Gongol.com Archives: November 2021

Brian Gongol

November 2, 2021

Agriculture Racing the dark to capture the light

In the abstract, Americans are pretty attentive to celebrating harvest season. We celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving with harvest themes, and more than a few distinctly harvest-themed events are put on as well. But in the particular, most people don't have much direct exposure to what harvest season actually means. ■ It's worth noting a peculiarity of the harvest season in places where row crops are collected for energy use -- particularly corn and soybeans in the Upper Midwest. In addition to their uses as food and feed, both of these crops are widely converted into combustible energy sources as ethanol and biodiesel. ■ What makes that conversion particularly interesting is in how much it differs in its production cycle from that of other fuel sources. Oil wells pump oil 365 days a year. Coal is extracted from the ground year-round. Nuclear power knows no seasons. Even renewable sources of power like wind and solar may have seasonal fluctuations, but they operate twelve months out of the year. ■ That's where the row crops collected for fuel are distinctive. Soybeans and corn can really only be harvested in a brief window of time -- after maturity, but ideally before winter sets in. It results in a few weeks of intense work by people who, for the most part, have other things to do. (They have to: The median farm operation isn't a money-maker. This makes the harvest a particularly interesting case of surge labor being put to work. ■ It's not uncommon to venture out into the rural parts of the Upper Midwest and see people harvesting long after the sun has gone down, the giant lights on their combines illuminating the way as a year's work is pulled from the fields before winter comes. Lots of these farmers are showing up after doing a full day's work at something else. Even those who farm full-time generally have a full slate of things to do, especially if they're raising livestock. ■ The harvest represents an intense period of collecting an entire growing season's worth of solar energy and a rush to put it all into a storable format for use later. Elevators fill up and giant mounds are left on the flat ground outside. The scale of it all is so vast that it really can't be compared to anything else. While fields of corn and soybeans lack the magnitude of a cooling tower at a nuclear power plant or the sheer scale of an offshore oil rig, it's an effort on a scale visible from space. Punctuated occasionally by small towns and larger cities, the whole affair is epic as it stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction. ■ And while the work is facilitated by giant machines with labels like John Deere and Fendt, it still has to be conducted by human beings. And so, the rest of us owe them a tip of the cap as they work to complete an entire year's worth of energy collection in a window of time most of us might easily overlook.