Author: Robert Riley | Published: December 8, 2017
Iowa is a thermonuclear-powered photosynthetic manufacturing machine for calories and BTUs.
This is how I have thought of the agricultural industry in Iowa for many years, but it really started millions of years ago. Not just a few, but 350 million years ago. This is when the vegetation produced by this photosynthetic machine started turning into coal. We can refer to this as “old sun” since the BTUs of this “sunlight-produced jungle/prairie” were buried underground and converted to coal through time, temperature and pressure. Estimates by JH Lees in 1927 indicated we had 30 billion tons of coal in Iowa, enough to last us for 3,000 years.
Herein lies our problems. It took us 350 million years to convert sunlight to coal, and we could use it up in 3,000 years.
Let’s look at soil.
For the last 12,000 years, since the last of the Wisconsin glaciation receded, leaving a pretty flat, slightly rolling landscape, Iowa has enjoyed a spring, summer, fall and winter. These four distinct seasons helped to produce vast prairies of biomass that grew, flourished and died every year. This natural cycle of nature resulted in building up to 12 feet of the most precious, luscious and high-animate matter topsoil in the world.
“Despite all our achievements, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains,” says the farm equipment association of Minnesota and South Dakota.
Just as it took 350 million years to make the coal under Iowa, it took 12,000 years to make the soil that sits on top. Every year, we convert millions of Joules (a measurement of sunlight energy) to corn, beans, pasture, prairie and trees. That is more than 15 million megawatts of power that we convert to vegetation which stores this energy in crops until we need it. To compare this to wind energy, Iowa has the ability to produce 6,300 megawatts of electricity.
And that is where I start the real story.