Prime farmland is a precious irreplaceable resource


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against renewable energy, but it pains me to see prime farmland being taken out of production permanently. Food shortage could be a real problem if this trend continues.

With rising worldwide population, we need to take advantage of our most productive land. Converting agricultural land into roads, shopping centers, housing developments and even solar farms is irreversible.

There are plenty of places we can generate power. There are many fewer ones where we can produce high-value agricultural products. I’d love to see more solar powered roofs, for one thing. I’d also like to see more in places where large amounts of vegetation aren’t removed from the environment.

Another problem nobody talks about is the reduction in photosynthesis and therefore the greater potential increase in temperature caused by removing plants from the landscape. Photosynthesis is an endothermic reaction. That means energy must be added for the process to proceed.

Plants capture energy from the sun and sequester carbon dioxide in the form of sugars. In the process, plants take in liquid water from their roots and give off water vapor through transpiration. This happens both by photosynthesis and plant respiration.

When water changes from a liquid to a gas, about 540 calories of energy are required to convert one gram of liquid water to water vapor. This is called the latent heat of vaporization and the process cools the environment.

Therefore, when we have less photosynthesis, we have less potential cooling. We also have less uptake of carbon dioxide. These thermodynamic facts are quantitative and undeniable.

When I was in college in the late 70s, we deliberately burned unvented heaters in our greenhouses to increase carbon dioxide levels and promote plant growth. The theory works, but it assumes that we maintain proper nutrient levels. Lack of nitrogen could mean less chlorophyll production, and that would lower photosynthesis.

It’s no accident that tropical rainforests are much cooler than their desert counterparts in similar latitudes. High levels of photosynthesis have a dramatic effect on climate.

Any time we remove plants and create roads, buildings, solar farms or whatever, we create heat islands. We also lessen our ability to produce food and fiber.

We obviously need roads, homes and businesses, but anything we can do to increase plant growth is beneficial. Renewable energy is also a good thing, for many reasons. Even if they had no ill effects, fossil fuels won’t last forever anyway.

So, what does it all mean? It’s complicated since there is a loss of energy created by longer distances between solar energy production and subsequent use. If we used only barren areas to produce solar electricity, efficiency would suffer. So would profit.

In Europe, many solar farms are elevated so that crops can still grow underneath them. From what I’ve read, the system works. Most pictures I’ve viewed show panels much further apart, which would be necessary for crops to receive enough light.

I’m not sure how practical that is in hurricane-prone places like eastern North Carolina. I also don’t know how much it would cost, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that land, especially prime farmland is a precious irreplaceable resource.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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3 Responses to Prime farmland is a precious irreplaceable resource

  1. tonytomeo says:

    It would have been nice if this had been considered in regard to the urban sprawl and ‘electronics’ industries before they replaced the formerly fast orchards of the Santa Clara Valley. That sort of development could have happened in someplace that was less productive, although the climate control of all that development would now be much more expensive.

  2. cs hopkins says:

    What do ya know…Another person who is familiar with Foxfire! I remember looking forward to seeing the newest edition on my parent’s bookshelf and devouring each picture and story.Thank you, Tthank you, thank you for teaching, along with your wife, the importance of understanding the gift of Nature to our youth.

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