Some Iowans believe the state's emerging new bioeconomy is "the biggest change in agriculture since the plow," and they think it's a good thing, while others expressed "cautious optimism" or suggested "stay objective" when asked their opinions recently by Iowa State University Extension.
Nearly 1,000 Iowans from 96 counties spoke out in frank conversations, facilitated by ISU Extension in early April, about the bioeconomy. Each county director showed a brief video overview of the bioeconomy and then led group discussions on a shared set of questions.
"The bioeconomy is in the news every day, but we felt it was time to ask Iowans what they thought and how Extension can help," says Jack Payne, vice president for ISU Extension and Outreach. "Their responses reveal an urgent need for education and information to help communities make informed decisions about water, land, infrastructure, business, livestock and economic development."
Their concerns about the rapid changes in the state all call for education, information, research and communications.
What opportunities does the bioeconomy offer?
"These are Extension's strengths and listening to Iowans will help us customize our programming to meet their needs," adds Payne.
According to Tim Borich, and Steve Devlin, co-chairs of ISU's Extension Bioeconomy Task Force, each county group was presented a set of questions designed to help participants identify and discuss opportunities and concerns about the bioeconomy.
"The opportunities mentioned were overwhelmingly job and economic development related," says Borich. "The most reported word, when asked about bioeconomy opportunities, was 'jobs.'
Other themes related to the economy that appeared often were increased tax revenue, tax base, new businesses, economic development and value-added agriculture. Employment as it relates to keeping young people in Iowa and providing for a new generation of farmers also came up in several discussions."
The task force report indicates top concerns mentioned by the participants were livestock, infrastructure, environment/natural resources, water quality/quantity and sustainability. These themes overlap and show up in a lot of different ways throughout the participant responses.
Top concerns of rural people in Iowa
Livestock is continually mentioned and it may be the most contentious issue, says Borich. Respondents believe the competition for feedstocks and resulting higher prices that will force livestock producers to leave Iowa.
Others voice concern that jobs created by the ethanol industry will be far fewer than the jobs eliminated in the livestock industry. Several county discussion groups also mentioned that moving livestock to new locations might cause problems. Areas of the state not used to living near livestock might be complained about the odor.
Infrastructure was also reported hundreds of times throughout the statewide discussions and was reflected in specifics such as biomass storage, railroads, bridges, roads, trucking, logistics, pipelines, transportation and traffic.
"Water, both as an agricultural input and a natural resource, was also listed as a concern of Iowans," says Borich. "The underlying question seems to be 'is there enough water to support this new industry while sustaining existing ag needs and natural resources?' Concerns about possible water pollution from changes in agriculture related to ethanol production also were mentioned.
"The environment/natural resources theme was often reported as a concern in terms of conversion of Conservation Reserve Program land being put back into production, possible soil erosion and loss of soil health due to stover removal and the potential loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat.
Respondents at the group sessions also wanted to know "what comes next" not just in the next 10 years, but after ethanol and other biofuels.