As the sun sets on the plains of rural Nebraska, farmer Scott McPheeters stands on top of a rolling hill that provides a sweeping view of his neatly groomed land. Behind him stands a cross, reminding him of his faith, family, and his very livelihood: his farm.
It’s a farm that has been maintained and thrived thanks to sustainable practices.
“I know that we (farmers) are an integral part of the ecosystem of the Earth,” McPheeters said. “We need to make it sustainable for everybody. We have to do it well and do it right.”
While major cities across America and the world grapple with ideas to make their cities more sustainable, farmers like McPheeters seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability. It’s not a fad or trendy thing for rural farmers; sustainability means protecting the environment they exist in and improving the life of the farm and crops.
“When you take things from the earth and don’t give anything back, that’s just taking,” McPheeters said.
Tech advances improve sustainability
It’s no surprise that farmers want what’s best for their land — better crops bring better incomes, making sustainable farming practices crucial to farmers. Over the past few years, agricultural technology such as temperature and moisture sensors, aerial images, GPS technologies and even robots have helped farmers produce better crop yields, limit overuse of water and pesticides — which help keep food prices low — and improve worker safety.
“We’ve made great strides thanks to technology,” McPheeters said. “The monitoring of irrigation, we just know way more and it takes the guesswork out of things.”
Controlling the irrigation of crops helps eliminate issues of overusing or wasting water. McPheeters has heavily invested in implementing farming technologies to help track how much water the farm uses. Agricultural tech firms have helped develop these tools for farmers, like the new Lincoln, Nebraska-based Epicrop Technologies, that use technology to improve plant yields and stress tolerances on crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat.
From farm to flex fuel
McPheeters has heavily invested in growing corn. Some of his corn goes to Frito-Lay, and some of the corn he produces has been used in ethanol fuel production. But as the business representative and vice chair for the Nebraska Ethanol Board, McPheeters has said ethanol is a "win for all parties. It’s good for farmers, livestock producers, consumers, and the environment," according to a press release about his appointment.
Nicknamed the “Cornhusker State,” Nebraska’s agricultural economy is largely dominated by corn. In 2014 alone, 8.95 million acres of Nebraskan land were used to grow corn. Outside of its use for cattle feed and livestock, corn is used to produce around 2 billion gallons of ethanol each year. The state’s mass production of the renewable fuel makes Nebraska the second largest producer of ethanol in the U.S.
In other words, the relationship between the growth of corn and its use to produce ethanol is quite common in the state.
When I first met McPheeters outside a flex-fuel gas station in Gothenburg, Nebraska, the rural farmer gushed about a brightly lit billboard that towered above the gas station; the colorful display was an ad for ethanol that he had helped create.
The Nebraskan native has become a fierce advocate for ethanol due to how the fuel produces fewer emissions than fossil fuels, he said. He’s been sharing his beliefs of the positives of the alternative fuel from the small town of about 3,500 people to the halls of Congress.
McPheeters believes ethanol is cleaner in terms of air quality purposes — and growing corn for ethanol isn’t as environmentally costly either. But McPheeters believes those opposed to ethanol gloss over the positives of using corn for fuel and said things that are propagated from ethanol opposition are not substantiated.
“I think that the people who are on the other side of the issue, I understand. They don’t want to lose market share and they have oil to sell and they need to sell it,” McPheeters said.
Those opposing ethanol believe ethanol hurts rather than helps the environment. C. Ford Runge, professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, said in Yale Environment 360 that growing corn already has an environmental impact — and converting the corn to ethanol for fuel use only makes that impact worse.
“Higher-ethanol blends still produce significant levels of air pollution, reduce fuel efficiency, jack up corn and other food prices, and have been treated with skepticism by some car manufacturers for the damage they do to engines,” Runge wrote. “E85 fuel in ‘flex-fuel’ vehicles may increase ozone-related mortality, asthma, and hospitalizations.”
But for Scott, the fight to bring ethanol beyond his community is a fight he’s willing to continue with. After all, corn is his lifeline.
“I would love to have everyone have something to eat and have clean air,” McPheeters said. “That’s what sustainability means to me.”