a pill.
But it may just be that agriculture may provide a key, or a partial key, to our present economic crisis. Not by trying to increase the world consumption of cherries, but though ethanol.
With both oil prices and security concerns escalating, it makes a great deal of sense to think about turning to fuel made from plant matter, an alternative that finally may be cost-effective.
So Michigan is moving to build ethanol plants. There are, however two potential pitfalls for which I don’t have answers. First, what if we build these plants too slowly? What if Illinois with its huge corn crops makes faster, larger and more efficient ethanol plants before we get ours up and running?
On the other hand: What if we put our state’s limited resources into a crash program – and ethanol turns out to be merely a pit stop on the way to the energy future?
What if hydrogen or fuel cell or electric power turn out to be the real thing – and building ethanol plants turns out to be like building factories to make Beta System VCRs? That isn’t to imply that we should do nothing. We have to make choices about our energy future, and do so pretty quickly.
But it all very much worries me.